Dying behind closed doors

Helen Thomas has been fighting for information the public needs to know longer than the vast majority of the public has been alive. She has covered the White House since the Kennedy administration, mostly as a straight reporter.

These days, she’s a columnist, but still works her beat hard. “I’m self-propelled, really. I care about the news,” she told me a few years ago.

Earlier this month she came back to her native Detroit to speak to a radiant crop of journalism students at her alma mater, Wayne State University. What she wanted them to know was that, as she said, “Democracy dies behind closed doors,” and how important it is to fight against the tendency governments at every level have toward secrecy.

A few years ago, in Washington, she told me that every administration comes to town pledging a policy of openness — which lasts until they have something they want to conceal.

“They all do it,” she told me, though she added that she thought George W. Bush’s administration is the worst she has seen. “People [who aren’t journalists] never know how difficult it is to get the straight story, to get the facts. The secrecy that’s so endemic in government, in business, in everything.”

She was White House bureau chief for UPI until the Moonies took it over in 2000, and she bailed. Since then, she’s written a twice-weekly column for Hearst. She’s good at it, but one senses she misses hard news reporting. “I still really believe that when people are given the basic facts, they don’t need my opinion, really. I still think that journalism is best when it’s giving the straight story.”

Thomas has a little bit of experience at this stuff. She’s been at her craft since she was in college, and will turn 85 this summer.

“Retire? That’s a dirty word,” she said, chuckling.

So while others her age may go to Florida for the sunshine, she’s at work this week, the first annual “sunshine week” for journalists everywhere, those front-line troops fighting for more openness and less secrecy in government.

That’s badly needed, at virtually every level. True, it’s essential to fight the Bush administration’s attempts to conceal how it makes decisions about treating prisoners of war. Yet it may be just as crucial to insist that your city council or library board make their decisions in the open.

Local governments often resent requests by the press or the public to examine their decision-making process. In fact, everything that’s done with taxpayer dollars or in the taxpayer’s name ought to be open to all of us, with a very few exceptions for privacy and security reasons.

Naturally, politicians too often would expand “privacy and security” to cover anything they don’t feel like letting us find out. We have to constantly fight for access, though the laws are actually pretty clear; we have the right to know.

Thanks to FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, we have the right to request and see virtually any government document. We, both the press and the general public, should use it more often. And we need to press for open meeting acts for every government body.

Lots of journalists are doing just that. Ironically, some of the politicians who bluster most about people “taking responsibility for their actions,” don’t want to take responsibility for theirs. In George Bush’s Texas, for example, legislators can vote on important bills without having the way they voted recorded (!) — something the Associated Press has been pressuring them to change.

There are a lot of people at all levels of government who don’t want us paying too much attention to how they’re planning to start the next war, or to whom they’re going to give the contract for the new library addition.

This is the week to put them on notice — and this is one of the very few issues on which conservatives and liberals should totally agree. Anyone who’s ever sported one of those “I love my country, but fear my government” bumper stickers ought to be charter members of the sunshine club.

Check out sunshineweek.com for starters to learn more, and to start to figure out what you can do to help yourself.


Shame on WDIV: Perhaps the most disgraceful and dismaying development in local television news in years (and that’s saying a lot) was the shocking firing of anchor Emery King, the class of the local airwaves, by WDIV-TV last week.

King is a newsman’s newsman, who was committed to covering the significant and substantial, something badly needed in this town. He has impeccable credentials, and a background covering national politics in Washington.

However, he happens to be a black man. He decided to come here, he told me once, after Bryant Gumbel’s career took off at NBC, and he concluded that the network had determined who its black star was to be. (God forbid they could entertain the possibility of two.)

What King may have gambled is that if any town was likely to break the traditional mold of white-male-anchor twinned with cute-black-female co-anchor, Detroit should be it. But when Mort Crim retired, or went off to the taxidermist, the station instead brought in Devin Scillian, a handsome white guy from Oklahoma.

Evidently our media market wasn’t thought ready for a main anchor who happened to be black. Thereupon King was relegated to a secondary anchor role, and occasionally trotted out to interview a visiting dignitary like Colin Powell, when it was thought important to have a reporter with some depth of knowledge.

Emery King could do that very well, but he projected dignity and class, and it would be hard to imagine him doing breathtaking features on the discovery of dried semen on hotel bedspreads, or people who masturbate in their cars.

That, I suspect, is what did him in. (The station’s hint that it was a matter of negotiations over money is simply not true.) This raises real and troubling questions about the commitment of the Washington Post Company, owner of WDIV-TV, to diversity in its newsrooms, and Detroiters who care about such things ought to let the corporation know what they think of this.

With his exit goes the last reason to watch local news in Detroit, unless your radio is broken and you need the weather forecast.


The city goes after another King: John King, the eccentric used-bookstore king, has managed to keep the Big Book Store — which he says is the oldest continually operating bookstore in the city of Detroit — going on the fringe of Wayne State’s campus for many years. He’s done this despite robberies, windows frequently broken by street people, and a profit margin that can probably be measured in used magazines.

But he’s been getting repeated tickets from a building inspector for not having a “used book dealer” license and other petty infractions. Esther Shapiro, the city’s longtime consumer affairs director, thinks this is absurd. “In my 24 years in the department, we never licensed used book dealers,” she says.

King is exasperated, and says officials seem determined to drive one more business out of the city. When I tried to call the inspector, one Darrin Williams, a cheery recording told me the public mailbox was full, and hung up.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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