If journalism had a muse it would be Helen Thomas. I heard that dignified dame of the White House press corps speak last night in San Francisco at the 30th anniversary of the Media Alliance.
A reporter and columnist for more than 60 of her 86 years, Thomas began covering the White House under Kennedy. Slightly hunched over in a red cushioned chair, she filled a ballroom at the Herbst Theater with sadness and anger, wit and wisdom, humor and courage. San Francisco television personality Belva Davis introduced her as a journalist who had “lived from punch to punch,” and Thomas threw some sharp jabs at her press corps colleagues, the toothless “Watchdog(s) of Democracy” to borrow her latest book title. Last night in San Francisco, she scolded the Capitol Hill pack for having “defaulted on the job, stayed asleep at the switch … they have let the country down.”
But Thomas was not a downer by any stretch.
When Davis remarked on the growing power of lobbyists who, she said, could be counted in the mere dozens in the 1960s, but “now outnumber the legislators and their staffs two-to-one,” Thomas quipped: “Yes, but some of them go to jail.”
Talking shop to her fellow writers and trouble-makers, she recalled her evolution from reporter to columnist. Sixty years ago she started out feeding United Press International a steady diet of facts seasoned with skepticsm.
“If your mother told you she loved you, you checked it out,” Thomas said. Now, as columnist, she allowed that her modus operandi has changed considerably. “I wake up and say, ‘Who do I hate, today?’.”
Thomas made clear that, even more than her timid colleagues, the lighting rod-in-chief for her ire is the same personage who made her, senior member the White House press corps, wait more than three years before being allowed to ask her first question. And there was much yucking and clucking in the Media Alliance crowd about that Stephen Colbert skit that was in part a traditional roast of the president and part tribute to Thomas for pursuing a question which her colleagues at the White House press corps have not aggressively pursued.
Preceeding Thomas to the stage was a long procession of speakers because this was, after all, a gathering of media people and they have, well, you know, issues.
Tops on the Media Alliance agenda these days: getting a good turnout on October 27 when the Federal Communications Commission will apparently hold a public hearing in Oakland on whether or not to allow further consolidation in the broadcast industry. The FCC has summarized the whys and wherefores of the process underway. The commission recently held its first public hearings on the issue in Los Angeles (the Los Angeles Times wrote a story about that hearing; I have blogged about the issue once or twice).
I also heard some incredible voices from YouthMediaCouncil.org, a goup that employs some rappified form of communication that I would like to find in a podcast because it must be heard to be felt.
Of course, the Media Alliance used the assemblage to raise money, lpassing baskets to rake in more than $2,000 to meet a matching gift of $2,500. The baskets took me back to my parochial upbringing in Brooklyn, and reminded me of how, when I went back to graduate school in my mid-30s to study journalism at Columbia, I felt foolish at times, sitting in a class whose median age was a good decade younger. Others found it easier to sit still as the professors inculcated us with the self-appointed mission of journalism. It struck me as a secular version of povery, chastity and obedience, and I amused myself with the thought that one out of three wasn’t bad. Chalk it up to age. When I was younger I wore my idealism on my sleeve, but the older I get the more I’ve grown a coconut skin to protect whatever juice I’ve managed to preserve.
But a little fluid leaked out around my eyes last night as Thomas drew forth from her reservoir of idealism this quote from John Fitzgerald Kennedy:
“We want a world,” she said, speaking on his behalf from the grave, “where the weak are secure and the strong are just.”
And she challenged her press corps colleagues again to join her in pursuing the fifth of journalism’s five Ws, the question she waited more than three years to ask and has not yet had answered to her satisfaction.
“I don’t understand,” she said, “why they’re not asking why?”
(Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers which employs me in a lesser capacity in San Francisco, but I attended this event afer hours and these thoughts are my own. On Monday I will pick up the thread I had promised to finish here today — before I plumb forgot about Thomas’s appearance. — Tom Abate)