By Penny Starr and Fred Lucas | CNSNews.com | Jul. 1, 2009
(CNSNews.com) - Following a testy exchange during Wednesday’s briefing with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas told CNSNews.com that not even Richard Nixon tried to control the press the way President Obama is trying to control the press.
“Nixon didn’t try to do that,” Thomas said. “They couldn’t control (the media). They didn’t try.
“What the hell do they think we are, puppets?” Thomas said. “They’re supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them.”
Thomas said she was especially concerned about the arrangement between the Obama Administration and a writer from the liberal Huffington Post Web site. The writer was invited by the White House to President Obama’s press conference last week on the understanding that he would ask Obama a question about Iran from among questions that had been sent to him by people in Iran.
“When you call the reporter the night before you know damn well what they are going to ask to control you,” Thomas said.
“I’m not saying there has never been managed news before, but this is carried to fare-thee-well--for the town halls, for the press conferences,” she said. “It’s blatant. They don’t give a damn if you know it or not. They ought to be hanging their heads in shame.”
During today’s briefing, Thomas interrupted a back-and-forth between Gibbs and Chip Reid, the White House correspondent for CBS News, when Reid was questioning Gibbs about who was going to decide what questions would be asked of President Obama in a townhall meeting that was scheduled to take place in Annandale, Va., today.
Gibbs then had an exchange involving Reid and Thomas that went as follows:
Gibbs: “… But, again, let's--How about we do this? I promise we will interrupt the AP's tradition of asking the first question. I will let you [Chip Reid] ask me a question tomorrow as to whether you thought the questions at the town hall meeting that the President conducted in Annandale—“
Chip Reid: “I'm perfectly happy to—”
Helen Thomas: “That's not his point. The point is the control--”
Thomas: “We have never had that in the White House. And we have had some, but not-- This White House.”
Gibbs: “Yes, I was going to say, I'll let you amend her question.”
Thomas: “I'm amazed. I'm amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and—”
Gibbs: “Helen, you haven't even heard the questions.”
Reid: “It doesn't matter. It's the process.”
Thomas: “You have left open—”
Reid: “Even if there's a tough question, it's a question coming from somebody who was invited or was screened, or the question was screened.”
Thomas: “It's shocking. It's really shocking.”
Gibbs: “Chip, let's have this discussion at the conclusion of the town hall meeting. How about that?”
Gibbs: “I think—“
Thomas: “No, no, no, we're having it now--”
Gibbs: “Well, I'd be happy to have it now.”
Thomas: “It's a pattern.”
Gibbs: “Which question did you object to at the town hall meeting, Helen?”
Thomas: “It's a pattern. It isn't the question—”
Gibbs: “What's a pattern?”
Thomas: “It's a pattern of controlling the press.”
Gibbs: “How so? Is there any evidence currently going on that I'm controlling the press--poorly, I might add.”
Thomas: “Your formal engagements are pre-packaged.”
Gibbs: “How so?”
Reid: “Well, and controlling the public—”
Thomas: “How so? By calling reporters the night before to tell them they're going to be called on. That is shocking.”
Gibbs: “We had this discussion ad nauseam and—”
Thomas: “Of course you would, because you don't have any answers.”
Gibbs: “Well, because I didn't know you were going to ask a question, Helen.
Thomas: “Well, you should have.”
Reporter: Thank you for your support.
Gibbs: “That's good. Have you e-mailed your question today?”
Thomas: “I don't have to e-mail it. I can tell you right now what I want to ask.”
Gibbs: “I don't doubt that at all, Helen. I don't doubt that at all.”
Thomas, 89, has covered the White House during every presidency since John F. Kennedy’s.