In defense of Helen Thomas

June 7, 2010 · 11 comments

Note: I was editing this post when the news broke that Helen’s retiring. I debated whether to post it at all, because I’m no doubt throwing myself into the lion’s den here (and ironically writing above a post about things that are better left unblogged), but this is something I believe needs to be said.

There’s an uproar over what veteran White House correspondent told a blogger last week: that Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Poland, Germany, or America. (Want to know exactly what she said? Watch for yourself.)

Some members of the White House Correspondents Association are calling for her press pass to be revoked. Other players in Washington want her fired. Her speakers’ bureau dropped her, and the reporter who co-authored a book with her recently said he won’t do another. MediaBistro also has a solid round-up of reaction.

Now I’m having my own little uproar at home: Doesn’t Helen have a right to her opinion?!

I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m saying that as a columnist, she should be allowed to tell us honestly what she thinks.

Pundits say ridiculous things all the time, and we don’t chastise them for it — we give them more air time. Ann Coulter said the widows of 9/11 were self-obsessed and enjoying their husbands’ deaths. Radio talkshow host G. Gordon Liddy offered advice on the best way to kill federal agents. (On the other hand, Bill Maher was fired for giving his not-so-politically-correct opinion.)

Part of the problem here is that the public confuses the role of reporter with the role of pundit slash columnist. This is our own fault. It’s the fault of the media for mixing pundits with journalists on talk shows, in the newspaper and online. We need to do a better job of differentiating who’s paid to report and who’s paid to give their opinion.

Helen was an awesome journalist for decades. An unbiased journalist. But now she’s a columnist. She gets paid to write her opinion for Hearst newspapers. So what’s so wrong with letting us know her opinion?

What’s wrong is that her statement wasn’t politically correct — and it has to do with Israel, which we all know is a touchy subject. Helen expressed her real opinion even though it’s not popular. Once again, I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m also not saying I don’t agree with her, since I’m a reporter and I don’t express my opinion on these issues. (I also don’t believe reporters don’t have opinions. We’re still people. But we work really hard to keep our biases from influences our reporting.)

Speaking of biases, I should tell you that I’m not just writing this about Helen Thomas, the journalist. I’m writing it about Helen Thomas, my friend and mentor. (And yes, I’m fully aware that plenty of people don’t like her.) In my first job out of j-school, Helen sat next to me in the Hearst Washington bureau. Well, on the other side of my cubicle. We became friends, and we stayed that way after I moved to Texas to write for the Houston Chronicle. She goes out of her way to mentor young journalists. Including me.

More than that, I give Helen Thomas some of the credit for where I am today. She was a trailblazer for female journalists, and it was partly due to her persistence that women have a place in the newsroom. (Even though we’re still not paid as much as our male counterparts. But don’t get me started on that.)

Maybe knowing her as a person, knowing that she’s not the evil witch some people make her out to be — would a man who asked hard questions be called a bitch? — helps me give her some leeway here.

Time columnist Joe Klein is one of the few people I’ve seen write sensibly about this whole thing:

It’s not unprecedented for journalists with odious views to have access to the press room. What is unprecedented is for such a journalist to have a front-row center seat. Thomas should no longer have that privilege. The front row should be occupied by working reporters, not columnists.

Fine. Take away her front-row seat. But firing her, revoking her press pass or refusing to work with her? C’mon, people. Let’s think a little harder than that.

UPDATE: Just saw the news that Helen’s retiring. It’s probably time. She’s old (almost 90). But I hate that it happened over this.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Rae June 7, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I’m so glad you wrote this, Alexis. And I completely agree with you. As a columnist, she certainly has a right to her opinion and should be allowed to express that opinion even if it’s not the popular opinion of the moment. I find it sad that she’s having to retire over this. Thanks for writing this! I know you’re probably throwing yourself into the lion’s den, but I certainly appreciate that you put this out there.

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The Florida Blogger June 7, 2010 at 1:45 pm

As a blogger who is an expert on my opinion believes that an Op Ed writer should be able to voice his or her opinion on any topic. The only problem withc what she said is that she tangled with the wrong animal. Little fish, big pond.

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littlehousesouthernprairie June 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

If she’d voiced a very controversial but liberal-leaning viewpoint, she’d be given a pass. I’m not saying what she said was right, but the extreme backlash sure does make the people who complain the everything-but FOX-media is run by liberals look correct.

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jessiecarty June 7, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I know this had to be a bit painful to write but it does make me mad at how easily people confuse opinion with reporting. Come on people, what about basic writing stuff you learned in grade school? I think it is largely because people don’t really know how to FORM an opinion anymore because they just borrow someone else’s. *sigh*

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Scott Braddock June 7, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Unfortunately, commentators who say outrageous things are safe as long as they’re making lots of money for their bosses. Very little is profitable about the newspaper business Thomas was in, but guys like Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, etc. have contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. So, as they offend one group after another, all is forgiven because they’ve beefed up their bottom line.

Alexis is dead-on right about most of this, except one thing: It’s not that the media needs to do a better job of pointing out the difference between reporting and opinion. The problem is that too in media make a concerted effort to confuse people about what’s reporting and what’s opinion.

Fox News calls their evening lineup a series of “news programs,” but look at what they are: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. MSNBC does the same with Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. Those are all talk shows presented as news programs. Does anyone wonder why people don’t know the difference?

It’s amazing that Helen Thomas was put in a position where she was paid to share her opinion, and then everyone freaks out when she does.

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Patricia Stoltey June 8, 2010 at 9:21 am

Helen’s opinion came across as rude and intended to incite controversy. People who voice their opinions these days, whether conservative or liberal, take great risks. I think she used poor judgment and spoke her mind more freely than prudent, but that is also something we feel we should be able to do as we grow older. If she has written a book, however, one can rest assured it will sell more copies because of this controversy.

Good post, Alexis. It must be amazing to have had Helen in your life.

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dogwalker June 9, 2010 at 8:20 am

and she’s a SHE .. how many of the outrageous pundits are women- and she had incurred the wrath of her colleagues for some time ..

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alisha June 14, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for speaking up on this Alexis. I agree with you, and was so surprised to read she had to resign over giving her opinion. I fear that having the wrong opinion on this subject in the US is very dangerous – no wonder people are afraid to say what they think. I’m not a journalist, but I still appreciate freedom of speech and the ability to speak without social censorship. Thanks.

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Andy June 19, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I have been stunned by the absence of any acknowledgment that Helen Thomas expressed a legitimate view frequently discussed in academic circles. While few people suggest Zionists go back to Europe today, it is fair to ask why a Jewish state was carved out of Palestine, not Germany. If impractical, it remains a useful rhetorical flourish. I am also disturbed by how many mainstream commentators have labeled her comments as anti-Semitic, rather than anti-Zionist.

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michael thomas November 2, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Thanks for defending Helen Thomas. Whatever one thinks about her comments on Israelis and Palestinians, she will always be one of the great journalists of her time. No doubt about it.

http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=100453

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Alex June 19, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I have the feeling that future generations will not know independent journalist as I and a few of us in the past were blessed to watch, listen or read.

Independent journalism is dying. Young fame eager journalists and uneducated or well prepare will be in the front row doing a great job for the elite. Asking futile, serving and dumb questions

They wait for this to happen… to Helen, and when they had the chance they were direct to the neck: “Take away her front-row seat. But firing her, revoking her press pass or refusing to work with her?”
Even her last book: Thank you Mr. President… at Amazon days after this prepare attack by the White House and new Obama administration was found in the bargain section.

This what happen when you make independent journalism… They will have you close to the power, but just make a mistake and they will ruined you.

I really get angry when I think of myself of a witness of how our country is treating one of the Great Journalist of our time, and the world, at the end of her career. This was the paid for not being obedient to the elite. Now Helen Thomas will not be remember as a great journalist but as antisemitic… and that’s a very well done campaign of the elite.

Blessings and love,
A.

P.S.: I will pray tonight for Helen.

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