"From Kennedy to Bush: Covering the White House from the Front Row"
A Conversation with Journalists Helen Thomas and David Gregory
Moderator: Prof. Steinhorn
Helen Thomas: former correspondent for United Press International; columnist
David Gregory: chief White House correspondent for NBC; AU alumnus
Q: What is your perspective on journalism, politics, and the White House media today?
HT: The White House and Pentagon press corps "fell down on the job" leading up to the invasion of Iraq- ran away scared from the administration by not questioning them more. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the reporters were "unleashed" but were still complacent in the questioning. The Bush administration is the most secretive she has ever covered--including the Nixon administration. "Every president tries to frame the truth, and the country suffers." Journalism is meant to be the search for truth.
DG: The time period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was a momentous time. Disagrees with Helen Thomas that the WH Press Corps was negligent in their questioning- the country was in a different place then than they are now, they wanted action to be taken on those who attacked the U.S. Bush had a lot of political capital and spent it all on Iraq. The Congress and the country believed the evidence. Thinks the press corps did ask the right questions. People are now placing the blame for the Iraq debacle through the "prism of results." Doesn't see it as his role to tell the president his policies are bogus. Talking points for the country on politics come from the press. Congress didn't ask too many questions about the war either- pervasive post-9/11 fear. The anti-war movement took a long time to pull together. The media values their credibility with the public. The important questions pre-war were asked but didn't get airtime > the media was "turned against itself." Recognizes that reporters need to look hard at whether they did the right things, asked the right questions. The press had no leverage with the president, so the president had no accountability. Spikes in news coverage occur- intense investigative reporting doesn't always happen.
HT: Disagrees with DG- White House fed propaganda and the press corps let the rest of the country down by not questioning what they said more.
Q: What are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert doing that the mainstream media isn't, and what does it mean for the media at large?
Moderator's Comments: Stewart and Colbert expose hypocrisy in the government by putting the present actions in the context of past actions.
DG: Big change away from network news to cable and online news. Stewart and Colbert make us laugh and have a left-wing point of view that a lot of people appreciate. They point out the ridiculous and have a niche audience. Not a direct challenge to the mainstream media, but it is at the same time. Different audience, different products. It's not the news networks' jobs to be funny like Stewart and Colbert.
HT: Read the newspapers. Read the comics first. You can find a lot of truth in comics.
DG: Build your critical thinking skills. Read columnists and editorials with different points of view, and challenge them.
Q: How do you as journalists build up firewalls against spin?
HT: Take everything with a grain of salt. Assume they aren't telling the whole truth- they spin everything. Spin was made state-of-the-art during the Reagan administration. White House press secretaries have to be a little schizophrenic because they have to talk to so many different people.
DG: Spin is the toughest part of the job. Very subjective relationships- administrations have to be salesmen. Campaigns are like relationships- politicians have to know themselves and know the other people. Question everything, including conventional wisdom. Compare current statements with past statements--important to separate the spin.
Q: Which candidate in the 2008 presidential election would be most interesting to cover?
DG: Newbies are the best. Unscripted moments are fun.
HT: Obama- a new face, an idealist.
Q: Which president would you most like to have at dinner at your house?
HT: Kennedy- eyes on the stars.
Q: If you could give one president truth serum, who would it be?
DG: George W. Bush
Q: What was your best White House moment?
DG: The State Dinner with Queen Elizabeth and the press conference in Paris when he spoke in French to President Chirac and Pres. Bush started ribbing him about it.
HT: Several Reagan moments- "I should have taken your advice."
Q: How did the White House Press Corps change between the Clinton and Bush administrations?
DG: Under Clinton, the briefings started being open to the cameras; the increase of the Internet.
HT: WH Press Corps has changed a lot- the atmosphere especially- less personality is seen in the president
DG: Insight into the president personally helps with the quality of the coverage.
Q: What do you think of the coverage of the crisis in Darfur?
DG: Humanitarian crisis- coverage has increased but it hasn't been a huge priority. It's been underrepresented but some pockets have done a good job with the coverage (New York Times, NBC)- priority in the country as a whole needs to change.
Q: What are the consequences of the budget cuts that caused the closure of foreign news bureaus?
DG: Budget cuts did have a big effect on foreign news coverage.
Q: Is Fox News fair and balanced? Where should the line be in the relationships between relationships and the people they cover in terms of friendly and detached?
HT: Needs to be a respectful relationship- talk to them, get insight- part of the integrity of reporters. Fox News is not especially balanced- but any presidential interview is a good one.
DG: There's too much of a wall right now between coverers and coverees. Need to get to know people as well as you can. Fox is part of a niche audience.
Q: What's the future of TV network news with a more apathetic generation?
DG: Doesn't think this generation is that apathetic- lots of activism involved. TV news has to evolve to satisfy a more active audience. There's still a place for network news- it is still integral.
Q: Is there a declining interest in newspapers?
HT: Corporate chains problem- "Competition is the lifeblood of journalism." TV reaches more people than newspapers.
Q: What final words of wisdom do you have?
DG: Helen Thomas is the "conscience of the national press corps." She challenges the press corps. Study her example (?). Also DEVELOP CRITICAL THINKING.
HT: Keep learning--one of the privileges of journalism. Be attuned to what's going on. Don't repeat past errors. Participate in the system. "We are all responsible."