Helen Thomas is Back and Obama Has Her; Now What Does He Do?

by James M. Wall

Update on Sam Stein of Huffington Post,  Below:

It was yet another sign that the Bush years are over when 48 minutes into his first White House presidential press conference, President Obama turned to Helen Thomas, who, at least for the moment, is back on the White House predetermined questioner list.  thomas-helen

Writing for Slate in March, 2003, Jack Shafer described Thomas’ snub by the Bush media handlers.

At his televised news conference last week, President George W. Bush deliberately snubbed several reporters he ordinarily calls upon, including journos from the Washington Post, Newsweek, and USA Today.

But the most conspicuous recipient of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. freeze-out was longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas, who has barbed and grilled every president since John F. Kennedy and almost always gets to ask a question. Bush pointedly ignored her.

Bush then dealt Thomas a second slight. By custom, Thomas concludes White House press conferences at the president’s signal by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Bush denied her that supporting role, ending the conference with his own sign off, “Thank you for your questions,” and flushing a decades-old White House custom.

George Bush is back in Texas.  Helen Thomas, the daughter of Christian immigrants from Lebanon, has covered every US president since John F. Kennedy. Now 88, she remains active on the lecture circuit and still writes a syndicated column.

Barack Obama chose to bring Thomas back to the White House press conference privilege list, no doubt aware that in a recent column she addressed the tax problems of Timothy Geithner, the new Secretary of the Treasury, by noting the irony that the Treasury Secretary administers the Internal Revenue Department.

Obama knew that Thomas’ question would not be the softball a Washington Post reporter put to him regarding New York Yankee star Alex Rodriguez. The president addressed A-Rod’s admitted use of steroids in his best sermonic manner, condemning it for setting a bad example for young players.

When he called on Helen, as he called her, he acknowledged her senior status by smiling and saying, “This is my inaugural moment here. (Laughter.) I’m really excited.” . (A video and a transcript of the press conference are available on line.)

Helen Thomas: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

Anyone paying attention to the Middle East would know that Israel was the country she had in mind. As far back as 1975 Israel was believed to have developed a nuclear arsenal in the Negev Desert, close to the Gaza border. (One reason Israel does not want Hamas firing rockets in its direction.)

Wikipedia explains the “deliberate ambiguity”:

The Israeli government refuses to officially confirm or deny whether it has a nuclear weapon program. It has an unofficial but rigidly enforced policy of deliberate ambiguity, saying only that it would not be the first to “introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”. . . .Israel is widely believed to be one of four nuclear-armed countries not recognized as a Nuclear Weapons State by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the other three being India, Pakistan and North Korea. The International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei regards Israel as a state possessing nuclear weapons.

President Obama was not going to make the wrong news at his first presidential press outing by blowing Israel’s cover. So he focused on the Pakistan part of Thomas’ question.

The President: Well, I think that Pakistan — there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke, as he is traveling throughout the region, is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations. And that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens. . .

. . . With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger. And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this. . . .

Thomas tried to ask a follow up question. Ignoring her, Obama turned to a reporter from Huffington Post. This White House knows the importance of the internet.

It will be interesting to see if Thomas makes the privileged list in the next White House press conference. She should.  She belongs to a special journalist category, a writer who refuses to slavishly conform to conventional wisdom.

In his 1986 book, The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin wrote that he needed something to explain journalism other than the usual “calcified notions like objectivity and ‘opinions are confined to the editorial page'”.

Hallin, a press scholar, wanted to explain “the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice.” He came up with a simple diagram involving three circles.

Jay Rosen of Press Think  explains the diagram:

 You can draw it by hand right now. Take a sheet of paper and make a big circle in the middle. In the center of that circle draw a smaller one to create a doughnut shape. Label the doughnut hole “sphere of consensus.” Call the middle region “sphere of legitimate debate,” and the outer region “sphere of deviance.”

That’s the entire model. Now you have a way to understand why it’s so unproductive to argue with journalists about the deep politics of their work. They don’t know about this freakin’ diagram! Here it is in its original form.

Rosen describes the three spheres, legitimate debate, consensus and deviance.

1.) The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain. They think of their work as taking place almost exclusively within this space. (It doesn’t, but they think so.) Hallin: “This is the region of electoral contests and legislative debates, of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process.”

Here the two-party system reigns, and the news agenda is what the people in power are likely to have on their agenda. Perhaps the purest expression of this sphere is Washington Week on PBS, where journalists discuss what the two-party system defines as “the issues.” Objectivity and balance are “the supreme journalistic virtues” for the panelists on Washington Week . . .

2. ) The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere.

Here, Hallin writes, “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.) . . .

3.) In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible.

The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” . . . chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

Allison Weir, director of If America Knew, wrote recently of her research on the coverage of the recent Israel invasion of Gaza.  She found that US media was Israeli-centric to such a degree that it created a false portrait of the war.

In Hallin’s categories, to be Israeli-centric is to be part of the “motherhood and apple pie” in the consensus category.  To question this consensus view is to be a part of the deviance categtory.

Weir again:

The media, across the political spectrum, consistently provide Israeli-centric reporting. Our statistical studies of prime-time network news broadcasts during the current uprising, for example, revealed reporting of Israeli children’s deaths at rates up to 14 times greater than reports on Palestinian children’s deaths.

As a result, almost no one knows that 82 Palestinian children were killed before a single Israeli child, that 140 Palestinians were killed before a suicide bombing or that it is Palestinians who are retaliating, not Israelis.

Most recently, while the media – again, across the board – were reporting that Palestinians had broken the latest cease-fire in Gaza, Israel had already violated the cease-fire at least seven times, including killing two and shooting a child. Since these violations were not reported to the public, once again the chronology is reversed in people’s minds.

Few “deviant” journalists, outside of Helen Thomas, can be found in mainstream journalism.  Instead, they reside on the internet, a few write columns, while others appear on progressive television news programs.

Bill Moyers interviewed two of those progressive, internet based journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Jay Rosen, on his PBS Bill Moyers Journal program, February 6. In Hallin’s journalism categories, both Greenwald and Rosen are “deviants”.

In a recent blog entry, deviant Greenwald remains firmly fixed outside the journalism “sphere of consensus” with his report on comments by Middle East expert Aaron David Miller:

This one-sided, ostensibly “pro-Israel” bipartisan inflaming of tensions by the U.S. is nothing new.  Long-time Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller in Newsweek, earlier this week made one of the most startling revelations in some time — that in all the time the U.S. has supposedly been attempting to forge a Middle East peace agreement over the past 25 years, it never once, in any meaningful way, raised with Israeli leaders the damage that comes from Israeli settlements.

Specifically, said Miller “I can’t recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity — including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions — does to the peacemaking process.”

Miller emphasized that by being so blindly supportive even of misguided Israeli actions, “the United States has allowed that special bond to become exclusive in ways that undermine America’s, and Israel’s, national interests.”

The only way the U.S. can play a constructive role in the Middle East, he argues, is if it is even-handed and, most importantly, willing to criticize Israeli actions when they harm American interests (and their own) and pressure them to stop.

Mr. President, good job with the press conference. Now, are you ready for the growing influence of the “deviant” journalists who roam around that same internet which played such a major role in your election?  You made a good start by bringing Helen Thomas back into the game. Make sure she stays there.  We all need her.

Update on Sam Stein of Huffington Post

In the posting above, I noted that Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, an internet outlet, asked the president a question, following the question asked by Helen Thomas.

Today, The Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal, points out that, aside from a right-wing internet blogger who once tossed President Bush a softball question, Sam Stein becomes the first legitimate blogger to ask a question in a presidential press conference.

Thus, Thomas and Stein become the first two “deviants” (see definition above) to question a president in a White House press conference.

When the Huffington Post‘s Stein stood up last night, he asked an excellent question that the president didn’t want to answer, on an issue most news outlets prefer to ignore:

“Today, Senator Patrick Leahy announced that he wants to set up a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration. He said that before you turn the page, you have to read the page first. Do you agree with such a proposal? And are you willing to rule out right here and now any prosecution of Bush administration officials?”

The President was evasive in his response (below), but he did elaborate a bit in his evasion.  Note carefully, the mainstream questioners failed to raise the two Thomas-Stein questions that addressed Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the prosecution of Bush administration officials.

The “deviants” have arrived.  White House press conferences may never be the same again.  Unless, that is, the “deviants” are allowed to remain within the media tent.

Here is the President’s response to Stein’s question:

The President: I haven’t seen the proposal, so I don’t want to express an opinion on something that I haven’t seen.

What I have said is that my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture, and that we abide by the Geneva Conventions, and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process, as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm. And I don’t think those are contradictory; I think they are potentially complementary.

My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen; but that generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the — all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America, and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information.

So I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say, let’s get it right moving forward.

About James Wall

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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3 Responses to Helen Thomas is Back and Obama Has Her; Now What Does He Do?

  1. Jay Rosen’s explanation of Daniel Hallin’s diagram of the practice (and politics) of journalism in the US makes explicit what has been implicit. It should help the reader sort through journalistic writing to arrive at a clearer picture of the truth and/or to determine why there is little truth in what is being reported. Let us hope that our citizens will demand more journalists in the deviant sector, those like Helen Thomas and Sam Stein. Thank you, James Wall, for this excellent article.

  2. Carl J. Richards says:

    In the first sphere the term “debate” implies an examination of the facts, consideration of both sides of an issue followed by a balanced presentation, and on the editorial page, the drawing of an opinion and the reasoned defense of that opinion based on those same facts. However, now, more than any time in my seventy plus years, it seems to me that there is a category of reporting that does not fit into your diagram of journalism. I refer not merely to unbalanced reporting, but to the deliberate misrepresentation of facts and events for the purpose of swaying opinion in the direction of one’s ideological views or whipping up support from your ideological followers, no matter how outrageous the misrepresentation sounds. To paraphrase: pals around with terrorists or the President hates white people are two that come to mind. I believe these self described journalists do not fit into your diagram, for they come to the table with preconceived notions into which they will fit the news. They do harm, not from slovenly reporting, but from deliberately misleading reporting. Perhaps they deserve a circle of their own.

  3. Pingback: Liberal PEPs Trash Helen Thomas While Ignoring Flotilla Deaths « Wallwritings

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