The termination of Helen Thomas’ 62-year long career as a pioneering, no-nonsense newswoman was swift and intriguingly merciless.
The event leading to her termination began when she was sitting on a White House bench under oppressive summer heat. The 89-year old hero of honest journalism and women’s rights, the scourge of dissembling presidents and White House press secretaries, answered a passing visitor’s question about Israel with a snappish comment worded in a way she didn’t mean; she promptly apologized in writing. Recorded without permission on a hand video, the brief exchange, that included a defense of dispossessed Palestinians, went internet viral on Friday, June 7.
By Monday, Helen Thomas was considered finished, even though she embodied a steadfast belief, in the praiseworthy words of Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, “that anybody standing on that podium [in the White House] should be regarded with skepticism.”
Over the weekend, her lecture agent dropped her. Her column syndicator, the Hearst company, pressed her to quit “effective immediately,” and, it was believed that the White House Correspondents Association, of which she was the first female president, was about to take away her coveted front row seat in the White House press room.
Then, Helen Thomas announced her retirement on Monday, June 10. No doubt she’s had her fill of ethnic, sexist and ageist epithets hurled her way over the years – the very decades she was broadly challenging racism, sexism and, more recently, ageism.
Although the behind the scenes story has yet to come out, the evisceration was launched by two pro-Israeli war hawks, Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis. Fleischer was George W. Bush’s press secretary who bridled under Helen Thomas’ questioning regarding the horrors of the Bush-Cheney war crimes and illegal torture. His job was not to answer this uppity woman but to deflect, avoid and cover up for his bosses.
Davis was the designated defender whenever Clinton got into hot water. As journalist Paul Jay pointed out, he is now a Washington lobbyist whose clients include the cruel corporate junta that overthrew the elected president of Honduras. Both men rustled up the baying pack of Thomas-haters during the weekend and filled the unanswered narrative on Fox and other facilitating media.
Then, belatedly, something remarkable occurred. People reacted against this grossly disproportionate punishment. Ellen Ratner, a Fox News contributor, wrote – “I’m Jewish and a supporter of Israel. Let’s face it: we all have said things—or thought things—about ‘other’ groups of people, things that we wouldn’t want to see in print or on video. Anyone who denies it is a liar. Giver her [Helen] a break.”
Apparently, many people agree. In an internet poll by the Washington Post, 92% of respondents said she should not be removed from the White House press room. As an NPR listener, R. Carey, e-mailed: “D.C. would be void of journalists if they all were to quit, get fired or retire after making potentially offensive comments.”
Listen to Michael Freedman, former managing editor for United Press International: “After seven decades of setting standards for quality journalism and demolishing barriers for women in the workplace, Helen Thomas has now shown that most dreaded of vulnerabilities—she is human…. Who among us does not have strong feelings about the endless warfare in the Middle East? Who among us has said something we have come to regret?…. Let’s not destroy Ms. Thomas now.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote: “Thomas was the only accredited White House correspondent with the guts to ask Bush the tough questions that define a free press…. Her remarks were offensive, but considering her journalistic moxie and courage over many decades—a sharp contrast to the despicable deeds committed by so many littering the Washington political scene – isn’t there room for someone who made a mistake, apologized for it and wants to continue speaking truth to power and asking tough questions?”
Last week, in front of the White House, people calling themselves “Jews for Helen Thomas” gathered in a small demonstration. Medea Benajmin—cofounder of Global Exchange, declared that “We are clear what Helen Thomas meant to say, which is that Israel should cease its occupation of Palestine and we agree with that.” While another demonstrator, Zool Zulkowitz, asserted that “by discrediting Helen Thomas, those who believe that Israel can do no wrong shift attention from the public relations debacle of the Gaza Flotilla killings, and intimidate journalists who would ask hard questions about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and American foreign policy.”
Helen Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, is an American of Arab descent. She is understandably alert to the one-sided U.S. military and foreign policy in that region. Her questions reflect concerns about U.S. policy in the Middle East by many Americans, including unmuzzled retired military, diplomatic and intelligence officials.
In 2006 when George W. Bush finally called on her, she started her questioning by saying “Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of Americans and Iraqis. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true.” Or when she challenged President Obama last month, asking “When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse?”
Asking the “why” questions was a Thomas trademark. Many self-censoring journalists avoid controversial “why” questions, thereby allowing evasion, dissembling and just plain B.S. to dominate the White House press room. She rejected words that sugarcoated or camouflaged the grim deeds. She started with the grim deeds to expose the doubletalk and officialdom’s chronic illegalities.
What appalled Thomas most is the way the media rolls over and fails to hold officials accountable. (British reporters believe they are tougher on their Prime Ministers.) This is a subject about which she has written books and articles—not exactly the way to endear herself to those reporters who go AWOL and look the other way, so that they cancontinue to be called upon or to be promoted by their superiors.
The abysmal record of the New York Times and the Washington Post in the months preceding the Iraq invasion filled with Bush-Cheney lies, deception, and cover-ups is a case in point. As usual, she was proven right, not the celebrated reporters and columnists deprecating her work, including the Post’s press critic, Howard Kurtz.
Thomas practiced her profession with a deep regard for the peoples’ right to know. To her, as Aldous Huxley noted long ago, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Lastly, there is the double standard. One off-hand “ill-conceived remark,” as NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard stated, in praising Ms. Thomas, ended a groundbreaking career. While enhanced careers and fat lecture fees are the reward for ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters, and others like columnist Ann Coulter, who regularly urge wars, mayhem and dragnets based on bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs. (See http://www.adc.org/education/educational-resources/ and Jack Shaheen’s book and companion documentary about cultural portrayal of Arab stereotypes, Reel Bad Arabs.)
Ms. Thomas’ desk at the Hearst office remains unattended a week after her eviction. One day she will return to pack up her materials. She can take with her the satisfaction of joining all those in our history who were cashiered ostensibly for a gaffe, but really for being too right, too early, too often.
Her many admirers hope that she continues to write, speak and motivate a generation of young journalists in the spirit of Joseph Pulitzer’s advice to his reporters a century ago—that their job was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.