Friday, March 04, 2011

Helen Thomas on deadline: Like age, credibility is fleeting

The Chicago Reader's anniversary features have been getting nostalgic about the days when readers had attention spans. Articles sprawled across many pages of newsprint, in an era that supported many pages of newsprint. So props to Mike Miner for playing it old school and writing at length about the dénouement in the Helen Thomas saga.

Still, I'm intrigued that there's so little light shed on a hot topic, the hazy boundaries between crisp, thank-you-mister-president deadline reporting (Thomas' claim to fame) and political bloviating (her claim to infamy). Thomas' attitude was bracing in Nixon's pressroom but a WTF moment on YouTube. A lifetime of achievements can be like that.

The Society of Professional Journalists has an enlightened view of advocacy journalism: Ethics are defined by responsibility, not partiality. Here it has muffed another chance to delineate the boundary between engaging an audience and pandering to it. Reaching out to its own members on the Helen Thomas Award would have been a start.

Still, it's easy to see why the society would find it hard to deal head-on with one of its icons. Thomas does not present a simple case for debate. Her wire-service reputation was built not on how she could use her tart tongue but how she could keep it in check. Perhaps she has earned the right late in her career to let 'er rip. But trust can be long-earned and still quick to flee. A lifetime can be like that.

In classic Reader style — a long road with an obvious but unstated end — Miner's narrative sets the stage for an intervention that never happened. Helen Thomas is a matriarch whose kids won't take away the car keys. That's a hard truth.