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Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public Hardcover – June 20, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Thomas, who has been covering Washington for more than 60 years, is displeased with the way in which the government tries to manipulate the news as never before; the press, diminished and monopolized by big business kowtowing to advertisers is "supine"; and dishonesty is everywhere. Thomas believes in a healthy adversarial challenge between government and press, but her explanation of her stance sometimes veers off track. She characterizes the nine presidents (beginning with Kennedy) she has covered, each of whom tried to spin the news his own way (Nixon, for a while, resorted to total blackout). Thomas dates the ever widening "credibility gap" back to the Vietnam War under Johnson. By this time, message management had reached the point of "outright propaganda." Readers will be entertained by her definition of the terms "background" and "off the record" and the difference between a "leak" and a "plant." But Thomas sees a bright side: she applauds trenchant political cartoonists and believes that the active public interest expressed in Internet blogs may help create transparency. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
After covering nine presidents as the most recognized member of the Washington press corps, Thomas is eminently qualified to assess current coverage of the White House. Declaring that journalists are "the watchdogs of democracy," and, further, that "without an informed people, there can be no democracy," Thomas offers a cogent, bracing assessment of the deteriorating state of journalistic ethics. All administrations attempt to "manage the news," Thomas avers, but none prior to the Bush-2 White House has pioneered "methods that steer message management into outright government propaganda." And never before have Washington reporters behaved like lapdogs rather than watchdogs, unwilling to ask obvious questions and demand honest answers. The public is aware of this "incredible lack of courage," a failure Thomas links to the corporate consolidation of media outlets and the focus on profit and entertainment rather than good old muckraking journalism. Thomas is as engaging as she is wise and passionate in this invaluable history of White House reporting, a refresher course on why we must support a responsible, active, and free press. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
Having been a journalist for more than 60 years and as a member of the White House press corps since John F. Kennedy, she is waiting and hoping for a new generation of journalists to achieve the stature of an Edward R. Morrow or a Walter Cronkite--reporters who seek to report the truth and refuse to be cowed by intimidation.
In this short book, she provides numerous examples of press manipulation by the Bush administration and the acquiescence of a somnabulistic press corps that have become adminstration stenographers rather than investigators:
* President Bush's desire to be known as a war president even before the terrorist attack on 9/11.
* "No weapons. No ties to terrorists. No threats. No apologies. No explanations. No remorse. Under those circumstances, Americans were told they were fighting a war in Baghdad for liberty and democracy throughout the Middle East. Bush could shift the rationale in the blink of an eye with no apparent qualms."
* The Downing Street Memo which revealed that we were fixing the intelligence and the facts around policy so we could invade Iraq.
* Previously selected White House press with preplanned questions that the president knew of in advance of the actual press conference.
* White House Press being marched into the press room in columns of twos like they were school children.
* The Pentagon paid millions of dollars to plant positive stories of the American occupation in Iraqi newspapers.
* The administration paying actors to pose as reporters in fake video news promoting its Medicare prescription drug plan.
* Planting letters from veterans to their hometown newspapers until someone discovered the similarities in many of them.
* The Bush administration giving press credentials to James Dale Guckert a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, an auto mechanic and male prostitute. Gannon always asked questions with a false premise or one that knocked democrats in the actual question.
To these acts of lawbreaking and indiscretions, Ms. Thomas expresses displeasure with a press that found them unnewsworthy.
This is an excellent book to remind us of what we should expect and even demand more from our press. It is an excellent expose how conglomerates with singular points of view are buying the communications media to filter the news we receive. It reveals how newspapers and TV networks cave in to right wing pressure to fire reporters for telling the truth, or getting a network to withhold a story of Ronald Reagan because it was partially unflattering.
Helen's words are a siren song that illustrate how we are in danger of losing our most important freedom--our freedom of the press. We need bold leaders but an even bolder press. In the words of Edward R. Murrow whom Ms. Thomas quotes, "No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices."
Our indifference and acquiescence makes accomplices of us all.
And, contrary to what John R. Linnel would have you believe, the book is not a hysterical diatribe against the Bush administration. While Thomas is critical of Bush in places, she is an equal opportunity curmudgeon, lashing out mainly at what she sees as the dangerous abdication of the press of its central role as watchdog in a democratic society.
The book drags in places, but it's nice to have the voice of long experience to help give shape to one's view of an important democratic institution.
Covering every president since JFK, Helen describes each one and the press secretaries with whom she has had to deal. Mincing no words, she reserves some of her harshest judgment for those in the press who fell asleep at the wheel after 9/11. For those of us who wondered who was asking the tough questions, Helen Thomas answers it....they weren't. While we know where the author stands with regard to the current administration she fleshes out her feelings about why this Washington crowd is the worst in years.
She spends some time toward the end of the book reflecting on journalists she admires and I was glad to see her include an acquaintance of mine, Pauline Frederick, whose job covering the United Nations was exemplary. Helen had other favorites, too.....Mary McGrory, Scotty Reston and Walter Cronkite, to name just a few others.
What is so good about "Watchdogs of Democracy?" is that is not just a collection of remembrances. Helen Thomas also paints a bleak future for "serious" journalism as we now have FOX News passing off as the real thing and a decline in the amount of time news organizations devote to non-entertainment news.
Helen Thomas has had a remarkable career and "Watchdogs of Democracy?" is a terrific journalistic addition for those of us who remember the days of the men and women she covered and wonder about the direction of journalism in the twenty-first century. I highly recommend her book for its wisdom and insight.