How ironic that the same day I interviewed White House correspondent Helen Thomas I received the latest sorry data in my inbox about the decline of freedom in the world. The Freedom House report, Freedom in the World 2007 identified a "growing 'pushback' against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedoms."
Pro-democracy efforts were most stymied in the former Soviet Union region, but "governments in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have also taken steps to diminish freedom of assembly, smother civil society, and silence critics." The Middle East/North Africa region, where U.S. public diplomacy efforts to "win hearts and minds" are especially focused, saw miniscule change in democracy and freedom over the past year.
The number of countries judged as "free" by Freedom House stands at 90 and represents 46 percent of the world's population. A free country, according to Freedom House, is defined as "one where there is broad scope for open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life, and independent media." The United States would qualify as a free country, but free here does not mean absolute. Blemishes abound and independent media is always in question. There is no absolute free country or free press anywhere on the planet.
But like Avis, we can keep trying harder. This brings me back to Helen of Truth. It's my new name for the grand dame of White House correspondents who has covered nine administrations across five decades. Helen Thomas spoke at this past weekend's National Conference for Media Reform and she received well-earned rock star status in our gathering of media reform and "I'm media mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" types. I was there to speak on the so-called Pravda panel, Trust or Verify: Propaganda and the Press. Believe it or not, we had a good time with that one. But my real joy came from hearing Helen Thomas speak on the panel, The Press at War and the War on the Press.
It wasn't that the news was particularly good, but the mood was elevated. The fearless scriber Thomas understands more than most that it is the office of the presidency that is to be awed, not whoever the current occupant is. One panelist, Sonali Kolhatkar, host and producer of KPFK's "Uprising" and author of Bleeding Afghanistan, said that "When I was invited I said there's nothing else I would rather be doing this weekend than being on a panel with Helen Thomas, one of my heroes." Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, chimed in that "Helen Thomas is also one of my heroes." By the time Helen spoke it was clear that the audience was there to hear her take on the truth as the first casualty of war.
"I haven't been to Iraq but I've lived with it everyday. It is probably the most dangerous place in the world. Close to 90 correspondents, interpreters, and helpers have been killed. And that's more than WWII, which was a much bigger war where we had 16 million people in uniform." Then with a quick "I like to cut to the chase," she went on. "The American press corps has lost its way. Certainly national reporters who forgot their mission is to search for the truth and their purpose--to keep a constant spotlight on public officials to lessen the possibility of corruption and mistruths, as Justice Brandeis said. There's no reason the media played along for so long with the administration's shifting rationales." She offered one explanation: "Naiveté, fear of being called unpatriotic when asking challenging questions after 9/11. We gave up our one weapon which is skepticism." And what happened to our country as a result of the death and destruction in Iraq? The United States of America not only drained its treasury, shifted domestic resources to overseas, but also damaged its image throughout the world. "We lost our halo as the visionaries for a better mankind." She was particularly upset with the fact that while some print media like the New York Times and Washington Post did finally issue their mea culpa, other newspapers are still supporting the Bush Administration's war rationale for Iraq. The truth doesn't seem to matter to some media. "In this disgraceful era, we've seen the government create a disinformation mill, pay reporters to write the 'good news' for Iraqi papers and television. Of course, the daily spin from the White House and Pentagon by public servants helped a lot and we simply recorded as stenographers." The silence of the reporters was deafening. The press emerged from its coma somewhat after Katrina, said Thomas. Questions were asked that should have been asked and some reporters even showed emotion about people's misery.
To the question of self-censorship versus overt silencing, Thomas admits that "I don't know whether the correspondents personally refrained from questioning the government leaders in crisis or whether they were told not to rock the boat."
For years she used to get calls during the Johnson and Nixon era asking her who the hell she thought she was asking those questions. After 9/11, she got the calls asking where the press had gone. She believes that newspapers in particular are more relevant than ever, despite dwindling staffs and slashing budgets. "Courageous reporters are needed as well. Sound bites cannot replace a good solid story."
Jane Fonda, board member of the Women's Media Center, wrapped up the media reform conference with these remarks: "The absence of women in the media is glaring. The media environment that is overwhelmingly white is also overwhelmingly male. A media that leaves women out is fundamentally, crucially flawed." Lucky for us, there's a woman in Washington who has managed to out hustle all that testosterone.