Helen Thomas: Thrown to the Wolves
In 1960, I was fixated on emulating the courageous media personalities of the times, from Edward R. Murrow to a distinctive figure I came to admire at presidential press conferences – a wire service reporter named Helen Thomas.
In recent years, my faith in the power of dialogue in politics has been severely tested – as, no doubt has hers – in an age where diatribes and deliberate demonization chills debate and exchanges of opposing views.
Once you are labeled and stereotyped – especially if you are denounced as an anti-Semite – you are relegated to the fringes, pronounced a hater beyond redemption, and even beyond explanation.
As the legendary Helen Thomas soon found out.
The rise of a legend
As a member in good standing of an activist generation, I saw myself more as an outsider in contrast to Helen’s distinctive credentials as an insider, as a White House bureau chief and later as the dean of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Yet, beneath her establishment credentials and status, she was always an outsider too – one of nine children born to a family of Lebanese immigrants in Winchester Kentucky, who despite their Middle East origins were Christians in the Greek Orthodox Church.
She became a woman who broke the glass ceiling in the clubby, mostly male, inside-the-beltway world of big egos and self-important media prima donnas.
Her origins were more modest. She grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Detroit.
Helen received her bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 1942, the year I was born. Earlier this year, her alma mater, of which she had taken so much pride in her achievements, canceled the award in her name.
A fall from grace
The withdrawal of her name from the prominent award was a striking gesture of cowardice and submission to an incident blown out of proportion that instantly turned Helen from a ‘she-ro’ to a zero.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center put her on their top ten list of anti-Semites after angry remarks she made about Israel went viral and exploded into a major story.
President Barack Obama who cheerfully brought her a birthday cake, later labeled her remarks as “reprehensible”.
You would think that given all the vicious ad hominems, Godwins and putdowns directed at him, he would be more cautious tossing slurs at others.
But no, all politicians pander to deflect criticism whenever the wind of enmity blows their way.
Now it was Helen who was being compared to Hitler in the latest furor.
Snakes and Foxes
Then suddenly last June, I, like everyone in the world of media, was stunned to witness her public fall from grace, partly self-inflicted, perhaps because of the inelegant language used in response to an ambush interview by provocateur father-son Israeli advocates posing as journalists.
They were following in the footsteps of the vicious comments by Ann Coulter earlier denouncing Thomas as an “old Arab” sitting yards from the President as if she were threatening him. She refused to dignify that smear with a response.
I didn’t know until she told me that she had also been hounded for years by Abe Foxman, a leader of the Anti-Defamation League who demanded she explain 25 questions she asked presidents over the decades.
“I didn’t answer,” she told me, “because I don’t respond to junk mail.”
Bait and switch
Helen always stuck to her guns. She was considered the marquise of journalists that presidents respected. She even went to China with Nixon.
She has, however, always been polite enough to try to answer questions from strangers without always realizing who she was dealing with in a new world of media hit jobs, where “gotcha” YouTube videos thrive on spontaneous embarrassing moments, what we used to call “bloopers.”
She had been baited and fell for it. Unaware of how the video could be used, she vented and then regretted doing so. It was too late. That short media snippet triggered millions of hits.
Helen later apologized for how she said what she did without retracting the essence of her convictions.
But by then, it was too late. Her long career was instantly terminated. The perception became everything; the context nothing.
She tried to be conciliatory, saying, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”
Her remarks were derided and dismissed, with the pundits and papers demanding her head. She had no choice but to resign after her company, agent, co-author and many “friends” started treating her like a pariah.
“You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive,” she says now.
She was forced into retirement and thrown to the wolves in a media culture that relishes stories of personal destruction and misfortune. It’s the old ‘the media builds you up before they tear you down’ routine.
As blogger Jamie Frieze wrote, “I don’t think she should have been forced to resign. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t come with the right to be comfortable. In other words, the fact that you’re uncomfortable doesn’t trump my free speech. Thomas made people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean her speech should be punished.”
But punished she was.
A lesson learned
When I called Helen Thomas to ask if she might be willing to share some of her thoughts on what happened, I found her as eloquent as ever, supportive of Wikileaks, critical of grand jury harassment in the Mid West against Palestinian supporters and angry with President Obama for his many right turns and spineless stands.
She was, she said, on a path outside the White House when a rabbi, David Nesenoff, asked to speak to her, and introduced his two sons whom he said wanted to become journalists (one of whom wasn’t actually his son).
“That happens to me a lot,” she said, “and I told them about my love of journalism and that they should pursue their goals. I was gracious, and told them to go for it.”
Then the subject abruptly changed. “‘What do you think of Israel’ they asked next. It was all very pleasant and I don’t blame them for asking,” she told me. But, then, she added, she didn’t know the people would’ve “shoved a microphone in my face like a jack knife.”
It wasn’t just any rabbi making conversation. Nesenoff is an ardent Israel supporter who runs a website called ‘Rabbi Live’ and can be a flamboyant self-promoter. He says, “Even though I was born in Glen Cove and grew up in Syosset Long Island, Israel is my Jewish homeland. It is the homeland for all Jewish people.”
The sin of silence
She remembered being moved by a rabbi who spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington in 1963. I was there also, and heard him speak too, and so I looked him up.
It was Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress who made a speech that influenced a younger Helen Thomas. He said, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
Helen says her whole career has been about combating the sin of silence. She says she has now been liberated to speak out.
“All I would like is for people to know what I was trying to say, that Palestinians are living under tyranny and that their rights are being violated. All I want is some sympathy for Palestinians,” she says.
Forgotten but not forgiven
Now it’s the holiday season, allegedly a time of peace and forgiveness when presidents issue pardons to convicted criminals and reflection is theoretically permitted, a time when even a State Department hawk like Richard Holbrooke can, on his deathbed, it is said, call for an end to the Afghan war that he had dogmatically supported.
We have watched the rehabilitation of so many politicians over recent years who have stumbled, taken money or disgraced themselves in sex scandals, including senators and even presidents.
Helen Thomas is not in that category.
Yet, many of those “fallen” are back in action, tarnished perhaps, but allowed to recant, to work and then reappear in the media.
But, to this day, there has been almost no compassion, empathy or respect shown for one of our great journalists, Helen Thomas, who has been presumed guilty and sentenced to oblivion with barely a word spoken in her defense.
How can we expect Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile if our media won’t set an example by reconciling with Helen Thomas?
Al Jazeera English