Now that Helen Thomas, the longtime reporter whose remarks that Jews should quit “occupying” Palestine and return home to Poland and Germany, has retired, the unofficial mantle of senior White House correspondent has fallen to a very different sort of journalist.
Thomas, who was previously both a correspondent for media giant United Press International and a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, loomed large in the front-row center seat of the White House Press Room. Dubbed the “dean of the White House press corps,” Thomas publicly declared herself a liberal, telling Fox Business host Stuart Varney she considered herself on the far left “as far as you can go.”
With her retirement, however, the longest-serving member of the press corps is now Connie Lawn, who told WND she’s never pressed for recognition or a front-row seat, despite covering the White House since 1968.
Lawn is the White House correspondent for USA Radio News, a company founded in 1985 by Christian talk radio host Marlin Maddoux. The company merged with Information Radio Network in 2008, and IRN USA Radio News, according to Lawn, now has over 3,000 conservative stations across the country.
“If I get an assigned seat, I assume it would be way in the back, and I’m not sure if that’s going to help any,” Lawn told WND, frustrated over how the Press Room has changed over the years to favor powerful, wealthy and politically friendly reporters. “The other option is to stay as I am now – to stand up against the side of the wall and take a seat if it opens up.”
As for Thomas, Lawn quipped that the 89-year-old journalist may not be ready yet to surrender her position as “dean” of the press corps.
“Helen Thomas lost her job with Hearst, and she said she’s retiring,” Lawn told WND, “but there’s always the possibility she’ll get a job with somebody else – maybe Al Jazeera or somebody – with whom she’s more comfortable in terms of sentiments.”
Lawn also pointed out that if Thomas does indeed retire, the second-most tenured journalist in the White House Press Room will be WND correspondent Les Kinsolving.
But rather than mock Kinsolving for his out-of-the-mainstream questions at press briefings, as both Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and other media outlets have done, Lawn expressed appreciation for the seasoned journalist.
“Les is a lot braver than I would ever be,” Lawn told WND. “He likes to ask questions that provoke people or make people laugh. He asks off-the-wall questions, but a lot of them require very serious, very important news answers, and I would never have the nerve to ask the kinds of questions he asks.”
Yet despite Thomas’ retirement and Lawn and Kinsolving’s rise to the honorary top of the press corps, Lawn told WND not to expect news coverage out of the White House to change much.
“I hate to say it, but this really developed in the last two years of the Bush administration, and I’m very sad that the Obama administration has continued it,” Lawn said, “and that’s to call on the biggest, richest news outlets and give them the best seats and unlimited time for questions. Neither Les Kinsolving nor I have ever seen a situation as we have now, where the people in the front two rows can have 15 or 20 questions or more, whereas the rest of us are lucky if we get one or two questions in.
“In past administrations, and I’ve been covering from Lyndon Johnson on down,” she continued, “I was always treated totally equally with the networks, I always got my questions in during the briefings. It was a given that everybody who made the effort and the expense and took the time to go to the briefing would get a question in.”
Speaking on press conferences with the president himself, Lawn said reporters used to have the freedom to ask questions and develop rapport with the White House, but under Obama, “It’s this predetermined list – we don’t know who makes it up – and you know it’s usually the bigger people who are called on. Every once in a while they’ll throw a sop to somebody from a smaller organization, but very, very rarely.”
What of Obama’s campaign promises of a more open, transparent government?
“Not there,” Lawn said. “On a personal basis, Robert Gibbs is a nice person, Helen Thomas is a nice person, but in practice, it’s incredibly demoralizing to go there day after day, and if you’re lucky get called on once per week.”
Lawn told WND the favoritism shown by the White House has become so severe that she’s even seen reporters literally watching movies or sports on their laptops during the press briefings because they know they won’t get called on.
“There’s something really wrong here,” Lawn said. “In all past administrations, we’ve had very good, intimate relationships with the presidents and with the press secretaries. That closeness has been lost.”
Will Lawn be able to address her concerns, now that she’s the “dean” of the press corps?
“I don’t think they’ll ever use the title, ‘Dean of the Press Corps’ again,” Lawn told WND. “I think that was simply reserved for Helen, and it’s not a good idea anyway. So, I’m longest serving now, and Les is second-longest serving, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever get recognition.
“That title, ‘Dean of the Press Corps,’ and all the special favors and treatments that Helen got,” Lawn said, “I think that disappears with Helen.”