Helen Thomas’s book Watchdogs of Democracy? is the kind of thing I used to keep on my shelf and read when I got disillusioned with journalism, right up there with Live from Baghdad, Hacks, and the opening passage of Manhattan Nocturne.
Because for all that it is a criticism of the present press, it’s also a love letter to the craft. Her anger at the lay-down, speak-softly, don’t-disturb-the-glorious-preznit press corps of today is informed by her passion for communicating the value of journalism in a democratic society and her admiration for the people she once worked with, who had the courage to ask questions that would give today’s reporters the vapors. Today’s hacks not only betray the public, they betray their own history.
She singles out for special scorn Howard Kurtz, who thought only liberals were unhappy with the Washington Post’s pre-war coverage, and Len Downie, who claimed the press played no role in the run-up to the attacks on Iraq. This kind of criticism matters coming from Thomas because her idealism shines through it. This isn’t ignorant media-bashing from someone who doesn’t give a damn about the future of the trade and is just pissed that the pictures aren’t prettier. That someone could do this kind of work for as long as she has and still love it this much is both wonderfully hopeful and profoundly sad.
The book is a disappointed letter from a mother to a child, from a learned professor to a cherished student. Watchdogs of Democracy says, I gave you everything I had, I told you wonderful stories. I’ve fought my whole life for this vocation and believed in what is good in it. And this, this is what you see when you stand on the giant’s shoulders?
You can do better.
She ends the book with stories of famous war correspondents and broadcasters past, and even a few contemporary examples of decent journalism being done against the current of infotainment nonsense. Those of us who’ve been paying attention know the names already, but even so: It’s a good reminder.