Helen Thomas Tells The President To 'Listen Up' White House reporter and columnist Helen Thomas has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. Thomas talks about her 60-year career in journalism, and offers presidents advice in her new book, Listen Up, Mr. President.
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Helen Thomas Tells The President To 'Listen Up'

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Helen Thomas Tells The President To 'Listen Up'

Helen Thomas Tells The President To 'Listen Up'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

White House press corps veteran Helen Thomas has some advice for President Obama, and for that matter all future presidents, in her new book "Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do." Helen Thomas warns: don't hide Mr. President. The more distance between the president and the reporters who cover him, the more antagonistic relationship, creating still more distance. Helen Thomas has covered every president since John Kennedy and joins us from the offices of Hearst newspapers, where she's a columnist.

And if you'd like to join the conversation, have a question for Helen Thomas about her long career covering the White House, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the number. Our Email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web Site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And NPR political editor Ken Rudin is still with us and Helen Thomas joins us now. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Columnist): Thank you.

ROBERTS: So we were just talking with David Carr of the New York Times about the Obama administration's relationship with Fox News. What's your view on that whole fracas?

Ms. THOMAS: I dog won't hunt. I think it's finally on the part of the White House to take on Fox. I think they should simply do its own work, and they certainly has a full plate. So just ignore it and consider the source.

ROBERTS: So by ignore it you mean not grant interviews but also not engage.

Ms. THOMAS: No, I'd grant interviews. It doesn't matter. But I mean keeping up a feud doesn't make sense.

ROBERTS: Is there are model you think that the Obama administration should look to for a president who did well with the potentially adversarial press source?

Ms. THOMAS: I think you need lots of humor and you need lots of communications, you need regular news conferences, and strengthen you point of view.

KEN RUDIN: Helen, it's Ken Rudin here. Do you see any comparison at all to the situation between Richard Nixon's enemies list and Barack Obama's perhaps so-called enemies list?

Ms. THOMAS: No, I don't. I really think that this is kind of a one on one situation. I think that basically Obama does not feel that way about the press. I think there is certainly some validity in being unhappy with bias, but on the other hand, every president has had to go through that. Every president hates us anyway.

ROBERTS: So why does it matter to have a good relationship with the White House press corps if every president hates you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Well, it's very important to them to get their message out at any cost.

ROBERTS: So what does a good relationship look like?

Ms. THOMAS: A good relationship is maybe a news conference every week, in fact. President Roosevelt during World War II had two press conferences a week. I had met - he was very much in control and so forth. But I think that you have to hold a president accountable. He is the one on target, he is the one making decisions not only for the United States but for the whole world, war and peace and so forth. So I think that constant questioning of a president is very, very important.

ROBERTS: A lot of people have said, especially recently, that the White House press corps isn't doing much original reporting anymore. How do you respond to that?

Ms. THOMAS: That's true.

ROBERTS: What do you think has changed?

Ms. THOMAS: Certainly was true during the run-up to the war in Iraq. I mean we were very, very clear, President Bush wants to go to war at any cost and without cause and reporters just let him do it without really questioning why. The whole why has never been answered. We're getting out of Iraq eventually, but - and declaring a victory and leaving, been it's so costly in humanity.

RUDIN: Helen, the press corps, as you just point it out - the press corps was rightly chided for not asking the serious - the important questions in the run-up to the war. Do you think the press corps was asking the correct questions, the right questions with the Obama administration?

Ms. THOMAS: No. I think they should know why we are in Afghanistan and what are we doing there. Killing and dying for what? In a very primitive land where these people are bound to fight for their own country no matter who they are and who's leading them, and probably no matter how oppressive is their government.

ROBERTS: How much had - when…

Ms. THOMAS: It's their country is what I'm trying to say.

ROBERTS: Right. But when you talk about the need for a president to have regular press conferences to take advantage of the press' ability to get their message out, how much control can any president have in the current media environment with so many different news sources, of so many different methods of delivery, with so many different levels of editorial judgment?

Ms. THOMAS: He still has the bully pulpit. He still speaks to the country, he still orders the country, makes decisions that affect us all and affect the world. So there's tremendous power there. He hasn't been devalued.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from David in Stockton, California. David, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID (Caller): Well, thank you very much. And hello, Helen. I've been listening to you since I was about eight years old, in 1963, I think, I remember you first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: (Unintelligible).

DAVID: My question is this. My question is this: how do you think 24-hour news channels have affected, you know, with the need to fill 24 hours a day with news, how that's affected what the news (unintelligible) and, you know, people talk about, well, in the old days Walter Cronkite or people like you talked about the news and there wasn't all this fluff. And what do you see as the future of news?

Ms. THOMAS: More and more I see it, and less and less editing, more and more danger of ruining lives and reputations willy-nilly because everybody with a laptop thinks they're a journalists. Everyone with a telephone, cell phone, thinks they're a photographer. I mean, there's no place to hide. I don't see it lessening, if anything.

I think, you know, the question of communications is great, but also without any real, real accuracy that you can really count on, and I think you could in newspapers, the good old newspapers, where you would really be sued for libel in a minute if something was wrong and if you landed on the front page with the story that was inaccurate.

Well, it's a whole new world and solutions have to be found to hold people accountable.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Jim in Seven Black Hills, South Dakota. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM (Caller): Thank you. Thanks for taking my call. This is a two-part question. I just wondering, you know, many presidents Helen has dealt with over the years, who was the most pleasant and who was the most antagonistic?

Ms. THOMAS: They're all pleasant when they're not on target and when they not having to be accountable.

I think that what's really - a great president has courage, compassion, and really has great convictions. I think most important also is a sense of humor. Certainly that was John F. Kennedy in terms of wit. And I think that all the presidents really want to be great, they want to do the right thing, but something happens on the way that the forum.


RUDIN: Helen, you've asked a lot of pointed questions to presidents in the past. Is there any question that you wish you had asked a president but didn't, didn't get the opportunity to?

Ms. THOMAS: I think I'm Monday morning quarterback every time I've ever asked a president a question, because you think about could I have rephrased it? Should I have asked something else? Would I have gotten a better answer? So you're always editing yourself. So I couldn't say yes, obviously, when you think they're more vulnerable to answering the question. But you never know. And once in a while you actually may get an answer - rarely.

ROBERTS: Although it sounds like your time in the White House press room has made you more admiring of the office of the president, not more cynical.

Ms. THOMAS: Of the office, you said it. Not necessarily those who hold it.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Robin in Schenectady. Robin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBIN (Caller): Thank you. My father was an AP reporter for many years and they're always on the ground in the middle of the firefight. I remember being in his office in San Francisco and then he would just take off. So my question is, is I think that the cable news stations do not serve the public trust, or the public good, which is what news is about, and I'm sad to see the demise of Reuters and Associated Press and UPI. What do you think?

Ms. THOMAS: I couldn't agree with you more in terms of the demise of the newspapers, all over the country, big cities with three days of newspaper where they had it every day, of course. I mean, this is a tragedy. We have to figure out something else. I couldn't live without a newspaper and I think the country should not live without one, no matter what, you know, other - the electronic journalism doesn't suit me.

ROBERTS: Do you think something else…

Ms. THOMAS: (Unintelligible) it isn't - it isn't in depth. I think that our hunger for news will lead to someone being very innovative.

ROBERTS: That it's not the desire for news that has died, that it's just dead tree delivery system?

Ms. THOMAS: It's money.

ROBERTS: We are talking with Helen Thomas. You can join us at 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email at talk@npr.org. You can also go to our Web site and click on TALK OF THE NATION. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Michael in Elkhart, Indiana. Michael, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL (Caller): Thank you very much. Hey, Helen, I got a question for you regarding campaign rumors that get spread, whether it be like the Swift boat members for truth and that kind of issue. It seems quite nowadays they report the rumor before they check the accuracy of the rumor. I wonder if you'd comment on that for me. I also want to know who you think the smartest president you covered was.

Ms. THOMAS: That's - you're so right about - I think it becomes such a big dilemma as to how to negate all this misinformation, disinformation, which is so deliberate and so terrible. The American people are not well-served when people are deliberately manufacturing news and telling lies.

My favorite president in terms of, I mean, I don't think that I can judge their intelligence or anything else. I do think I can judge whether they're responsive enough, and none of them really are. Once they get into the Oval Office, the whole - an iron curtain the secrecy comes down. Everything I think belongs in the public domain becomes their private preserve. They're all secretive.

ROBERTS: Well, in some cases, a literal door went up between the press room and press secretary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Right. That's exactly right.

ROBERTS: Your famous battle with the Clinton administration. Let's hear…

Ms. THOMAS: That's right.

ROBERTS: …from Paul in Philadelphia. Paul, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAUL (Caller): Yeah. How are you doing? Helen, remember the question you asked President Obama earlier this year about what country in the Middle East - what's the only country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons? It was basically (unintelligible) Iran, they were always hammering Iran. So why wouldn't the president - he danced around the question, but he never answered you. Why is that?

Ms. THOMAS: No American official has ever said publicly, or no president, that Israel has a nuclear arsenal. Israel will say it. I mean a lot of Israelis. I don't know why it's the no man's land, but it apparently is. Well, I think, I do know if once the United States says that Israel has the bomb, has weapons, then he can't really shake the finger at every other nation and say you can't have them.

ROBERTS: Did you ever develop a strategy for the non-answer-answer? What do you do when a president won't answer?

Ms. THOMAS: You keep telling them you're not answering. (Unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: I get - I do that every day to Mr. Gibbs. And he said (unintelligible) you asked that yesterday. You asked that the day before. Yes, I said, and I'm still waiting for an answer. We have this going round.

ROBERTS: We've talked a lot about presidents. Which press secretaries do you think set the right tone or did the right or did the best in terms of access and control?

Ms. THOMAS: Jerry terHorst. He was President Ford's first press secretary. He lasted one month.

RUDIN: Explain why he left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMAS: Well, he was lied to by the counsel of the White House. Two reporters, I think New York Times and Miami News, came to him, and came to Jerry terHorst on a Friday and said we understand President Nixon is sending an emissary to San Clemente, to - I'm sorry - President Ford is sending an emissary to San Clemente to pardon Richard Nixon. And they got an immediate -Jerry checked it and immediately answered, no, preposperous, it isn't true. A couple of days later President Ford pardoned Nixon and Jerry resigned. He represented the highest integrity. He didn't want to lie people.

ROBERTS: Let's take one last call from Jane in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jane, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JANE (Caller): Thank you, and hello, Helen. I'd like to…


JANE: …go back to something you had brought up earlier, which was the lack of editing now. You and I…

Ms. THOMAS: Right.

JANE: …we're both are working for UPI 40 years ago. And I will not…

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANE: …forget that I got this call in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania bureau and it was you saying, can you take dictation? And I took dictation from you, which for a young reporter was quite a thrill at that time. But I will never forget that you finished dictating the story on the run and then you said, is that all right? Does that sound right to you? And I - through my career I so appreciated editors. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how editors influenced what you did.

ROBERTS: Jane, I'm afraid we have to leave it at that, but I do love that story. Helen Thomas…

Ms. THOMAS: And…

ROBERTS: …thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. THOMAS: And I love it too. Thank you.

ROBERTS: You can read an excerpt from Helen Thomas's book on our Web site at npr.org. It's about former President George H.W. Bush's problem with, in his words, the vision thing, which Thomas believes is essential for presidents. Also Ken Rudin, thank you so much for being here with us for the hour.

RUDIN: We didn't ask Helen Thomas whether she Twitters, but we'll do that another time, no.

ROBERTS: Quickly, what are you keeping an eye on this week?

RUDIN: Well, the November 3rd elections, and also what was going to happen with the Democrats and health care.

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