America's best journalist 

The United States is now at a fork in the road in its Iraq policy. The deplorable prison abuse and the mounting casualty toll may wake up Americans to ask a question about Iraq, a question Bush and his administration have never clearly answered: Why are we there? — Helen Thomas, May 6, 2004

When it comes to coverage of the ghastly mess this nation has made of its foreign policy these last three wretched years, the best job has not been done by the networks. Nor has it been done by the nation’s great newspapers, or the wire services. Instead, the best attempt made at journalism has been done, against all odds, by a little elderly woman from Detroit with energy and guts.

Her name is Helen Thomas. You may remember that, for years, she always used to ask the first question at presidential press conferences. That stopped when she left United Press International in 2000 after the Moonies bought it, and Helen, who had remained loyal to UPI through thin and thinner since 1943, decided her integrity couldn’t stomach Moon.

Thankfully, Hearst News Service made her a columnist. She still goes to all the White House briefings, and has attended the laughable three news conferences held by our national disgrace of a ruler.

Dubya, however, doesn’t call on Helen anymore, because she won’t stick to the subjects he has been carefully briefed about.

Instead, what she does — what she is still doing, weeks from her 84th birthday — is ask hard questions designed to reveal the truth. That is what journalism is supposed to do in a free society. That is what she has been doing ever since John F. Kennedy. But that is not all that popular anymore with the huge conglomerates who own most of our media outlets.

Think back a year ago, when we launched a war of aggression against a small country far away which had no desire for war with us. Yes, Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator. But the world has dozens of others, including the North Korean maniac who really does have weapons of mass destruction.

But we wanted revenge and we wanted oil and so we attacked and occupied a country that is a collection of warring factions who now want most of all to rid themselves of us. The media "embedded" their reporters with the imperialist invaders, without an intellectual or ethical condom in sight.

And they begat press releases for our empire, thinly disguised as news. We learned all about how fast our tanks could move and how far our guns could shoot, and never really questioned the basic assumptions of the war.

Yet it was — is — a war based on lies and swindle. Frankly, I too thought Saddam had some nasty forbidden weapons hidden somewhere. Most respectable tyrants do. That wasn’t enough reason to invade.

But he didn’t. Amazingly, Saddam was telling the truth. Nor have the Iraqis been as eager to have our wonderful system imposed on them as the lying liars who run our government told us they would be.

Helen Thomas, however, has been asking why the emperor had no clothes right from the start. She still is: Here’s an April 28 exchange with presidential mouthpiece Scott McClellan, who was explaining why some of the folks in the towns under siege seem reluctant to accept our gift of democracy.

MCCLELLAN: Now there are some thugs and terrorists that continue to exist ...

THOMAS: Maybe they’re just Iraqis.

McCLELLAN: Helen, all you have to have to do is look at the types of attacks that they carried out on innocent Americans recently to know that these are thugs and terrorists. They have no regard for human life.

THOMAS: Maybe they’re defending their own country against an occupation?

Given what we now know, it would have been quite appropriate if she had asked if perhaps our Iraqi brothers might not be eager to be sexually abused by white trash women from some of West Virginia’s seedier trailer parks.

What is deliciously ironic is that Helen Thomas, who grew up on Heidelberg Street, and whom I know personally fairly well, doesn’t much like giving her opinion.

"I still really believe that when people are given the basic facts they don’t need my opinion," she told me earlier this year.

"I still think that journalism is best when it is giving the straight story. But people will never know how difficult it is to get the straight story, to get the facts."

What we have now is an administration in which ideology and lockstep loyalty are prized above truth. We are in a mess the mainstream media only tiptoes around. Nobody has, for example, even begun to address the inflation sure to arrive when the hidden costs of this war, paid for by record deficit spending, land on American taxpayers in a few years. Nor do we know what price we will pay at the hands of young men and women who, at this very moment, are looking at the photos of the shocking atrocities committed by our soldiers against helpless Iraqis.

What we have is a situation best summed up by John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, who in his new book, Worse Than Watergate, makes a compelling argument that we are now ruled by thugs far worse than Nixon’s gang.

We knew that was always a possibility. But we never thought so much of the press corps would wimp out when democracy most needed them.

"We’ve just rolled over and played dead," Helen told me this winter. "Who will ask the questions if we don’t?"

Nobody, that’s who, and then we get Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib, or Auschwitz, and Tuol Sleng. We now have a press badly in need of the backbone of an 84-year-old woman who says, "We aren’t here to be loved, you know."

Yes, Helen, I do know. And that’s why a few of us do.  Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail

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