A Giant of Journalism Comes Up Short

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By Dana Milbank
Monday, July 17, 2006

WATCHDOGS OF DEMOCRACY?

The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Failed the Public

By Helen Thomas

Simon & Schuster, 215 pp., $25

Helen Thomas's new treatise, "Watchdogs of Democracy?," is really two books in one.

The first is a pleasant memoir about the Greatest Generation of journalists (her own), who covered the Second World War through the Kennedy and Johnson years: Ernie Pyle, Merriman Smith, Edward R. Murrow, James Reston and "Douglas Cornell of the Associated Press, my husband and an icon in wire-service wrap-up story writing."

The second is a rather unpleasant rehashing of the liberal criticism of the press's performance before the Iraq war. Here, Thomas departs from personal anecdote and merely recites some of the millions of words that have been devoted to the cause in previous books, articles and blogs. It is an effort unworthy of a woman who, whatever her late husband was, truly is a journalistic icon.

"Nothing is more troubling to me than the obsequious press during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq," she tells us, citing pulled punches at news conferences. "Critics are still wondering why White House reporters were so quiescent at President Bush's March 6, 2003, news conference, which was scripted and in which he made it eminently clear that the United States was going to war. . . . White House reporters became a laughingstock before the viewing public, who wondered about all the 'softballs' being pitched to the president at such a momentous time."

Really? Let's review some of the "softballs" that were tossed that night:

"If all these nations . . . have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now?"

"I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?"

"How would you answer your critics who say that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it . . . your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place."


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