The octogenarian doyenne of the White House press troupe (long privileged to end press conferences with “Thank you, Mr. President”) reports on the current state of journalism and finds the profession remiss in many substantial ways.
The respected newsman Elmer Davis once complained of “the false objectivity that . . . lets the public be imposed upon by the charlatan with the most brazen front.” Half a century later, Thomas (Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President, 2002, etc.) makes the same complaint, along with some other pertinent charges. She speaks of lying staffers, inventors of facts and arrant plagiarizers, of planted stories and purchased “news,” of ranting analysts and “reporters” bearing spurious credentials. Teletypes and scoops by telephone may be history, but managed stories abound, and spin doctors thrive even when talented investigative reporters and muckrakers are most needed. In addition to the current general malaise in the news business, Thomas recalls the many presidents she covered, the press secretaries she bothered, the political scandals and the political wives she encountered. This is history lite, instructive to those (journalism students in particular) who may never have heard of Watergate or the Bay of Pigs. The text includes typical transcripts of Thomas hassling a White House spokesman or two. There’s a discussion of the defunct FCC “fairness doctrine,” thoughts on the problem of “embedded” war coverage and an analysis of the current law of privilege to protect sources. With a salute to great journalists of the past century and accounts of harmless Air Force One and East Wing chitchat, there are no revelations here that would raise a flag at the NSA. The author’s most imperative message, after all, is that reporters and politicos are natural enemies—or should be.
The answer to the title: Journalists, the putative watchdogs of democracy, are becoming the lapdogs of government. Thank you, Mr. President.