- TV critic for the Washington Post
- Calls the Patriot Act “a piece of emergency legislation that has had the effect of trampling civil rights into mush”
Tom Shales was born on November 3, 1948, in Elgin, Illinois. At age 18, he worked as a disc jockey, local news reporter, writer, and announcer on radio station WRMN in Elgin. He later served as a producer of Voice Of America broadcasts to the Far East.
Shales attended Elgin Community College before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from American University in Washington, D.C., where he was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Eagle, in 1966-67.
From 1968-71, Shales was the entertainment editor at the Washington Examiner. Next he was hired by The Washington Post, first as a writer for the Style section in 1971, then as chief television critic in July 1977, and then as TV editor in June 1979. The Washington Post Writers Group subsequently syndicated Shales’s column from 1979 until he left the paper on December 31, 2010. Shales spent the last four of those years on contract, after accepting a buyout from the Post in 2006.
While Shales’s own media critiques routinely dripped with disdain for conservatives, he adamantly denied that the mainstream media had a liberal or leftist bias of any kind. In January 2002 he published an editorial lambasting Bernard Goldberg, author of the bestselling book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, as a “no-talent hack” and an “addlepated windbag” who had “picked this moment in time to haul out the old canard about the media being ‘liberal’ and the news being slanted leftward.” Disputing Goldberg’s assertion that media bias had driven viewers away from network news programs, Shaled said that “everyone knows the networks face more and more competition each year from the increased number of cable channels – news and non-news – that lure viewers away.” He also cited what he described as the media’s generally unfriendly treatment of former First Lady Hillary Clinton. “Has there been in modern times a first lady who suffered worse press and worse relations with the press than poor Hill?” asked Shales.
Assessing President George W. Bush’s State Of The Union Address in January 2004, Shales characterized the President as “cocky” and said, “The dividing line between the parties has rarely appeared so graphic. Republicans on one side of the House chamber couldn’t scramble to their feet fast enough to give Bush his obligatory standing ovations. He probably would have gotten one if he’d sneezed.” “The speech was pretty much so-so,” added Shales, “and Bush’s gung-ho delivery – something approaching the forced jollity of a game show host – lacked dignity and certainly lacked graciousness. Bush has never been big on those things anyway.” Shales also described the PATRIOT Act as “a piece of emergency legislation that has had the effect of trampling civil rights into mush,” and he derided Fox News as “a Bush cheering section.”
Shales’s negative assessment of President Bush’s speech was in stark contrast to his glowing review, titled “This One’s a Keeper,” of Barack Obama‘s State of the Union address nine years later. Some excerpts from Shales’s latter piece:
- “On Tuesday night in Washington, Barack Obama essentially renewed his vows with the American people, especially those who voted him back into the White House for a second term, by delivering a forceful and dramatic State of the Union address…. And you could all but hear a chorus of satisfied citizens affirming their choice: ‘Our President — we think we’ll keep him.'”
- “Obama emphasized that every problem can be solved, and in making the point repeatedly he set up a rhetorical rhythm that probably echoed the religious refrains he heard in church as a young man: ‘We can do this,’ and ‘We can get this done,’ and similar sentiments, each repeated as the crowd’s applause, and seemingly its enthusiasm — its passion, even — grew in fervor. Obama’s delivery turned quasi-musical and essentially evangelistic once he got two-thirds into the speech …”
- “One of his most quotable lines … was in part an attempt to subvert what the Republicans were tediously certain to say in their response to the presidential address later in the evening. ‘It is not a bigger government that we need,’ Obama said, ‘but a smarter government.’ He wanted to make that distinction and not have to hear Republicans say, yet again, that he was calling for a bigger, fatter, richer, more intrusive, more obnoxious federal government. But none are so deaf as those who won’t listen. So it was that Senator Marco Rubio [later insisted that] Obama had again endorsed the idea that ‘every problem can be solved by the government.'”
- “It [the speech] didn’t seem a minute too long,… and what better gauge of a speaker’s effectiveness is there than that?”
Shales’s positive feeling for Democrats was likewise evident in his 2009 review of Teddy: In His Own Words, HBO’s 90-minute film about Senator Ted Kennedy. Wrote Shales:
“Teddy is both an intimate portrait and a resonant historical pageant, a march through time that even contains a narrative ‘arc’ — as it’s called in Hollywood filmmaking — for the hero. He goes from being probably the most underestimated of the Kennedy boys to becoming the rowdy avatar of old-style politics and a passionate fighter for such causes as the Equal Rights Amendment and the civil rights struggle. He was also at the forefront of battles to keep Robert Bork from becoming a Supreme Court justice; to limit warmaking in the Persian Gulf; and, in a rousing 2008 tour de force at the American University, to make Barack Obama the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. That last ebullient speech showed Kennedy at his most infectious, relishing the moment and the role. He’s a character as rich and colorful as any of the fictitious politicians dreamed up by novelists for potboilers.”
Further Reading: “Tom Shales Biography” (FilmReference.com, U-46.org); “Tom Shales Confirms He Will Leave Washington Post after 39 Years” (Hollywood Reporter, 10-22-2010); “Tom Shales Still Has a Lot to Say” (JackLimpert.com, 10-12-2015); “Ex-Newsman’s [Bernard Goldberg’s] Case Full of Holes” (by Tom Shales, 1-8-2002); “[Bush’s] State of the Union: Long on Long, Short on Lofty” (by Tom Shales, 1-21-2004); “This One’s a Keeper” (by Tom Shales, 2-12-2013); “Tom Shales Reviews HBO’s Kennedy Biopic ‘Teddy: In His Own Words’” (by Tom Shales, 7-13-2009).