Finally, a little clear-eyed Emperor’s New Clothes analysis about the icon treatment given Helen Thomas, even in her disgrace. David Frum at The Week points out that far from asking “tough questions,” as most of Thomas’ media defenders noted as balance to the criticism that forced her into retirement, Thomas wasted everyone’s time with easily ignored demagogic rants that barely took the form of questions at all. Any press secretary or President could easily parry Thomas’ contributions and almost always did — and the wise knew how to exploit Thomas:
Helen Thomas will no longer be sitting in the front row of the White House press briefing room. The abrupt end to her career has triggered many tributes to Thomas’ supposedly tough questioning.
But it was not tough. A tough question is a question that’s hard to answer. But any moderately-skilled flack understood precisely how to deflect Helen Thomas’ histrionic denunciations …
In fact, calling on Helen Thomas was a notorious method for a hard-pressed White House press secretary to EVADE tough questions from the rest of the press corps. A zany, out-of-left-field protest from Thomas would disrupt a flow of unwelcome queries, maybe spark a tension-breaking laugh, maybe change the subject altogether.
In fact, the problem goes far beyond Helen Thomas, Frum argues, and to the now-ubiquitous television cameras in the briefing room. That only goes back to the Clinton administration; before then, briefing sessions were pad-and-paper affairs, and White House correspondents were known for their reports from outside the White House than the gaggle inside. The presence of the television cameras incentivize reporters to grandstand, a lesson Thomas took to heart when she quit UPI and became a columnist at Hearst.
Effective and “tough” questions depend on the answers, not the hostility of the questions. Thomas’ questions rarely produced anything but laughter in the final decade of her work, and even her colleagues appeared to be in on the joke most of the time. Tough questions take preparation, engagement, and put the interview subject in a position where they have to respond substantively because of the rational nature of the question. Reporters like Jake Tapper, Chip Reid, Mark Knoller, and Major Garrett ask those questions and get answers that matter.
Others, and not just Thomas, use their camera time to frame their own political arguments and waste time by allowing the President or his representatives to hit the softball around the park for a while. It’s too late to take cameras out of the briefing room, but in the future the press corps might want to better consider what kind of questions they get from individual members in that front row and reserve it for reporters who actually report than divas who feel entitled to their moment in the spotlight — and in getting it, allow the President and his representatives to avoid the actual tough questions.