Friday, July 3, 2009

Battle of The News Plug Uglies--Thomas vs. Gibbs

Wednesday was a banner day in the network coverage of White House press conferences. It turned out to be a main event, with the old heavyweight taking on the young lightweight Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. I don't have a dog in this fight, but the MSM seems to be calling it a draw. I give the bout to Thomas on points and rounds.

The conference went badly out of control a few minutes into the organizing phase. Gibbs was having a nice little session with CBS White House Correspondent Chip Reid. They were discussing how they would decide in advance what questions would be asked of President Obama at the staged "townhall meeting" later in Annandale, Virginia--President Obama presiding. Thomas broke into the Gibbs-Reid duet to ask what the hell was going on. Reid knew who the veteran was, so he quickly joined Thomas's side in the "debate."

Gibbs said "How about we do this? I promise we will interrupt the AP's tradition of asking the first question. I will let you [Reid] ask me a question tomorrow as to whether you thought the questions at the townhall meeting that the President conducted in Annandale . . . " Reid started to interrupt by saying "I'm perfectly happy to . . . " Thomas then jumped in with "That's not the point. The point is control . . . " Reid, not waiting for the end of the sentence said "exactly."

Thomas went on: "We have never had that in the White House. And we have had some, but not--this White House." Gibbs tried to recover by saying "Yes, I was going to say, I'll let you amend her question."

Thomas is not one to let anyone interrupt her train of thought (even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand). I'll now just give the string of complaints she laid out, since the responses were not more than one or two words. After Reid said "Even if there's a tough question, it's a question coming from somebody who was invited or was screened, or the question was screened [so that you would already have an answer prepared]."

Enter Thomas: "It's shocking. It's really shocking. It's a pattern. It isn't the question. It's a pattern of controlling the press. Your formal engagements are all pre-packaged. By calling reporters the night before to tell them they're going to be called on. You promised us openness and transparency. That is shocking." Gibbs got in one nearly-complete sentence at that point: "We had this discussion ad nauseam and . . . " Thomas interrupted: "Of course you would because you don't have any answers. You should have known I was going to ask a question. You are never prepared to answer any question that hasn't been pre-screened." Thomas was referring to an earlier conference which was staged to tout Obama's health care and cap and trade plans, but Thomas asked a question about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The temptation is to say that this is a tempest in a teapot, and it may turn out to be just that. What makes this important is that Helen Thomas has been doing press conferences since George Washington was President. She knows how it works. She survived Lyndon Johnson. She's not naive. And she understands the need to have some guidelines for press conferences. She has made something out of staged conferences at one time or another concerning every President since John F. Kennedy. Recently, before the November elections, she criticized George W. Bush for doing it. But this is by far the most scathing and public disagreement she has ever had. This time she was angry enough to criticize not only what the Press Secretary was handing them, but the Secretary himself and his boss. There comes a point where a change in form is in fact a change in substance.

Thomas became ill in November of 2008, and for the first time in my memory, her seat at the front of the room was allowed to remain vacant for nearly six months. I suggested at the time that she was having an operation to have NBC's David Gregory removed from her hip. That empty seat indicates her place in the pecking order. Like it or not, when Thomas speaks, the White House must acknowledge it, and in ways which will pacify her. More importantly, until she woke up to the blatant manipulation by the Obamacrats, she has been a staunch defender of the President.

So far Thomas hasn't mentioned the complete impropriety of ABC News taking up residence in the White House to advance Obama's health care agenda. But who knows how angry she is? Hell hath no fury like Helen Thomas scorned. In comments away from the conference, she subsequently clarified her position to CNN, CNSNews and the AP regarding her distrust of the Obama White House. She remarked that even her arch-enemy Richard Nixon couldn't pull off what Obama has managed to do. "Nixon didn't try to do that. They couldn't control the media. They were afraid to even try."

Other quotes include "What the hell do they think we are, puppets? They're supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them." Well, Helen, too bad you didn't notice we've been saying that for years. Thomas also remarked that "I am especially concerned about the arrangement between the Obama Administration and a writer from the Huffington Post Web site." She questioned the legitimacy of a HuffPo writer as a journalist, and then stated clearly that "The writer was invited to the White House to President Obama's press conference last week on the understanding that he would ask Obama a question about Iran from among questions that had been sent to him by people in Iran."

"When you call the reporter the night before you know damn well what they are going to ask to control you," she said. She re-emphasized her lack of naivete by grousing "I'm not saying there has never been managed news before, but this is carried to a fare-thee-well, for the townhalls, for the press conferences. It's blatant! They don't give a damn if you know it or not. They ought to hanging their heads in shame." Indeed, Helen, they should (and so should you).

Thomas will never be a conservative icon. She is a lefty, and a loyal sycophant for the Democratic party. And therein lies the importance of her comments and argument with Gibbs. Whether she is motivated by professional jealousy or merely pique that the White House would consider manipulating a big-shot like her, what she is saying is indeed news. It may just be a falling-out among thieves, but it is a significant one. When a normally docile (if crotchety) house pet suddenly becomes a raging tiger, people listen, including some of her colleagues. Even if this is just a jurisdictional dispute between the old (and I mean old) MSMers and the kids on the internet, she has rung a bell that cannot be un-rung.


StlDan said...

Helen Thomas has been around long enough to have been one of the original illegal aliens.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice article Lawhawk.

I watched the whole exchange and I think I honestly owe an apology to Thomas and the Reid. Then came very close to standing up for the freedom of the press.

Tennessee Jed said...

good article! It is almost enough to make you applaud Thomas. On the other hand, if I were paranoid, I might think this little dust up is merely intended to give cover to the whole press love affair with Obama

Unknown said...

StlDan: Not only are you right, but I think she snuck in from Transylvania. Her real name is Helen Tepisch Drakul Thomas.

Andrew: I know what you mean. I saw the exchange right after I had seen the printed versions all over the place. Seeing it made me think that however far left those two are, they may actually care about freedom of the press. They're in the tank for Obama, but they don't want him telling them they have to be.

Tennessee: I think we probably all had that thought. For now, though, I think it was a genuine outcry against being forced to do what they probably would have done on their own. There's an old saying that nothing makes a person madder than to be told to do something the person was just about to do anyway.

BevfromNYC said...

Like Andrew, I watched the exchange and I was shocked at how condescending Gibbs is to both of them. He is making a huge mistake by playing the press this way. They made Obama and they can destroy him too. They may just have enough integrity left to do it if Gibbs keeps treating them like naughty children.

Unknown said...

Bev: Those two were genuinely angry, and the more he patronized them, the angrier they got. I suspect that in the not-too-distant future there will be an announcement that Gibbs will be leaving to be replaced by a Secretary more "in-tune" with the press. Then Obama will throw Gibbs under the bus claiming he was acting on his own. Caesar will not be mocked!

Writer X said...

And it couldn't have happened to a nicer reporter. There is so much satisfaction in watching Thomas's plan backfire--she wanted Obama, after all. Now she's got to deal with them. Personally, I hope they never release Gibbs. He provides comedic gold at every press briefing.

patti said...

i watched the tape and was almost shocked out of my words. if it hadn't been for my giddy clapping and omging at the significance of what i was witnessing! helen thomas bitch-slapping gibbs?! yes, yes, yes! if it had come from anyone else's lips (reid's) the words would not carry the weight that they now do. oh man, such a great moment.

Unknown said...

WriterX: It was like watching The Three Stooges, without the intellect or subtlety. It is definitely a sign of a crack in the leftist armor, but Obama has plenty of duct tape. Nevertheless, watching the bloodshed was worth the price of admission.

Unknown said...

Patti: The fact that it was Thomas and Reid is the only thing that makes it all worthwhile. As the expression goes, they've been hoist on their own petard, and they don't like it. Tough. Sometimes the German language has really good words to describe one's feelings, and I experienced a glorious moment of Schadenfreude, "joy at the misery of others." "You asked for it--you got it." "You made your bed, now lie in it." OK, I quit, that's enough. Let's just have a good laugh, Patti, and hope it's not the final bout.

Suzie1 said...

Little Helen's going to find herself sitting behind someone like David Gregory from now on.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

LawHawkSF said...
WriterX: It was like watching The Three Stooges, without the intellect or subtlety."

Ha ha! Great line, Lawhawk!
This is a tasty portion of Schadenfreude. I trust we'll see much more from the most non-transparent, condenscending and smug administrations ever.

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