Thomas takes on her peers


White House legend Helen Thomas, the longtime United Press International reporter who is now a syndicated columnist for Hearst, takes aim at her colleagues in a new book, saying that when it came to questioning President Bush in the weeks before the Iraq war, they were more lapdogs than watchdogs.

"I ask myself every day why the media have become so complacent, complicit and gullible," Thomas writes in Watchdogs of Democracy? (Scribner, $25), due in bookstores this week. "It all comes down to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to fear among reporters of being considered 'unpatriotic' or 'un-American.' "

In an interview, Thomas didn't back down from her thesis but allowed that the White House press corps "became a little more courageous" in hitting Bush and his spokesmen with tougher questions after Hurricane Katrina. "That was a turning point. They saw with their own eyes the incompetence."

Two veterans of the White House beat — NBC's David Gregory and CNN's John King (himself a former AP reporter) — disagree with Thomas' assessment of how the press corps did during the buildup to the war. But both emphasize the respect they have for Thomas, 85, who has covered every president since Kennedy.

"I just don't buy it, but I say this carefully because Helen is a god in our business, a pioneer," says King, a longtime White House reporter who is now a national correspondent for CNN.

"Were we at fault sometimes and less than perfect? Absolutely. Lapdogs? No."

Gregory, calling from the White House, says that how the media covered the war is a topic that "is going to be chewed on a great deal over time," and it is one that he takes very seriously. Though those on the right criticize him and other reporters for being too hard on Bush at a time of war, those on the left say they're too soft.

"So I get it from both sides, but I don't feel I held back in the least, or left questions unasked," Gregory says. "I just don't agree with the notion that we went easy."

One thing Thomas says all presidents have in common is antagonism toward the media, especially as their terms progress.

"They all hate us. You have to start from that premise. And as time goes on, their position is, 'Who the hell are you? How dare you ask that?' "