Media Matters

Helen the Hack

Another Washington success story gets the royal treatment.

By 6.9.10

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"Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough," said John Huston in the movie Chinatown. To that list we can add White House correspondents.

For nearly five decades Helen Thomas sat in the briefing room of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, earning through sheer longevity the title "dean of the White House press corps." Her career finally came to an ignominious end Monday when she made some comments so offensive that even her friends in the media could not defend her.

Yet even in disgrace, Thomas was treated as if she was departing royalty. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank called it a "sad end to a storied career" adding, "the White House press corps will be diminished without her front and center." The New York Times' Jeremy Peters called her "trailblazing and historic. Few White House correspondents even achieved her high profile and respectability." Even in its statement condemning her the White House Correspondents Association also called her a "trailblazer."

Okay, but what exactly had Thomas done to earn her trailblazer status? What important stories had she broken? What great investigative pieces had she done? What corruption had she exposed?

The stories mentioned above didn't get into that. That's because she didn't have any such contributions to her credit. She was and is a hack.

That is to say Thomas is a relic of an earlier age, one before the advent of 24-hour a day cable and the Internet, when news agencies needed somebody physically at the White House to report on it.

Outwardly, the job seemed glamorous. It did ensure that the reporter's copy landed on the front page or their stand-ups led the evening broadcast. In reality, though, it often amounted to little more than regurgitating White House talking points.

Most reporters would grow bored and move along after a while. Not Thomas. She spent some 40 years working for the wire service United Press International dutifully filling out "The president said today" stories. That is not trailblazing journalism. It's hackwork.

As Jonathan Chait noted in a trenchant piece about Thomas for the New Republic a few years ago: "The odd thing about her awards and citations is that they almost never mention any specific contributions she has made to journalism save for being female and, well, old."

Those two things were enough. Despite what many people think, D.C. can be a pretty sentimental place. Individuals can earn great affection just for hanging around. As early as the 1980s one could read stories in the Washington Post about how neat it was that somebody like Thomas who had worked during the Kennedy administration was still on the job during the Reagan years. 

At least she still had a readership in those days. But by the 1990s UPI went into a steep decline as it was beaten out by AP and Reuters. By this point few people were actually reading her stories. Yet as a beloved institution, she retained her privileged spot in the briefing room.

By 2000, UPI had been sold to the News World Communications, aka the Moonies. Thomas refused to work for them and instead began a gig as an opinion columnist for the Hearst Newspapers. "I censored myself for 50 years…. Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'" she said in 2002. To no one's shock, she came out as a lefty.

It was then during the George W. Bush years that she achieved the height of her fame. Freed from even a semblance of impartiality, her queries during press briefings evolved into rants capped off with rhetorical questions. A sample from January, 2003: "Why does he want to bomb innocent Iraqis?"

The questions managed to channel the anger of the Left over the Iraq War. But it was little more than Kabuki theater. Her questions elicited little in the way of information. (Bush stubbornly refused to cop to the fact that he just hated innocent Iraqis.) For a while the administration simply ignored her out altogether.

Why was she there anyway? Ah yes, she was a columnist. You can read her columns here. They include such hard-hitting pieces as "Ms. Obama Focuses on Healthy Food" and "Obama's News Conference Shows Accountability In Action." Of course, you probably remember them from the times you discussed them at work or around the dinner table.

I'm joking of course. Hardly anybody read these pieces of drivel. And for good reason. They are awful. Even taking into account that Thomas is in her 80s, it is amazing that somebody could spend a lifetime as a writer and have such a poor grasp of writing.

Not to mention politics, economics or any other issue. Her final column was titled, "Save Social Security." It includes this gem: "Social Security is not a charity. It is a trust fund created by contributions paid by workers and their employers, designed to assure a future livelihood, first for the elderly, then orphans, then the disabled. It's a retirement savings plan -- not a handout."

Err, no. Social Security is a welfare program that transfers wealth from the young to the old. The trust fund is a fiction. Saying otherwise is spreading misinformation. As her comment that the "Jews should get the hell out of Palestine" showed, she wasn't much better on foreign policy either.

In his column the Post's Dana Milbank noted that if she had only retired a week ago, she would have ended her career as one of the most revered reporters in Washington history. He meant that as praise for Thomas, but it was more of an indictment of Washington.

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About the Author

Thirsty McWormwood is the nom de cyber of a writer in Washington, D.C.