Media Matters (To Itself)

What Helen Thomas's career has to do with the FTC's push to reinvent journalism.

When award-winning 89-year-old Hearst columnist Helen Thomas, who occupied the front-row center seat in the White House press room since sometime during the Stone Age, declared last week that Jews should get out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany, the immediate reaction amongst the commentariat was to ask whether or not it was finally time for her to go. By Monday of this week, she had retired. But the question that should have been asked was: Why did it take so long?

The Society of Professional Journalists may have named its lifetime achievement award after her, but Helen Thomas's actual journalistic output was as widely ignored as she was known. And for good reason, too. Her columns were dashed-off exercises in sub-Broder conventional wisdom—the only boundaries they pushed were the limits of banality. Here's a random selection of recent Thomas column headlines: "Save Social Security," "Obama Learning To Be A Strong President," "Time To Stand Up To Wall Street," "Ms. Obama Focuses On Healthy Food," and "Obama’s News Conference Shows Accountability In Action." Did Hearst really need to pay someone to share the fascinating observation that "if a first lady takes an interest in a cause, it will take off in the country. But it won’t wipe out fascination with what she is wearing. That's life." As insights go, this about as original as you win some, you lose some.

No, Helen Thomas wasn't celebrated as a journalist so much as a monument to journalism's historical legacy. She kept her front-row seat, he column, and her steady stream of awards for no reason other than she always had. And the reverence she inspired had little to do with her work and far more to do with the political media's sense of institutional self-importance. Helen Thomas wasn't a very good columnist, but she was a living symbol of a media age past—and the press corps couldn't let her go.

These days, journalists have successfully inculcated a similar sense of sentimental reverence for the media in the federal government. As the media transitions into the digital age and old business models look increasingly shaky, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are investigating how the government can prop up journalistic institutions edging past their prime. And the spirit that drove Washington's press corps to endlessly celebrate Helen Thomas despite her thoroughly mediocre output is the same one driving these agencies' efforts.

A recent discussion draft from the FTC titled "Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism" is only the latest example. Its implicit view is that because the news industry of old is struggling, the federal government needs to look for ways to prop it up. The paper starts with the assumption that, thanks to shrinking newspaper revenues and staff, there now exist "gaps in news coverage" (though aside from a brief mention of reduced reporting staff to file statehouse and Capitol reports—many of which were redundant—it hardly makes an attempt to spell out what these gaps are). And although the report admits that some of those alleged gaps are being filled by upstart online news organizations, it warns that they are small, and may not be capable of filling the gaps, whatever they are, on their own.

Naturally, that's where the FTC comes in. The paper contains a raft of proposals to subsidize, sponsor, support and otherwise "save" the news business. Not all of them are rotten: Increased government transparency and anti-trust exemptions are both ideas worth considering. But most of the ideas seek to include local grants for investigative reporting, national funds for local reporting, increased subsidies for existing public broadcasting, and even a journalism division of AmeriCorps to "ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field"—as if what journalism lacks is a supply of earnest, doe-eyed youngsters indebted to a federally-run program for their careers. These aren't proposals to save journalism so much as to save the romance of journalism—the same romance that kept Helen Thomas secure in her press room seat—and to pay for that romance with taxpayer dollars.

That's because saving journalism doesn't come cheap. One proposed set of subsidy-driven solutions—which funds postal subsidies, journalist tax credits, News AmeriCorps, student media, public media, and Citizenship News Vouchers—is estimated to cost as much as $35 billion each year. (To put this in context, the FTC's entire 2009 budget was just $273 million; the FCC's was only $338 million.) So the FTC floats a grab-bag of tech taxes—on communications spectrum, mobile date, advertising, and even consumer electronics, which has already been dubbed the "iPad tax."

The problem with government's fealty to the myths that establishment journalism has created for itself isn't just the expense—it's that it inevitably produces feedback loops. A government that props up the media inevitably leads to a media that props up the government. Despite being cloaked in the language of preservation, the real gap that these proposals fill isn't in news coverage, but in the cozy linkage between government and media. Which is why America needs an iPad tax and a beefed up system of federal media subsidies...well, about as much as it needed columns from Helen Thomas.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Better alt-text:

    Beauty and the beast.

  • ||

    Obama says "Eat prunes! But not one this big - it's just for show."

  • kinnath||

    Beast and the Beast

  • kinnath||

    B.J. and the Bear

  • Attorney||

    Every Which Way But Loose

  • Astrid||

    +1

  • ||

    "Helen, I loved you in Pumpkinhead"

  • Ragin Cajun||

    "I still think it is awful what Xur did to you."

  • Suki||

    The KKK, old guard and new.

  • ||

    She kept her front-row seat, he column, and her steady stream of awards for no reason other than she always had.

    So her awards are the journalism equivalent of Greg Maddux's gold gloves?

  • Death Panelist||

    She kept her front-row seat, he column, and her steady stream of awards for no reason other than she always had.

    Meow.

  • Attorney||

    They might want to think about burning that seat. Or at least giving it a good soaking with Nature's Miracle.

  • Rich||

    giving it a good soaking with Nature's Miracle

    before displaying it in the Newseum.

  • ||

    Or Pro Bowls for [insert 'OT in severe decline phase' here].

  • A is Awesome||

    Did anybody else chuckle when they saw "89 year-old HEARST columnist"? Ah, death jokes.

  • ||

    Screw U Suderman.

  • PIRS||

    Helen Thomas - is that you?

  • Suki||

    +1

  • ||

    Helen Thomas is amazing! I agree with everything she said!

    Lou
    www.Anonymous-VPN.de.tc

  • Astrid||

    Your programer probably needs to update you Anon-bot.

  • ||

    Is the 'de' address Denmark or Deutschland?

  • Zeb||

    Deutschland.

  • The Gobbler||

    anon-bot is a Nazi?

  • ||

    Does this count as a Godwin? I didn't think Anon-bots could Godwin a thread.

  • Rabbit Scribe||

    KINGDOMIST!

  • ||

    Interesting question.
    And, if a tree said "Hitler!" and nobody heard it, would it be a Godwin?

  • Enyap||

    Anonbot also praise Woodrow Wilson after an article about his his segregationist policies, his bigotry is hardly new.

  • Ragin Cajun||

    Now I fear that Skynet's dystopian future is going to resemble an antebellum plantation.

  • cynical||

    See, now you put a terrible but darkly amusing image in my mind.

  • Steve Chaos||

    +1

  • ¢||

    And anon-bot outs itself as a cosmo.

  • ||

    [The Society of Professional Journalists may have named its lifetime achievement award after her..]

    Right up there with the Daniel Rather Award for Excellence In Docummentation.

  • ||

    LOL! Pesky Fonts!

  • Old Mexican||

    Her columns were dashed-off exercises in sub-Broder conventional wisdom — the only boundaries they pushed were those of banality.

    Meaning: She was mind-bogglingly boring. Most Lefty scribblings are.

  • Virginia||

    Just like GM and Chrysler, we won't buy their shitty product but they're taking our money anyway.

  • Tim||

    She was pretty funny in Monsters Inc.

  • Entitled Slacker||

    She also did a damn fine job of slobbering on Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

  • parallelista||

    I never saw UP , but I read a review that said his character was quite endearing.

  • The Gobbler||

    "As the media transitions into the digital age and old business models look increasingly shaky, both the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are investigating how the government can prop up journalistic institutions edging past their prime."

    We just need media death panels.

    BTW:

    “The New York rabbi who videotaped veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas telling Jews to "get the hell out of Palestine" says he has received numerous death threats and thousands of pieces of hate mail in the days since Thomas' abrupt retirement.”

    http://www.foxnews.com/politic.....mas-video/

  • ||

    I didn't know the Tea Partiers cared so much about Helen Thomas. It had to be them right? Because they are the only violent force in American politics right?

  • The Gobbler||

    Well, there is also the nurses union:

    On June 6, I saw members of the Minnesota Nurses Association demonstrate in front of a health care executive's home. In doing so, they lost any chance of garnering my sympathy for their cause. Collective bargaining is a right; harassing families is not.

    Our ethical obligation to treat others as we would choose to be treated applies to all our actions; it cannot be sincerely met in one context if it is willfully violated in another.

    A nurse who deliberately harasses a fellow citizen's family cannot be trusted to care for mine. MNA has a responsibility to apologize and to recognize why such demonstrations are a mistake.

    David Walk, Plymouth

    http://www.twincities.com/opinion

  • Tim||

    "Brought to you by the Corporation for Public Journalism"

  • hmm||

    The US has been celebrating mediocrity for a long time. This isn't anything new.

  • Walter Cronkite||

    Shut up, punk.

  • ||

    Mediocrity? Try "anti-semitism". But you're right: This isn't anything new. Especially in the media and politics.

  • ||

    Caption contest:

    "A Negro hugged me! Just wait 'til the girls down at the hair salon hear about this. Oops, I peed myself. Fucking Jews."

  • Attorney||

    +1. Except I think "Colored" is more her speed.

  • Tim||

    I'm moving on to be the new "Where's the Beef" lady for Wendy's.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Instead of telling them to "say cheese", the creative photographer got big smiles from H.T. and B.O. by having someone announce that Iran just nuked Israel.

  • Mr. Chartreuse||

    Despite already hearing her actual voice, when reading this my mind uses Seymour Skinner's mom's voice instead (and for all the other Helen Thomas comments as well).

  • l0b0t||

    Seymour: "I'm not principal of the line, mother."

    Agnes Skinner: "And you never will be."

  • Warty||

    Are we sure she's not a Jew herself? That's quite a beak there.

  • Jamie Farr||

    Lebanese.

  • Abram of Chaldea||

    same thing

  • Helen Thomas||

    Go back home, and take your seed with you.

  • Dorothy Parker's parakeet Onan||

    "Because he spilled his seed upon the ground."

  • guy in the back row||

    Her eyes are like Eskimo ice goggles.

  • Atanarjuat||

    I hath lol'd.

  • Atanarjuat||

    By the way, if you do an image search for my name (it's the main character of a movie about alaska natives), the first result will probably be a guy with ice goggles.

  • ||

    Any kind of offensive remark about Jews and Blacks is a capital crime in the world of journalism.

    Similar remarks about whites and Catholics are misdemeanors which are generally not prosecuted.

  • Jimmy "The Greek"||

    Tell me about it.

  • Don Imus||

    You got that right. I don't even take naps or use napkins anymore.

  • countered point||

    offensive remark about Jews

    Are we equating Israeli Jews with all Jews now?

  • countered point||

    Are we equating an opposition to the manner of creation of Israel with anti-semitism now? This whole incident reminds me of the usual suspects who yell "racist" whenever anyone talks about reducing gov handout programs. It is impossible to rationally discuss some things publicly it seems.

  • ||

    The old media. Going broke because the public is on to them. Their estrangment from objectivity, refusal to investigate anything antithetical to their political point of view, willingness to create faux news and photoshop photos to support their political point of view, have all been exposed. So their next idea, since they know they can't possibly do legit news, is to have a tax levied on us so we can now pay them for our own USA verison of Pravda. Aren't they swell?

  • ed||

    Congress has been doing a version of this for two centuries.

  • Tyler Robinson||

    Amen to that. It's about time they strarted to report the news as it is, not as they'd like us to see it.

  • ||

    A government that props up the media inevitably leads to a media that props up the government.

    Carve that sentence in stone and place it in front of the Newseum* in D.C.

    * What a godawful name.

  • ed||

    Almost as bad as the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Warty||

    You know what's the most rock 'n roll thing in the world? Museums.

  • ed||

    It should have been called the Rock 'n' Roll Museum. It would have made more sense. Until they started letting in the hip-hop acts.

  • Here Comes Treble||

    I think Newseum is a GREAT name!

  • ||

    Does being retarded adversely affect your happiness or feelings of self worth?

  • obv||

  • ||

    What a godawful concept...

  • l0b0t||

    "Good things don't end in 'eum, they end in 'mania and 'teria." - Homer Simpson (upon finding out that he had to visit The Springfield Knowledgeum.)

  • ||

    Regardless of her "mediocre output", at least she had the balls to ask real questions... like whether or not it was right to go to war with Iraq, unlike the rest of the sychophants who just want to play water guns with Biden.

  • Joe Biden||

    I'm gonna miss that little gnome.

  • ||

    Strange that asking 'difficult' questions happened during Repub administrations.
    See her asking anything about, oh, how we gonna pay for Obamacare?
    Lefty hack.

  • Ali||

    Is that the only angle to discuss the Thomas "issue"?

  • Geotpf||

    The main problem with news reporting is that the companies charge the end user much, much less than their costs, because advertising made up the difference. But then the advertising dollars went away, so now they are fucked.

    Reading the FTC report, there was one good suggestion-add "news reporting" to one of the specific purposes that a nonprofit organization can be based upon. The rest was poppycock.

  • The Gobbler||

    Isn't the separation of Media and State inherent in the first ammendment? Because in order for the two to unite, Congress would need to violate the "Congress shall pass no law..." part.

  • ||

    Geotpf|6.9.10 @ 5:18PM|#
    "Reading the FTC report, there was one good suggestion-add "news reporting" to one of the specific purposes that a nonprofit organization can be based upon. The rest was poppycock."

    I don't know where you live, but where I do, a good bit of non-profit income is government subsidies.
    Sorry, bad idea.

  • Skippy||

    "Mediocrity"? That's hilarious coming from a soulless tool like Peter Suderman. You're the guy who made fake-grassroots "angryrenter.com" videos for FreedomWorks, where you pretended you were angry middle-class renters against Bush's housing bailouts, when you were just shilling for Steve Forbes. Helen Thomas may be a crap writer, but she at least stood up to Bush's idiotic Iraq war. I'd take a mediocrity of a corrupt lickspittle any day.

  • ||

    C-

  • I like||

    the c

  • ||

    I thought Steve Forbes was such a nice man. . .

  • ||

    Yeah, but c'mon. Helen Thomas is fucking HOT!

  • J||

    There's also a gap in the music industry due to the decline of 8-track and cassette tape production. Better fill that hole soon or it's the death of new music in America.

  • farben||

    Now I can see why Suderman got fired by the billionaire psychopaths in Freedomworks
    Fucking terrible conspiracy theorist

  • ||

    I am Firmly Convinced that Helen Thomas Knew Full Well the significance of the words she spoke.
    I feel that she was with the intent to retire at that time; and decided to go out with a bang, by speaking the TRUTH that was On Her Mind.
    I applaud her position.

  • cynical||

    Don't you mean you Applaud her Position?

  • Steve Smith||

    STEVE SMITH WANT MAKE IT WITH HELEN THOMAS IN ANY POSITION! HER AND BETTY WHITE MAKE GOOD STEVE SMITH SANDWICH!

  • ||

    No offense to ugly hags, but Helen Thomas is an ugly hag.

    penny@dorne.info

  • ||

    Mediocre she might be, but she was the most mainstream journalist to challenge the drive to war. Sometimes mediocre reporting is light-years ahead of the propanda the MSM put out.

  • Almanian||

    ...as if what journalism lacks is a supply of earnest, doe-eyed youngsters indebted to a federally-run program for their careers.

    Ayup

  • ||

    If you really, really believe in conspiricies, you could postulate that Helen Thomas was an Israeli agent, charged with making such outrageous claims against Israel to make any subsequent critical question about Israel look suspect.
    Please discuss.

    Helen Thomas "Isn't it true that the Israeili's are kidnapping all the Palestinian boys, draining all their testosterone, putting it in milk, and than, than selling this very same milk, at OUTRAGEOUS prices, to Palestinians as hormore-free free-range milk? And that the White House refuses to comment on this??? RIGHT??!!??!?! YOUR REFUSING TO COMMENT?!?!?"
    Gibbs...uh...uh...ah....well....uh, let me get back to you on that.

  • Atilla||

    Now who is left to tell America that Obama gave $400 million to the Palestinians?

    Damn we lost one of the greats now.

  • Atilla||

    Aeiii-Ya I just thought of a great person to put in Helen's special chair. The only person who can fill it properly and carry on the cause.

    Jimmy Carter!

  • ||

    TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT.....TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets.///// VERY QUIETLY Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, CITIZENSHIP CASE REACHES THE SUPREME COURT ;;;GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.///For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.
    Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama
    AP - WASHINGTON D.C. -
    In a move certain to fuel the debate over Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama qualifications for the presidency, the group "Americans for Freedom of Information" has Released copies of President Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, college transcripts from Occidental College . Released today, the transcript school indicates that , underMmslim Barack Hussein Obama, the name Barry Soetoro, received financial aid as a foreign student from Indonesia as an undergraduate. The transcript was released by Occidental College in compliance with a court order in a suit brought by the group in the Superior Court of California. The transcript shows that Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, (Soetoro) applied for financial aid and was awarded a fellowship for foreign students from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program. To qualify, for the scholarship, a student must claim foreign citizenship.
    This document would seem to provide the smoking gun that many of Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, detractors have been seeking. Along with the evidence that he was first born in Kenya and there is no record of him ever applying for US citizenship, this is looking pretty grim. The news has created a firestorm at the White House as the release casts increasing doubt about legitimacy and qualification to serve as President article titled, Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama Eligibility Questioned,"Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama leading some to speculate that the story may overshadow economic issues on Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, first official visit to the U.K. In a related matter, under growing pressure from several groups, Justice Antonin Scalia announced that the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear arguments concerning Obama's legal eligibility to serve as President in a case brought by Leo Donofrio of New Jersey . This lawsuit claims Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama, dual citizenship disqualified him from serving as president. Donofrio's case is just one of 18 suits brought by citizens demanding proof of citizenshMmslim Barack Hussein Obama,citizenship or qualification to serve as president.

    Gary Kreep of the United States Justice Foundation has released the results of their investigation of Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama campaign spending. This study estimates that Obama has spent upwards of $950,000 in campaign funds in the past year with eleven law firms in 12 states for legal resources to block disclosure of any of his personal records. Mr. Kreep indicated that the investigation is still ongoing but that the final report will be provided to the U..S. Attorney general, Eric Holder. Mr. Holder has refused to comment on the matter...

    LET OTHER FOLKS KNOW THIS NEWS, THE MEDIA WON'T !

    Subject: RE: Issue of Passport?

    While I've little interest in getting in the middle of the Obama birth issue, Paul Hollrah over at FSM did so yesterday and believes the issue can be resolved by Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama answering one simple question: What passport did he use when he was shuttling between New York , Jakarta , and Karachi ?

    So how did a young man who arrived in New York in early June 1981, without the price of a hotel room in his pocket, suddenly come up with the price of a round-the-world trip just a month later?

    And once he was on a plane, shuttling between New York , Jakarta , and Karachi , what passport was he offering when he passed through Customs and Immigration?

    The American people not only deserve to have answers to these questions, they must have answers. It makes the debate over citizensh Mmslim Barack Hussein Obamaip a rather short and simple one.

    Q: Did he travel to Pakistan in 1981, at age 20?
    A : Yes, by his own admission.

    Q: What passport did he travel under?
    A: There are only three possibilities.
    1) He traveled with a U.S. .. Passport,
    2) He traveled with a British passport, or
    3) He traveled with an Indonesia passport.

    Q: Is it possible that Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama traveled with a U.S. Passport in 1981?
    A: No. It is not possible. Pakistan was on the U.S. .. State Department's "no travel" list in 1981.

    Conclusion: When Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama went to Pakistan in 1981 he was traveling either with a British passport or an Indonesian passport.

    If he were traveling with a British passport that would provide proof that he was born in Kenya on August 4, 1961, not in Hawaii as he claims. And if he were traveling with an Indonesian passport that would tend to prove that he relinquished whatever previous citizenship he held, British or American, prior to being adopted by his Indonesian step-father in 1967.

    Whatever the truth of the matter, the American people need to know how he managed to become a "natural born" American citizen between 1981 and 2008..

    Given the destructive nature of his plans for America, as illustrated by his speech before Congress and the disastrous spending plan he has presented to Congress, the sooner we learn the truth of all this, the better.

    If you Don't care that Your President Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama is not a natural born Citizen and in Violation of the Constitution, then Delete this, and then lower your American Flag to half-staff, because the U.S. Constitution is already on life-support, and won't survive much longer.

    If you do care then Forward this to as many patriotic Americans as you can, because our country is being looted and ransacked! the commander

  • Joel||

    Dude. I don't object to him because he's from Kenya. I object to him because he's from Chicago.

    BTW, you're not the commander of me. M'kay?

  • Atilla||

    Somebody forgot to take their meds! Hope the tinfoil hat it workin out for ya.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    He can probably only afford wax paper, which does not make a good hat.

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