Pioneering female journalist Helen Thomas, who died last Saturday at 92 after covering 10 presidents, believed that White House reporters had become spineless "lap dogs" of presidents and that the press corps needed to be more left-wing because "liberal correspondents are more honest," according to a just-published interview.
"There is no such thing anymore as the liberal press. I'm searching for a liberal," she told a researcher for Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess as part of his historic project to chart the lives and careers of 450 Washington journalists.
Always a champion for liberal causes and Palestine, her views about the press and liberalism come across sharper than in any other interview.
Thomas charted the decline of liberal reporters beginning with the Reagan administration. "Look at the newspapers, look at the columnists; most of them are pretty, are very conservative, predominantly so. Every newspaper got scared and has started hiring conservative columnists," she said. Asked why, Thomas explained, "Because of the accusations of liberalism and they want to prove that they're not liberal. Why not be liberal? It's the only way to go."
She added: "What is a liberal? A liberal cares for the poor, and the sick, and the hungry. A liberal cares about the government doing for the people what they cannot do for themselves, is what Lincoln said. A liberal seeks the truth and doesn't put the spin on anything and asks to look at the facts. I think liberal correspondents are honest. I don't mean the others are dishonest, but what I mean is--I don't think that liberals, liberals have an axe to grind except they really do want a better world."
Thomas then asked the interviewer to scratch out the last thought and replace it with this: "I think liberals care about people and they also care about the facts. Liberals try to speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes it falls in their direction, sometimes it doesn't. But there is no such thing anymore as the liberal press. I'm looking for a fellow liberal."
The interview conducted by Riki Parikh took place September 9, 2005 in the middle of former President George W. Bush's two terms. It came after Thomas left UPI to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Thomas slapped reporters covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for acting as cheerleaders. "The press corps fell down on the job," she said. One example she offered was the media's decision not to cover bodies returning at Dover Air Force Base. "They should have staked out Dover, even if you're just behind the gate. There is no reporting in depth about this war," she said.
Thomas added: "I blame the reporters. You have to have backbone. You can't be a lapdog. The role is very unpopular. If you want to be loved, if you even want to be liked, don't go into journalism, if you want to do a good job, a decent job for the country."
The interview is part of the archive in the Brookings project most noted for the latest book from Hess, "Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012." In the book, out soon in paperback, Hess set out to find the 450 Washington reporters he first surveyed in 1978. He has been posting some of those interviews on the Brookings website.
Paul Bedard, The Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.