Monday, June 19, 2006

Review - Watchdogs of Democracy?

Helen Thomas' new book Watchdogs of Democracy is on general release from the 20th. of the month. I was sent an advance copy by the publishers and thought myself very privileged - until I realized that just about everyone with a left-leaning blog had been offered a copy. It's a good strategy in general, I'm sure, but in the case of Thomas' book I am not so certain that it is a good tactic because it seems Ms Thomas isn't a big fan of bloggers - which is hardly likely to endear the book to blogger reviewers.

The book is subtitled "The waning Washington press corps and how it has failed the public" and from that you might expect a detailed account of how and where the press corps fumbled the ball over the White House's account of Iraqi WMDs and the rush to war, of Plamegate, the Downing Street Memos, the various corruption and procurement scandals and maybe even a short retelling of how the press are falling for the same old stories again in as the neocons press for a violent change of regime in Iran. (All are areas, incidentally, where the MSM has had to play catch-up on the blogging community's lead on key aspects of the story.) If so, you will be disappointed. At a scant 204 pages, Thomas' book simply doesn't have the space for such detailed accounts - and some of these fumbled balls aren't even mentioned. In this much, then, it fails in its stated purpose.

On the other hand, Thomas does give an excellent history of the Washington press corps enlivened by anecdotes and personal observations of people she knew firsthand and events she witnessed at close range. In the process she also gives a good account of how White House manipulation of the press has snowballed over the years and how the concentration of control of the media into fewer corporate hands has damaged the free press' ability to be "free" and reduced manpower until most outlets are simply repeaters of other newsgathering companies coverage of events. So too, her sections on journalist ethics, including the handling of leaks, whistleblowers and anonymous sources, are invaluable background knowledge. In this, the book is an invaluable addition to the existing corpus of work. One wishes that she had doubled the length and stuck solely to this firsthand insight on history.

Still, what shines brightest throughout the book are Thomas' own prejudices. Those prejudices, very much "old school media", stand out most on the very few occasions that she talks about the blogging revolution:
Bloggers online have added to the mix with personal viewpoints providing an interesting public forum for millions of people, although they certainly don't pass as journalists, in my opinion. They are advocates and do not meet the standard of being "fair" in their output.
I suspect, then, that Thomas would also discount as "journalists" the entire cadre of groups such as Benador Associates, including alumni like Mike Ledeen, Charles Krauthammer and Amir Taheri, although somehow she manages to miss mentioning Benador and other neocon journalistic pressure groups at all. But wait, she has more in her epilogue:
[F]rom what I've read, trained journalists who blog love the freedom of unedited opinions. Opinion it is - unfettered stream of consciousness, a marketplace of rumors, instantaneous feedback and discussion, a bully pulpit for all. Journalism it's not.

The horse is out of the barn. Blogs are the new opinion poll. Blogs, therefore, affect how the news is covered. Blogs and bloggers can lead credentialed journalists to news stories. Bloggers are not journalists and should not undermine the mainstream press. Bloggers are not deserving of reporter's priveliges - to think so is ludicrous. {Jaw-dropped emphasis is mine - C]
It is so nice to be reminded of one's place. All this, mind you, after she has already discussed journalists like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelly and how they made up sources and even whole stories. If she had waited a few months she could have added Amir Taheri, Ken Timmerman and Jason Leopold. Despite the much-vaunted ethics of the MSM, all continue to find gainful employemnt as journalists. The MSM pot has no business calling the blogging kettle black - indeed it is often the "trained journalists" who "love the freedom of unedited opinions" who are the worst blogging offenders when it comes to lax journalistic ethics. Elsewhere, investigative bloggers doing hard journalistic coverage to the highest standards abound. One immediately thinks of TPM Muckraker or of the recent excellent work by rightwing blogger Mark In Mexico, as well as countless examples from Katrina, last year's tsunami or the London bombings of 7/7.

In this prejudice about bloggers we see the kernel of Thomas' thesis - that press coverage in this country is a mess and it is everyone's fault except hers and her clique of friends. She writes scathingly of everyone excpet those in her own personal circle, on whom she lavishes glowing praise. Yet many of her friends have used the revolving door between press and White House staff over the years and others have been confidantes of Presidents and the powerful. I think I know human nature, and I refuse to believe that Helen Thomas managed to meet the only Americans in the last 100 years who were so ethical and so devoted to the concept of a free press that they alone remained uncorrupted by their closeness to power. It just won't wash. (Although, to give due credit, the exchanges she recounts between herself and Ari Fleischer show she has a backbone that should be cloned and transplanted into every reporter in DC.)

Without a doubt, Helen Thomas has been "the dean of the White House press corps" as the jacket blurb describes her. However, in her sunset days she has donned rose-colored glasses for the past, or at least that part of it inhabited by her friends and those she admired as journalistic role models. Consequently, she has become myopic about other developments which could hold solutions to the problems she so ably points out.

It's not the greatest book on journalism and politics ever written, but it is nevertheless worth a read.

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