O'Reilly, others smear veteran journalist Helen Thomas over exchange with Bush

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

After the contentious exchange between Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas and President Bush during Bush's March 21 press conference, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and several other conservative commentators rushed to attack Thomas. O'Reilly accused her of "hat[ing] Bush and try[ing] to undermine everything he does," and even suggesting that if he were Bush, he "would have laid her out." Several other conservative media figures -- including Jonah Goldberg, Fred Barnes, Glenn Beck, and Tucker Carlson -- have followed suit, sometimes with highly personal attacks.

After the contentious exchange between Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas, a veteran White House reporter, and President Bush during Bush's March 21 press conference, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and several other conservative commentators rushed to attack Thomas for asking Bush, since "[e]very reason given, publicly at least," to justify invading Iraq, "has turned out not to be true ... why did you really want to go to war?" In the days following the press conference, O'Reilly has repeatedly attacked Thomas for the question on both his nationally syndicated radio program and his Fox News television program, calling Thomas's question "absurd" and "out of bounds," accusing Thomas of "hat[ing] Bush and try[ing] to undermine everything he does," and even suggesting that if he were Bush, he "would have laid her out." Several other conservative media figures -- including Jonah Goldberg, Fred Barnes, Glenn Beck, and Tucker Carlson -- have followed suit, sometimes with highly personal attacks.

Thomas sparked the contentious exchange with the president by asking Bush, "[W]hy did you really want to go to war?" From the White House transcript of the March 21 press conference:

[THOMAS]: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, 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? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your cabinet -- your cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

BUSH: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

[THOMAS]: Everything --

BUSH: Hold on for a second, please.

[THOMAS]: -- everything I've heard --

BUSH: Excuse me, excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second --

[THOMAS]: They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

BUSH: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for Al Qaeda. That's where Al Qaeda trained --

[THOMAS]: I'm talking about Iraq --

BUSH: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for Al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the [United Nations] Security Council; that's why it was important to pass [Resolution] 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

[THOMAS]: -- go to war --

BUSH: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

[OTHER REPORTER]: Thank you, sir. Secretary Rumsfeld -- [laughter]

[THOMAS]: Thank you.

BUSH: You're welcome. [laughter] I didn't really regret it [asking Thomas a question]. I kind of semi-regretted it. [laughter]

As Media Matters for America noted, the press corps failed completely to ask any follow-up questions challenging Bush on his evasive and even false assertions.

On that same day, O'Reilly began defending Bush and attacking Thomas. During the March 21 broadcast of Westwood One's The Radio Factor, O'Reilly stated that if he were Bush, he "would have laid her [Thomas] out" for asking such questions of him. "I would have laid into that woman, and I don't care how old she is," O'Reilly said, "I would have laid her out, saying, 'How dare you?' " On the March 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly called Thomas's question "out of bounds," and on the March 22 Radio Factor, O'Reilly accused Thomas of trying to "undermine everything" Bush does. Additionally, during the same show, O'Reilly asserted that the "essential element" of the exchange between Bush and Thomas was whether Americans would rather have Bush or Thomas "in charge of the war on terror."

Several other conservative commentators have followed suit, attacking Thomas and her questioning of Bush:

  • MSNBC host Don Imus called Thomas's question "disrespectful" and said, "The old bag should shut up and get out. I'm sick of her." [Imus in the Morning, 3/22/06]
  • Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in his March 23 column: "The best moment of political theater at the president's news conference this week came when that thespian carbuncle of bile, Helen Thomas, hung a question mark at the end of a diatribe."
  • Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes claimed that "she didn't really ask any questions" and described the exchange as "sparring." [Fox News' Special Report, 3/21/06]
  • While defending Bush for "being respectful" to Thomas, nationally syndicated radio host Glenn Beck played goat noises to mock Thomas. [Premiere Radio Networks' The Glenn Beck Program, 3/22/06]
  • MSNBC host Tucker Carlson described Thomas as a "reporter turned propagandist," her skills as a journalist "questionable," and her questioning as "bloviating." [MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson, 3/21/06]
  • Republican strategist Karen Hanretty declared that "Helen Thomas is the embodiment of Howard Dean, George Soros, Cindy Sheehan, everything that is vitriolic and assertive." [MSNBC's Scarborough Country, 3/21/2006]
  • On the same program, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough claimed that Thomas "didn't ask a question. She debated" and claimed, "[i]t was like a scene out of [CNN's] Crossfire. I mean, she just kept asking question after question." [MSNBC's Scarborough Country, 3/21/2006]

From the March 21 broadcast of Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:

O'REILLY: All right. So, he's teed off. And he should be. He should be. Look, the big mistake that President Bush has made -- and this is as far as his public perception is concerned -- is that he isn't passionate enough in the defense of his policies. You see? He -- and now it's time for the president, who does not have to run again, who has a Republican party very worried, to step up to the Helen Thomases of the world. You can disagree with me, and I'll respect the disagreement, but don't be going accusing me of getting people killed and being irresponsible and being a liar. Don't you dare do that. Don't you dare do that.

See, if it were me -- I think Bush is very polite. [laughing] I would have laid into that woman, and I don't care how old she is. I would have laid her out. Saying, "How dare you -- how dare you imply that it's my war? That I wanted the war? I'm doing what I feel is best for the American people. They re-elected me. And I'm doing it. And here's why I'm doing it. How dare you?

You know, these personal attacks, ladies and gentlemen -- and believe me, I get them every day, as you know -- are so disgusting, and so revolting, and our country has now degenerated into this -- that it's time for people to get angry about them.

From the March 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: Well, at this point in his administration, the president would be wise to do more of that, to directly confront critics he believes are full of hot air. The president can't become obsessed with that kind of thing as Richard Nixon did, but he can show the public that he feels these people are flat-out wrong. There's no question the media in America is heavily liberal, every study shows that. And with the rise of the Internet, the far left now dominates the liberal agenda, the far left. To these Kool-Aid drinkers, no personal attack is out of bounds, no distortion too dishonest to use. They're all about the end justifying the means, destroying your political enemy if you can.

"Talking Points" believes Americans find that behavior disgusting. And even those who are disenchanted with President Bush want him to answer his critics in an authoritative way. He did that today, and I thought it worked. That's the "Memo."

Now for the top story tonight, a look at today's press conference, joining us from Washington, Fox News analyst Newt Gingrich.

You know, this Helen Thomas has been out of bounds for a long time. And I was happy that -- to see him make it a little bit personal. I think he should have done it a long time ago. What say you?

From the March 21 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country:

SCARBOROUGH: Karen Hanretty. Karen Hanretty, it may be just be a snapshot, but, you know, you go to some of these sites like the Grand Canyon, and you get those cameras that will get you that panoramic picture that you can see all of the Grand Canyon in one shot. Well, if it's just a snapshot, it's a snapshot that goes a long way back. This president has been declining in the polls for months now. I mean, he's going in the wrong direction, and Americans want troops home now. What's the president do?

HANRETTY: Well, look, I think actually what the president did today was very good. The first word that came to my mind after watching the press conference was "solid." And if the American public isn't buying what he's selling, it's because he hasn't been selling it. And I think that if the president goes out there on a regular basis, he's doing those speeches, and that's well and good, but I disagree with the fact that today's press conference doesn't make a difference. I think it can make a difference over the long haul. He's got to continue to go back to the reporters, take on Helen Thomas. Look, Helen Thomas is the embodiment of Howard Dean, George Soros, Cindy Sheehan, everything that is vitriolic and assertive.

From the March 21 edition of MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson:

CARLSON: Thanks and welcome to The Situation. We appreciate you tuning in tonight.

Tonight reporter-turned-propagandist Helen Thomas uses a White House press conference to air her political views. And it's not the first time. We'll bring you Thomas's top five most over-the-top moments in the briefing room.

[...]

CARLSON: Welcome back. Long before we were born, Helen Thomas was a news reporter based at the White House, or so they claim. And at some point, many years ago, she decided to go into the opinion business, and she's been there every since. The most recent outburst came today, when she barked at President Bush during a news conference, but it was only the latest. In tonight's top five list, we give you our favorite Helen Thomas bloviating in the briefing room moments.

Thomas has been hanging around the White House briefing room for more than four decades, starting with the Kennedy administration. Whatever you think of her questionable skills as a journalist, she isn't shy.

From the March 22 broadcast of The Radio Factor:

O'REILLY: No, it's not clear to me. I know I'm not as smart as Helen Thomas, but it looked like Bush didn't do anything the first year he was in office at all. He wasn't saber rattling. Clinton was much more aggressive towards Saddam than Bush was in his first year. But look, Helen Thomas doesn't like him and, you know, thinks that it's illegal for the United States to take pre-emptive action. And Helen Thomas has said that. She believes that international law dictates the United States has no right to ever -- ever under any circumstances -- circumstances, take military action unless attacked. No first strike. We can't do it. No pre-emptive war, according to Helen Thomas.

Now again, I always pose this question. You make the call. You make the call. It's between George Bush and Helen Thomas fighting the war on terror. Should we do a poll question? [laughing]

LISA WIEHL (co-host): [laughing] Hold a --

O'REILLY: Now look, even you people in San Francisco, all right? I'm coming to your house with a little chart and I'm asking you -- just like a Jehovah's Witness would, OK? It's between Bush, who you loathe -- we know that, in San Francisco -- and Helen Thomas, as far as who's in charge of the war on terror. Who do you pick? All right? I love that question, because it just boils it right down to the essential element. So I think Helen Thomas will probably get about maybe 10 percent, and all of them would come from the Bay Area. A little from Cambridge, probably, Massachusetts. And then 90 percent of the people would go [laughing]: "Well, you know -- well, I, you know, [Inaudible] there. And that really says it all.

[...]

O'REILLY: The country's future is, what's the best thing to do now that you're [Bush] in a difficult position? What's best for the country going forward? What is it? Is it best for the country to hate Bush? To undermine everything he does? Is that what's best for the country? Helen Thomas?

See, that's my first question to Helen Thomas, which is why she's never come in, and she runs over to CNN and MSNBC. Ms. Thomas, is it helpful to the country, does it protect the folks, for you to hate Bush and try to undermine everything he does? Is that -- is that helpful? [laughing] You know? There it is. I mean, I'm a simple guy. I break it down in very simple things.

From the March 22 broadcast of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning:

IMUS: I mean, he deserves some respect, he's the president, and it was an insulting way she asked the question.

KELLY O'DONNELL (NBC News White House correspondent): Well, that was no surprise for the president, because, as I'm sure you know, Ms. Thomas, who asks a question of [White House press secretary] Scott McClellan every single day, and the tone of her questions is often much the same as she asked the president. Although, she hasn't asked Mr. Bush a question, she's not been called on in a few years. And, I'm told from folks here, in our press corps, that she was not surprised that he did, in fact, call on her because she recently made an appearance that the president liked at the Gridiron Club, which is an old prestigious Washington club.

[...]

IMUS: The old bag should shut up and get out. I'm sick of her.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.