Civil Liberties

Helen Thomas, and the Awkward Transfer From "Straight" Reporting to Opinioneering


Since we haven't run the video here yet, here's the ancient White House correspondent-turned-columnist Helen Thomas celebrating Jewish Heritage Month by telling Israelis (via a camera-wielding interlocutor) to go back to Poland and Germany:

Under heavy criticism (including from the White House), Thomas today announced her retirement.

As a fellow ex-UPIer and someone who greatly enjoyed a wine-drenched evening in Thomas' company 16 years ago (during which she told me, tears in her eyes, that Bill Clinton's disrespect for the office was worse than any of the presidents she'd covered), I am tempted to feel bad for an 89-year-old lady getting caught in what might be passed off as a senior moment, but there's no reason to believe that her statement and tone don't reflect her basic views.

They also, I believe, reflect an interesting, under-appreciated, and ultimately impermanent media phenomenon: The longer someone is submerged in what they and their organizations regard as traditional "straight" reporting, the more gruesome the results are when the gloves come off. As Thomas herself reportedly said in a 2002 speech, "I censored myself for 50 years…. Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"

Straight reporters have been taught for six decades to submerge or even smother their political and philosophical views in the workplace. Like all varieties of censorship, this process creates resentment and distortion. Whatever it is that you feel prevented from saying, you will be more likely to scream once given the chance. This is why, for example, some of the most politically opinionated people you'll ever meet are newspaper reporters a couple drinks in out yakking with their colleagues.

Degrading the quality of that discussion still further is the likelihood that the partisanship-averse journos haven't bothered to construct their own self-conscious political philosophy, beyond identifying Bad Guys and wanting to Fix Problems. Show me the world's most intractable problems–the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the inability to produce mass amounts of energy without negatively impacting the environment, the search for a beer that tastes great and is less filling–and I'll show you reporters in bars having conversations worthy of the Alex Jones show. It's not that they're all Helen Thomases–she is truly one of a kind–but that in the absence of subjecting their own beliefs to journalistic rigor, they are more likely than many would expect to quietly nurture beliefs that outsiders would find surprisingly slanted and even extreme. 

For these and other reasons, when straight reporters transition to opinion journalism, one of the first things to go is the "journalism" part of it. Now they can say what they really feel, dammit, and what they really feel is that the Bad Guys are preventing us from Fixing Problems. There's no longer any need to grok the Bad Guy's point of view. Think of what happened to longtime Associated Press/CNN reporter Peter Arnett, for example, or just read the latest political musings from the once-straight war correspondent Chris Hedges. I saw this process repeatedly at the L.A. Times, when newsroom lifers would tranfer to the Opinion Dept. and immediately begin producing pieces that sounded like an activist's fundraising letter, caricutarizing the opposing side's absolutely worst argument.

All of which is why I wish even the straightest-edge news outlets would follow Reason's still-lonely example and show us (at minimum) who their staffers are voting for. Newspapers are more terrified that the public will realize how biased their reporters are than they are at continuing to publish work contaminated by suppressed political leanings and resentments. With the advent of blogs, social media, and other boomlets of cultural expression, and the deserved market decline in what press-thinker Jay Rosen has derisively termed "the view from nowhere," the mask has long since begun to slip and crack. Hopefully, the current generation of reporters entering the market will have figured out how to pursue fair journalism without hiding their beliefs, and to speak in whatever public fora without fatally undermining their work.