Helen Thomas Addresses Al-Hewar Center

"Press Failed to Hold White House Accountable"

On September 8, Al-Hewar Center had the honor of welcoming former Dean of the White House Press Corps, Helen Thomas. She was introduced by attorney and former ADC President Dr. Albert Mokhiber, who also moderated the discussion between Ms. Thomas and the audience following her speech. In his introduction, Mokhiber called Helen Thomas “a person of integrity, who speaks the truth without fear, and who should be emulated by people in our community.” He noted that we don’t have enough journalists in our community, and we need to encourage our children to go into that field. “Journalism unearths the truth,” he said, “and if it didn’t, the [Bush] Administration wouldn’t have been so fearful of Helen Thomas. [She was] the sole voice questioning every step of the way.”

Helen Thomas was born on August 4, 1920. She was raised in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University. She joined United Press International in 1943, working several beats before she began covering President-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960. She went to the White House in January 1961 as a member of the UPI team. During the years she covered Kennedy, she was the first woman to close a presidential news conference with the traditional “Thank you, Mr. President.” In November 1976, the World Almanac named her one of the twenty-five most influential women in the U.S. She traveled around the world several times with Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and has covered every economic summit. In February 1972, she was the only newspaperwoman to travel with President Nixon to China during his breakthrough trip. Her current book, Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, is in bookstores now. Ms. Thomas worked for UPI at the White House until May 2000.

Ms. Thomas recently received an award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

The following is Ms. Thomas’s presentation:

Good evening, Fellow Terrorists… or is it Evil-Doers? [laughs from the audience]. I simply say so because I presume that most of you are against the invasion and the occupation of Iraq. If I am not in the wrong, phew, of course. But then, everyone is a terrorist who thinks our foreign policy is misguided and ill-fated… That blanket covers our whole policy in the Middle East, not just Iraq, but of course that is where we have lost our halo, our great respect, our prestige in the world, our ideals of democracy. How did it happen? Easy. The 9/11 attack, which paved the way for the loss of so many of our liberties and manipulation of truth beyond the pale. It amazes me how much people are willing to be deceived and even to a point where thousands of lives are at stake. 9/11 segued into war and anyone who opposed our policies in both events feared being called unpatriotic and un-American, and that’s what happened to the press. It was a very sad spectacle for me to see the press, the media, my colleagues, whatever you want to call it, roll over and play dead throughout this shameful and tragic chapter in our history.

The questions that were not asked at the Pentagon and at the White House were a discredit to our profession. I did not say at the State Department because General Colin Powell was obviously not only out of the loop, he was used as the Pied Piper to lead America into the war. His prestige, his integrity, his reputation [were tarnished]. His tour de force presentation at the United Nations in the run-up to the war was something to behold – much of which he has had to repudiate since then. It must be very painful for somebody of his stature to take back everything he said that he knows led us into war and caused so much suffering. He did it slowly and his retreats, little by little and without even an apology, wound up on the back pages of the very cooperative newspapers. They should have been on the front page.

 The fact that the press defaulted on a major role is well documented now. Journalism took a bath. The New York Times, not checking out the facts, were very happily provided with Chalabi’s version, and now it admits that it was taken for a ride. The New York Times ran its mea culpa in two editorials. The Washington Post, like President Bush, could not bring itself to admit a colossal mistake. So in 3000 words, it recapped its performance, gave itself a very low rating on grounds that the editors did not pay much attention to a couple of reporters’ voices in the wilderness who tried to persuade their editors that there was some doubt about the White House’s militant assertion – weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, imminent threat. The Administration was determined to take over Iraq in more than a regime change, and the Post was more than accommodating in its editorials, with an assist from a raft of neo-Conservative columnists, all of whom urged war, every day, never minding the human price, or who would have to pay for it. It was going to be a cake walk, according Kenneth Edelman, one of the advisors. The Iraqis were going to kiss the ground upon which the Americans marched in. They were going to be a pushover. Except that’s not the end of the story, as we all know now.

It turns out (can you imagine?), that even Middle Easterners – Arabs, will fight for their own land. They are what we call the insurgents, or terrorists, or even the enemy. They are the enemy in their own country, trying to defend their own land.

During WWII, those who resisted the Nazi occupation were heralded for their resistance against human tyranny. But when Arabs do that, do they get that kind of salute? The Palestinians who resist every day the tyrannical occupation are in the same boat.

As for the press, it is incredible that we saw the tragedy of the babies in Chechnya thanks to Agence France press and Reuters photographers who were allowed in. But when we dropped 70,000 tons of bombs on Iraq in the first few days of March 2003, we saw no photographs. Too gruesome, said the networks. No, we couldn’t show such things. Embedded reporters only saw a slice of the war – the slice that they wanted us to see. And the networks refused to show anything that was really bad. It was a lovely invasion.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State went to Qatar to tell them to take Al-Jazeera off the air. And Condoleeza Rice put pressure on the networks here. Somehow, someone forgot the First Amendment and the role that the press is supposed to play in letting the chips fall where they may, and that only the truth should prevail. As for Dover, where they bring in the coffins of fallen soldiers, reporters and cameramen were barred from showing or reporting on any of the coffins that were brought in, any of the honor guard ceremonies. At the Pentagon, they would tell you the total number of American deaths and wounded any day that we called. But if you asked about the number of wounded and dead Iraqis, you would get this answer: “We don’t track that. We don’t count them.” Meaning they don’t count. So one day I called back the Pentagon and said, you tell us that you are liberating the Iraqis. What do you mean they don’t count? I would like a rationale. They called back a few hours later and said, “Look, our purpose is not to kill, but if there is resistance, then the numbers don’t count.”

But somewhere, somehow, the truth about the treatment of Prisoners of War was revealed, thanks to a soldier from a little town in Pennsylvania, who was very disturbed by what he saw. He called his mother one night, but didn’t tell her what was bothering him, but she knew he was very troubled. He kept asking her personal ethics questions, and she told him that he should do the moral thing and that the truth would make him free. And he did exactly that. He put a cassette of the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison on the bunk of an Army investigator. These were the shocking photos that the rest of the world finally saw. He has to be protected now because many of his buddies think he ratted on them.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed his shock upon seeing the photographs. That report of General Taguba had been gathering dust on his desk for months before the story broke, from January to April, until the world learned of the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

This is one of the most secretive administrations I have ever covered, and there is no question that the Administration puts its own spin on all stories, and the press is supine, and rolls over. The Presidential news conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. If he is not questioned, he can rule like a dictator, a king, and there is no accountability. We don’t have the British system where the Prime Minister goes before the House of Commons and is questioned. So the press in America is the front line. It is the transmission belt. And we are the only ones this Administration is really trying to avoid. The president may answer a few questions for picture taking, but it is never really a complete press conference, and there is no follow up. He’ll say I’ll take 2 questions and then dismiss everyone. The news at the White House is managed, controlled, and manipulated, and that is not unusual. Every Administration I have ever covered has tried to manage the news. But Bush has only had 13 formal news conferences since he took office, which is shockingly low, and his last one was June 10. Well a lot has happened since June 10.

I’ve been blacklisted from the White House, and of course I have a lot of questions. I was accused after the first presidential news conference of blindsiding the president because I asked him why he did not respect the wall of separation of church of state by setting up a religious office in the White House. Well this took him totally by surprise. There’s a video where he looks like he’s been shot! Everybody had been asking him about tax cuts, and I came out of the blue with my question!

Since he came to office White House, this president has torn up practically every treaty we have ever made in terms of collective security. It is unbelievable. These treaties were not written in a day. Some took 10 years, dotting every “i”, crossing every “t”, and he tears them up. He has no respect for allies and friends. He is a conservative, but I have yet to find any compassion.

I believe that if he is reelected, we have doomed ourselves to perpetual war in the 21st century. We will have a repetition of the 20th Century. Two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and every thing that happened at the turn of the century before. Of course he will re-institute the draft. He has to, they are scraping the bottom of the barrel now for ready reserves. He will dismantle the Social Security system little by little with privatizing. He will continue to erode labor rights. He has already practically wiped out overtime. If he makes you a vice president or a supervisor, you won’t get any overtime. Or he’ll give you comp time, even if you don’t want comp time – even if you want to support and feed your kids… He will continue to move jobs to the Third World where multi-millionaires can fatten their pocketbooks from sweatshops and child labor. And, of course, the richest people in the country will continue to get the biggest tax cuts.

So through Bush policies, we have lost most of our friends and allies in the world. At the least, we have lost their respect. And domestically, the poor, the sick, and the maimed will be forgotten. I believe, like Abraham Lincoln, that government should do for people what people cannot do for themselves. I will conclude my rant by quoting John F. Kennedy after the Cuban Crisis. In 1962 he went to American University and made a speech where he said “America would never start a war. We want a world where the weak are secure and the strong are just.”

The other quote that I like so much is “The only way for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.”

Finally, from early in our Colonial era, was the observation by Alexis De Tocqueville, who said “America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good, it will no longer be great.”

We can change all that if we give peace a chance.

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