by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 10, 2010
IN DEFENSE OF HELEN THOMAS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the bad old days, old women were often labeled as witches.
These were the kind of women - also often condemned as hags, crones or harpies - who were of no use to the men of the ruling classes. In a world of primogeniture, they lacked money, land and power. They were no longer sexually attractive or occupied with raising children. They had lived long enough to recognize the liars and hypocrites of their society and had nothing to lose by naming them.
Afraid of the power and wisdom of these old women, men burned them at the stake. Or drowned them.
But there was no flame or rope for the great journalist Helen Thomas, 89, just the obligatory public shaming that is so much a part of modern public life when someone does something that is deemed offensive.
Thomas, who spoke truth to power in White House press conferences, news stories and columns for more than 50 years, did not grow old gracefully. Instead, she abruptly resigned her job as a columnist for the Hearst newspapers on Monday amid controversy over remarks she recently made about Israel.
On May 27, a right-wing rabbi, David Nesenoff, stuck a video camera in Thomas' face during a Jewish heritage celebration at the White House and asked her for any comments on Israel.
Thomas said, "Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland."
She was then asked where they should go and she answered, "They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America."
In her defense, she said this just days after Israeli forces attacked a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza and killed at least nine activists in international waters. Thomas has never been afraid to question U.S. policy toward Israel, and had recently asked the current White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, why the Obama Administration had not condemned the Israeli attack.
She later apologized for her comments. It didn't matter. The people who long hated Thomas for her refusal to play nice found their opening to destroy her, once and for all. They turned one unguarded moment into a witch hunt.
Thomas may have hung on too long. But as one of her longtime competitors, Sam Donaldson, who retired from ABC News last year at age 76, told The Washington Post this week, "Her life was her work. She didn't have other interests. The thought that she'd give it up never entered her mind."
She covered 10 presidents and had a reputation for tough and aggressive questioning. She was at her toughest during George W. Bush's presidency, when she asked the questions about the U.S. invasion of Iraq - questions the rest of the White House press corps were too scared to ask.
That explains why Ari Fleischer, who was Mr. Bush's first press secretary, led the campaign for Thomas' ouster. President Bush publicly snubbed Thomas at his press conferences and refused to take her questions. Fleischer and his successors in the Bush White House treated her with derision rather than deference.
Some of her peers say she should have stepped aside years ago, when she quit United Press International after the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications bought it in 2000; she then became a columnist.
"I censored myself for 50 years," Thomas said in 2002. "Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"
Perhaps the attitude of the current members of the White House press corps can be summed up by these remarks by Julie Mason, White House correspondent of the Washington Examiner, to the political news site Politico.com.
"There was this sense that she alone asked the hard questions, and she alone stood up to them," said Masion. "But she was a columnist sitting in the front row. She had a certain latitude that a straight news reporter didn't. We can't stand up and scream 'Liar!' at the press secretary. But she did all the time. It was uncomfortable for some of us - a lot of us, I would say - because she was always held up as what the rest of us should have been doing, but we're not columnists, we're news reporters."
Wrong, Ms. Mason. As reporters, it is your duty to point out when the president is lying and to press him and his team for the truth. Yes, a columnist has more latitude to inject opinion into his or her reporting. But reporters who act as stenographers to the powerful in the name of "objectivity" are not serving the public interest. That's how we got eight years of George W. Bush.
Today, the White House Correspondents' Association will meet to discuss who gets Thomas' coveted front-row seat in the press room.
I say they should retire it and put a plaque on it to honor a woman whose long and distinguished journalism career has served the public well.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.