July 23, 2013

In his refreshing appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association dinner, comedian Stephen Colbert showed a parody video in which he “auditioned” for the position of press secretary. In it, he refuses to answer a question from real-life White House correspondent Helen Thomas and spends the rest of the video trying to escape her dogged questioning.

It was a brilliant turn, not only for its skewering of a Washington press corps that was asleep while President George W. Bush took us to war in Iraq but for its implicit praise of the tenacious, shoe-leather reporting of Thomas, who died Saturday at the age of 92.

Born two weeks before women officially had the right to vote, Thomas broke glass ceiling after glass ceiling as a woman journalist, including by becoming the first female member of the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club. She fought, with characteristic perseverance, to join these organizations. It wasn’t because she saw being in the room as an end itself. Rather, she understood that she needed to have access to power in order to question that power.

In a world that rewards women for being nice, Thomas didn’t last in her first Washington job as a waitress because she didn’t “smile enough.” That’s probably precisely why she lasted 70 years as a journalist. No issue was too inconvenient, no person too precious for Thomas’s interrogations. As she put it, “I don’t think there are any rude questions.”

Thomas was a rare gem whose rough edges helped her cut through the static and stasis of the Beltway. Unfortunately, her long and storied career was overshadowed, and terminated, by a controversy set off by offensive comments she offhandedly made about Jews and Israel.

In a town where the powerful are rarely held accountable for their actions, this time, there was no mercy for someone who made a mistake and apologized for it — and that’s a shame. Her brand of fearless journalism, animated by moxie and an almost pathological need for answers, has inspired other intrepid reporters to follow in her stead. This, as we learned the hard way with the disastrous war in Iraq, is essential.

After 9/11 and in the run-up to the war, a national security fog enveloped Washington, and an obsequious press corps, with a few exceptions, behaved like stenographers to power and gave Bush a pass. Many in the media, afraid to raise objections for fear of appearing unpatriotic, dutifully enlisted in the administration’s war. Those who did ask tough and dissenting questions, including such journalists as Thomas and publications such as the Nation, came under fire from people across the political spectrum.

That dark period in our nation’s journalistic history was a lesson that, in a national security crisis, accountability journalism is the linchpin of a strong, functioning democracy.

Thomas unapologetically urged reporters to steadfastly seek the truth and “let the chips fall where they may.”

Today, too much of the same mainstream media that swallowed the Bush/Cheney talking points continue their unhealthy deference to the powerful, most recently by attacking Glenn Greenwald, whose “crime” was to report leaks of classified material.

But the need to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, the narrow consensus of public debate, remains the same. President Obama may have accomplished his stated mission of withdrawing our troops from Iraq. He may be winding down our presence in Afghanistan. But as Jeremy Scahill investigated in his best-selling book and documentary “Dirty Wars,” the government continues to wage covert wars. How can officials answer for their actions if they are not questioned?

Therein lies the danger in criminalizing investigative journalism. A federal court set a chilling precedent last week when it ruled that reporters cannot invoke the First Amendment to avoid revealing the names of sources suspected of leaking information. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has prosecuted double the number of suspected leakers than all previous administrations combined. As veteran former foreign policy official Morton Halperin said, “If the president doesn’t fix this . . . his claim that he understands the importance of balancing the First Amendment against claims of national security will lack any credibility.”

At a time when the very act of newsgathering is under siege, it is more important than ever to remember Helen Thomas and what she stood for — that no matter who is in power, the principles of watchdog journalism are born of patriotism, and they are always worth fighting for. Unless journalists show the same feistiness and courage she did at a different time and in her own way, the public will be denied its basic right to know and to understand what the government is doing in its name.

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