W. Joseph Campbell

Helen Thomas and Iraq War: What’s she talking about?

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers on June 11, 2010 at 8:12 am

Helen Thomas, the cranky, now-disgraced columnist for Hearst newspapers who resigned under fire this week, claims in an interview that White House press corps bears some responsibility for the Iraq War.

Thomas, who quit after saying Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go to Germany and Poland, asserted in the interview posted yesterday by Vice magazine:

“Everyone rolled over and played dead at a time when they should have been really penetrating. … But in this case they bought all the propaganda. Or, whether they bought it or not, they took it and spouted it.”

Thomas, who is almost 90,  didn’t elaborate on her “rolled over and played dead” comment, which has the whiff of a gratuitous shot at her erstwhile colleagues.

She’s made similar comments before, claiming for example that the American news media were “comatose” in the run-up to the war. But seldom has she offered much in the way of specific, supporting detail. As in who “rolled over” when?

While her claims have hardened into something approaching conventional wisdom about pre-war coverage, Thomas’ views have been challenged, notably by David Gregory of NBC, who has asserted:

“I think the questions were asked [in the run-up to the war].  I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

“If there wasn’t a debate in this country,” Gregory has said, “then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war?”

As to his last question, where was public opinion? It heavily favored the war in Iraq. And as I note in a chapter in my new book, Getting It Wrong, a Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken in the early days of the war found that 69 percent of Americans thought the invasion of Iraq was justified even if weapons of mass destruction were not found.

Reason magazine also has challenged the argument that the U.S. news media could have been more searching in the run-up to the war, asserting in a well-argued piece in 2007:

“The ‘we should have done more to head off this war’ argument assumes too much, exaggerates the media’s power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers.”

Those are all good points. And blaming the news media does tend to deflect blame from Congress, which in 2002 authorized military force against Iraq.

What’s more, the content leading U.S. daily newspapers in the weeks before the Iraq War began included a sustained amount of searching coverage. A good deal of the coverage in February and March 2003 focused on diplomatic démarche at the United Nations, where the U.S. pro-war policy came under frequent attack by the French, Germans, Russians, and others.

Those challenges to U.S. policy were given prominence in U.S. newspapers, as were the massive anti-war demonstrations in Europe and in some American cities.

Thomas has never impressed me as a particularly incisive or even careful reporter. She notably indulged in media myth in her 2006 book, Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.

The book repeated the hoary anecdote about Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century–one of the media-driven myths that I debunk in Getting It Wrong.

Thomas’ use of the “furnish the war” anecdote helped Watchdogs of Democracy? make the tail-end of my lineup of the dozen overrated books about journalism history–a roster I compiled in 2009 for the quarterly journal American Journalism.

Topping my “overrated” list was David Halberstam‘s The Powers That Be, followed by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward‘s All the President’s Men and Hadley Cantril’s The Invasion From Mars.

About Thomas’ Watchdogs of Democracy?, I wrote:

“The title of Thomas’ book promises far more than its disjointed and repetitive content delivers,” adding, “don’t turn to Watchdogs of Democracy? for searching analysis.”

WJC

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