The relationship between presidents and the reporters who cover them is a fraught one, and there is probably no one who knows this better than Helen Thomas, who has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. As "dean of the White House Press Corps," she challenged Nixon on Watergate, Clinton on Lewinsky, and, most recently, Bush on Iraq. For that, the Bush administration banished her to the back of the pressroom after she continued to press the president on his reasons for going to war. (Article continued below...)
In Rory Kennedy's new documentary, "Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House," (August 18 at 9 pm on HBO), Thomas talks frankly, and comically, about chasing presidents in her high heels, getting scooped on her own engagement announcement, and, of course, her altercations with the Bush administration. Since May, Thomas, now 88, has been absent from her current role as a columnist for Hearst newspapers (she had previously been a correspondent for United Press International) while she recovers from a colon infection, but she answered some questions via e-mail from Newsweek's Jesse Ellison shortly before her release from the hospital on Thursday, August 14. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How has journalism changed in the years you've been covering the White House?
Thomas: The whole transformation into electronic journalism in terms of instantaneousness and brevity, and too little faith in reporting on the scene, makes me fear the corporate heads have reduced the possibility of seeking the truth. I have always known that journalism is a business, but has a greater mantra, a higher ideal of keeping the American people informed. You can't have a democracy without an informed people.
Has access to presidents changed in that time?
Access has diminished greatly. Access on the part of the press—or loss of access—sometimes has legitimacy in terms of the security of the powers that be. But sometimes limitation of access to the horse's mouth can lead to distortion. It's best to hear what the president says, instead of a spokesperson—but these days are gone forever. Years ago, we walked down the street throwing questions at Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and that was true access.
What is the role of the press today? Or at least, what should it be?
To let the American people know what is being done in their name. To undercover unnecessary and unfair secrecy aimed at protecting the manipulators of the truth. The role of the press is to seek the truth—and that's what should be done.
What do you think about opinion-driven journalism, and the rise of Fox News and people like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann?
They should be clearly identified as personal opinions of talking heads or reporters. If they reveal their personal opinions, they should say so, and not dogmatically slant the facts for their own ends.
There is a lot of hand-wringing going on over the future of print media. What do you think will happen to newspapers, magazines, and wire services in the digital age?
I certainly think the Internet is here to stay, but we should be wary because anyone can get in on the act, and not everyone is a professional journalist. The slow demise of print journalism is a national tragedy. Who can live without a newspaper? Headline News doesn't do it for me, and I'm sure for many others.
Your parents were Syrian immigrants who couldn't read or write and yet you, in one generation, rose to the top of your field. Who or what do you credit for that? Do you think it would be possible today?
I certainly do think it's possible today. This is the land of great opportunity and freedom. My parents were my role models. Education was everything to them even though they had no formal education. They wanted their children to surpass their lifestyle to help bring about a better role.
Do you have any words of advice for the next president?
Tell the truth. Trust the American people. They are very tolerant. Don't go to war without reasons that can be explained. Too many lives are at stake when a president makes a mistake.
You said that Bush is the worst president in American history. Do you still believe that?
I've seen nothing to retract my statement.