Veteran critic of White House turns on 'gullible' press pack

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For almost five decades, White House reporter Helen Thomas has been covering America's leaders with a healthy dose of scepticism and an endless string of pointed questions.

Along the way she has ruffled presidential feathers and, since becoming a columnist in 2003, she has made clear her views on some of those incumbents - including George W Bush who she has described as the "worst president in all of American history".

Now, 85-year-old Thomas has focused attention on her fellow reporters, accusing them of failing in their duties in the run-up to the Iraq war. "I ask myself every day why the media have become so complacent, complicit and gullible," she writes in Watchdogs of Democracy?, a book published this week. "It all comes down to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to fear among reporters of being considered 'unpatriotic' or 'unAmerican'."

Thomas, who has covered every president since John F Kennedy, said she believed the press corps had recently recovered some of its spine and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had been asking more searching questions. But she said when it really mattered - when, in her opinion, the media could have perhaps prevented the invasion of Iraq - the press failed to do its public service.

She said: "When this war was obviously coming on, for two years we heard 'Saddam Hussein and 9/11'. Every reporter, rather than challenging it and saying [the 9/11 hijackers] were not Iraqis they were Saudis ... The press rolled over and printed it when they knew we were going to war and it could have been challenged."

She added: "Reporters have a duty to follow the truth wherever it leads them, regardless of politics. But people do worry about their jobs."

Until 2003, Thomas sat at the front of presidential press conferences, though for three years Mr Bush failed to call on her. In March, he asked her for a question and she said: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?"

The President would only say he did not accept the premise of her question.

Critics have long highlighted the failure of much of the media to thoroughly challenge the claims of the US and British governments in the run-up to the invasion. The New York Times has been one of the few to examine its own performance.

In a "mea culpa" it wrote: "We have found a number of instances of coverage that were not as rigorous as they should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims."

Other reporters have highlighted how, in the aftermath of 9/11, the media was less probing, at a time when the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was warning all Americans "need to watch what they say". In 2002, Dan Rather, an anchor with CBS news, said: "Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions."

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