Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Last of a Breed

In journalism school I was taught, or rather I gathered, that a true journalist is not beholden to any nation, people, ideology or agenda. He or she is beholden to one thing and one thing alone "the truth". To find the truth and to expose it in all its complexity, is what journalists are supposed to do. To ask the tough questions without fear, to unwrap the uncomfortable silences, to uncover deception and lies in the service of the public, is what the noble profession of journalism is at its core. Many reporters in the last decade have died in this cause. Some in the battlefield and others in their offices, cars and verandahs. Others have made fools of themselves by chasing celebrity instead of the truth. But whenever a journalist dies on active duty, so dies democracy. The death of a journalist is as devastating as a death of a soldier defending right from wrong. In most cases it is more devastating, as a journalist most often knows right from wrong and sometimes a soldier does not. Therefore journalists are the true soldiers of democracy. With out their safety, freedom and stature, democracy seizes to exist.

This week one such towering soldier of American democracy left the planet, leaving a legacy unmatched and unparalleled. Her name - Helen Thomas, she was 92. In her long career she locked horns with ten US presidents, irritating and annoying them in the White House press room, by doing what any journalist should do, ask uncompromising questions. She was known as the dean of the White House Press Corps., for her long relentless tenure on the beat. She reported for the United Press International wire service for three decades and in her final years worked for the Hearst News Service.

A daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Helen Thomas was certainly a trail blazer for her sex. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondent's Association.

Helen Thomas' dead pan, razor sharp yet simple and direct questioning of American presidents made her the stuff of legend. She famously asked Richard Nixon point blank what his secret plan of ending the Vietnam War was. She asked Ronald Reagan what right he had to invade Grenada in 1983. After the cold war ended and the Berlin Wall came down, in response to the defense budget remaining unchanged, she asked George H.W. Bush "Who's the enemy?". To George W, Bush she launched: "I'd like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?". For this she got banished to the back rows of the White House press room for three years, after rightfully earning a seat in the front row for decades. She would return to the front row after Bush left office to ask President Barack Obama "Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here".

During the second Iraq war, I worked at ABC news as a video editor in the news division. As I watched from the inside the collusion of the news media with the agenda that was being set by the White House, it shattered my faith in the ethics I came to accept in college. As the mainstream news media joined the war machine in beating the drum, with imbedded reporters losing all perspective of their purpose, Helen Thomas did more than most by asking the "real" questions that should have been asked by everyone all along.

The American media has not bounced back from the low it fell to during the Iraq war. News gathering and reporting which is meant to be a public service, is driven more and more by a profit motive. Conglomerates such as New Corp., have taken hold of more news organizations than ever before, setting an agenda by ownership and control. Cable television news has become a highly polarized space, where journalism is guided by sensationalism, celebrity and careless, callous and  uninformed sound bytes that boggle the mind. The internet has exploded, perforated and fragmented the media space, leaving a clutter of opinions and diatribes that are hard to keep track of, and sometimes make sense of. The only place it seems like one can find anything that can be deemed news or newsworthy is on so called "Fake News Shows" like "The Daily Show", "The Colbert Report" or "The Bill Maher Show". It seems like journalism these days lies somewhere between the absurdity of that which is exposed in the above mentioned comedy shows and the seriousness of the established outfits such as the New York Time, Washington Post, BBC and its ilk. Humor sometimes ends up being the winner by just being unabashedly honest and boldly transparent.

Helen Thomas with all her accolades did fall victim to the very media world described above. Honesty in today's media landscape can be dangerous if you are on the wrong side of the prevalent opinion. On May 27, 2010, she was ambushed by Rabbi David Nesenoff at a White House event. Wearing a yarmulke and carrying a video camera, the rabbi approached her and asked if she had any comments on Israel."Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she blurted. "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland." Asked where they should go, she answered, "They should go home.""Where's home?" Nesenoff asked. "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else," Thomas replied. She later apologized for her remarks, but the damage was done. By speaking up against Israel she fell on the wrong side of western history. While historically what she said was factual, it is her honesty in a time of politics that got her into trouble.

There is no doubt Helen Thomas can only be described as a patriot and a hero. Her seat in the White House press room made a huge difference in designating America as a democracy even in its darkest hour. To fill her shoes will be a formidable task. But in many ways, she just did her job and did it as it was supposed to be done. By exercising her right as a citizen with full force and without fear, she set an example for men and woman to follow. If only more of us could do that. It is what it is.