Not All White House Reporters Are Pushovers




A

t
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., reporters usually shuffle along to a snoozy
beat. The latest in a long line of presidential spinners, Ari Fleischer,
began a news conference on January 6 with a nice greeting: “Good
afternoon and Happy New Year to everybody.” But his bonhomie
didn’t last more than a minute.


“At
the earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored
the taking of innocent lives,” Helen Thomas began. “Does
that apply to all innocent lives in the world?”


It
was a simple question—and, unfortunately, an extraordinary
one. Few journalists at the White House move beyond the subtle but
powerful ties that bind reporters and top officials in Washington.
Routinely, shared assumptions are the unspoken name of the game.


In
this case, Thomas wasn’t playing—and Fleischer’s
new year wasn’t exactly off to a great start. His tongue moved,
but he declined to answer the question. Instead, he parried: “I
refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack on Tel Aviv that
killed scores and wounded hundreds.”


Of
course that attack was reprehensible. But Thomas had asked whether
President Bush deplored the taking of “all innocent lives in
the world.” Fleischer didn’t want to go there.


But
Helen Thomas, an 82- year-old journalist who has been covering the
White House for several decades, was not to be deterred by the flack’s
sleight-of- tongue maneuver. “My follow-up is,” she persisted,
“why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?”


On
a dime, Fleischer spun paternal and nationalistic. “Helen,
the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends.”


What
Fleischer had just called “the question” was actually
his question. He had no use for hers.


Thomas
responded: “They’re not attacking you. Have they [the
Iraqis] laid the glove on you or on the United States in 11 years?”


Fleischer
laced his retort with sarcasm. “I guess you have forgotten
about the Americans who were killed in the first Gulf War as a result
of Saddam Hussein’s aggression then.”


“Is
this revenge,” Thomas replied, “eleven years of revenge?”


The
person in charge of White House spin revved up the RPMs. “Helen,
I think you know very well that the president’s position is
that he wants to avert war … ”


But
the journalist refused to jettison her original, still-unanswered
question. She asked: “Would the president attack innocent Iraqi
lives?”


“The
president wants to make certain that he can defend our country.


Thomas
demanded to know whether Bush thinks the Iraqi people “are
a threat to us.”


At
that point, Fleischer went off message with a weird statement. “The
Iraqi people are represented by their government,” he said.
A journalist’s persistence had led him to put foot in polished
mouth.


After
57 years as a reporter for United Press International, Helen Thomas
quit UPI in 2000 when it was bought by News World Communications,
a firm affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right- wing
Unification Church (among its holdings is the

Washington Times).

Since then, Thomas has been writing an incisive syndicated column
for Hearst Newspapers.



In
a speech at MIT a couple of months ago, Helen Thomas told the audience:
“I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter.”
Media professionals are frequently unwilling to say in public what
they know in private. When a mainstream journalist breaks out of
self-censorship, the public benefits.


Day
in and day out, Helen Thomas is conspicuous for her fortitude at
White House press conferences. Let’s also give credit to an
intrepid newcomer at such press follies. Recently, Russell Mokhiber
of the

Corporate Crime Reporter

was asking a question that
went unanswered: “Ari, other than Elliott Abrams, how many
convicted criminals are on the White House staff?”


You
can find transcripts of Mokhiber’s many exchanges with Fleischer
posted at www.com- mondreams.org—under the heading “Ari
and I”—examples of unflinching questions and slimy evasions
at the White House.


Thank
you, Helen Thomas and Russell Mokhiber. It sure is refreshing to
see journalists doing their jobs instead of going along to get along.













Norman
Solomon is co-author of


Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t
Tell You

(Context Books).