'First Lady of the Press' Speaks at San Francisco Benefit
October 17, 2006 3:51 PM
A benefit gala for the 30-year anniversary of Media Alliance, a Bay Area media advocacy and resource center, attracted more than 250 people Oct. 12 for a celebration that included a handful of speakers, although all eyes seemed to be on veteran White House correspondent and star guest Helen Thomas.
Media workers, activists and educators filled the Green Room in Herbst War Memorial Theatre on Van Ness Avenue. Some had been members of Media Alliance since the start, while others were there to support the benefit and get an opportunity to see Thomas, 86, who spoke on topics ranging from covering John F. Kennedy to her opinions on the Bush administration, the Iraq War and the state of media today.
Most famous for the 57 years she has worked as a White House correspondent, Thomas was described at the gala as the “Darling of YouTube,” referring to the younger fan base she recently gained after co-starring with Stephen Colbert in his White House press secretary spoof, available for viewing through the Web site.
“How come only the comedians are telling the truth?” Thomas said of her experience with Colbert, while noting that three pages in the Washington Post are dedicated to cartoons, where political questioning and discussion could have a place.
A spoken-word performance by Oakland-based artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph was met with energetic applause and riled the crowd from the start of the program at 7:30 p.m. During a brief history of Media Alliance’s accomplishments over the last three decades, supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was noted as present and a tip of the hat was given to SF State’s own Raul Ramirez, a seasoned journalist and journalism lecturer.
Nearly an hour later Belva Davis, the first female African-American news anchor on the west coast, took the stage with Thomas for the dialogue the audience was waiting for.
Beginning with questions about working with the Bush administration, Thomas described it as “darkness at noon,” saying the administration was highly secretive and had let the country down. Statements like these prompted hissing from the audience, which seemingly agreed with Thomas’ sentiments.
“What happened to America? Wake up!” Thomas said, later noting that she had never seen the country so life-less. “We gave up our one weapon, which is skepticism,” Thomas said.
Speaking about the quality of media today, Thomas said, “We have really fallen down on the job.”
“I think the press has come out of their coma finally, they could be much better … I don’t understand why they aren’t asking why, just why,” Thomas said of her colleagues.
Continuing the work they’ve done in the past to challenge media conglomerates, like Clear Channel, Media Alliance organized to speak out against media consolidation at last week’s FCC hearing in Los Angeles, and is doing the same for the Northern California FCC hearing in Oakland on Oct. 27.
“The federal government is increasingly using grand juries to circumvent state shield laws and force journalists to divulge their confidential sources. These violations of press freedom have a chilling effect on investigative reporting and our democracy,” the Media Alliance Web site states, with a link to a petition they will send to California senators and representatives.
Delvis asked Thomas about press freedom, and the possibility of a federal shield law, noting the Bay Area’s special interest in it this year, with SF State graduate Josh Wolf behind bars for refusing to hand over material, and two Chronicle reporters possibly doing the same.
“I think it’s getting tougher and tougher,” Thomas said about the ability of today’s reporters to keep sources confidential. “I’d like to see a shield law.”
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