Bil Browning

Helen Thomas: Jews out of Israel & Helen out of a job

Filed By Bil Browning | June 07, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Hearst newspapers, Helen Thomas, Jews in Palestine, occupying force, Palestine, White House press, Zionism

After video surfaced this weekend of Hearst Newspaper's White House correspondent Helen Thomas saying that Jews should stop occupying Palestine, the venerable journalist has announced her retirement. This is a travesty that all LGBT people - whether you support Palestine or Israel in the conflict - should be outraged over.

Helen Thomas has been a staple of White House reporting for decades. She is a journalist in every sense of the word, but she's also more than that. She's a columnist. Some folks think that since she's a columnist who can editorialize, she shouldn't be in the White House press briefing room at all.

This is utter bullshit. Helen is entitled to her own opinions as are all journalists. Her prior reporting is what should be judged - and not a candid YouTube video that ends with the creator's own opinions (of course contrary to Helen's!).

Whatever your thoughts are on the conflict, let's leave those aside for this thread. We're not going to solve any problems and we won't be able to create peace in the Middle East via a blog post on Bilerico Project. Instead, let's focus on how this precedent can affect LGBT journalists who report on our issues.

The Advocate reporter, Kerry Eleveld, has access to the briefing room but also writes a weekly opinion column for the magazine. Should she be banned from covering the White House? Of course not.

When we start putting muzzles on the press - and I'm not talking about government censorship as much as peer pressure to conform to the current popular opinion - we're going down a very slippery slope. Opinion columnists have had just as much of an influence on American politics as journalists. Benjamin Franklin, often touted as the founder of American journalism, wrote more opinion pieces than news reports; in fact he was closer to a blogger than anything else.

While it's always important to get the unvarnished truth, it's also important that those who have access to power be allowed to express their own views on how that power is being used. The right to free speech and a free press are two of the bedrock principles of our country; without them we'd have sunk into the sands of history already.

No matter how popular or unpopular Helen's view might be to a certain segment, censoring her or dunning her into resigning is simply abhorrent. When we start judging journalists based on their ideology or personal opinions, we're going down a dangerous route for LGBT reporters.

Queer issues have never been the most popular. The Democrats and the Republicans often fuck us over and need to be held accountable. While it's possible to do so with "only the facts, ma'am," it's also incredibly important that we hear the views of those with access.

Those of us stuck in flyover country don't have access to the halls of Washington. Washington politics has become especially talented at allowing the "facts" to belie the truth; while the facts may say one thing, we need to know the backstory and the why that's so often left out.

And when we start taking away the ability of journalists and columnists to share their thoughts with the public, we've effectively muzzled our own watchdogs.

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Great piece, Bil, and so refreshing to read. Thanks for making these important points. As someone who writes op-ed columns and does a fair amount of journalism, I couldn't agree with you more.

And, yes, I've always had a soft spot for Thomas, who was often blackballed by the Bush administration for daring to ask the tough questions even as many around her were silent in exchange for access.

I saw this video of her doing this like mock interview on funny or die, she talks about how she supports gay marriage.

Thanks for writing this very nice change of pace.

Interesting to see you make this argument, Bil, since a couple of years ago you were arguing that opinion columnists are not journalists.

That said, I fully agree that Helen Thomas has the right to believe whatever she wants. What she does not have, however, even with her long career in the White House Press Corps, is the right to be in the press room, particularly when she says things that can potentially create political firestorms, directing focus away from the Administration's agenda (which is what the press corp is supposed to be there to cover in the first place) and direct it toward herself.

In short, Helen Thomas proves that no media figure, no matter how revered or how much gravitas their words may have in the media, is untouchable, that every member of that press corps is in that room at the pleasure of the current administration, and that right can and will be taken away when it either no longer serves their interests, or when it's felt that a reporter's presence there might reflect badly on the administration.

By saying what she did publicly, Helen Thomas created a situation where the administration had no choice but to condemn what she said (Gibbs called it "offensive and reprehensible"). My guess is that someone picked up a phone or pulled Thomas aside and told her that it's time for to to retire, right now, before they were forced to embarrass her publicly by pulling her press room credentials.

I don't think it any different, Becky.

Thomas was a noted journalist for decades writing news reports. She recently transitioned to writing an opinion column.

And I still stand by what I said before - there's a difference between writing a just-the-facts-ma'am story and writing an opinion piece. As I said then:

So, you're more of a columnist or commentator, Becky. So am I. It's our opinions about the topic that drives our traffic and viewers; they don't come to us usually for breaking news or hard-hitting investigative pieces.

My pieces are definitely more in the "opinion piece" column than hard-hitting investigative pieces. But - as in Thomas's case - that doesn't mean I'm unable to write a factual strict journalistic article. With her decades of training and experience, to expect less of her is to directly insult her.

Helen Thomas hasn't been a hard news reporter for about a decade, but she kept her seat in the room because of her longevity and her storied career.

Let's not also forget that this is hardly the first time she's done something like this and been punished for it by the administration in power (see my comment to Alex below).

And at the risk of reopening old debates, I still stand by what I said a couple of years ago. Opinion journalism is journalism, it's just not hard news journalism. There's a reason why just about every news organ has editorial and opinion sections.

I may not have the right to comment on this, since I'm Jewish. Maybe I should just "go to Germany or wherever." However, I do find it interesting that the method of defending someone who makes racists statements is of value to a "project" which espouses tolerance. Doesn't sound very tolerant to me.

Of course, I'm just a know one of "those people" you allowed a new guest columnist to trash...showing how you feel about transsexuals...although you backtacked later.

I guess my suggestion is that perhaps you and Helen should go out to lunch together...and see how much hatred the two of you can spew together!

Jewish? Really? I thought Christians had an almost lock on the martyrs.

You're perfectly able to comment. No one wants to muzzle your opinion. Which is why I'm arguing Thomas should have the same right too.

I don't think that she should "retired" we all know that's the political way of putting fired/forced out the door on this. She expressed her opinion not to a media camera and it seems had no expectation that it would wind up becoming a matter of media distribution. Other wise I'm relatively sure she would have shared the same view but with much more finesse and a good dose of background information thrown in with it.
Every one especially some one who has been in the press for so long and has so much potential insight into this has a right to their own views, and should be able to express them and share them with the public. To create a situation where that is frowned on and down right forbidden because it may not be the popular view is definitely dangerous, not only to the LGBT community but also to the quality of news in this country. After all it takes the ability of those inside the press to share the unpopular view at times to help to create that push to make changes.If you look threw history it was that sort of reporting that helped to push many changes in our past, and we should do everything we can to prevent risking losing that.

Thomas was asked her opinion OUTSIDE of the press room.

Be very afraid, fellow Americans, when your employers can legally fire you ("call for your resignation/retirement",) based on your personal opinions, especially when you were specifically ASKED for them.

Heil, Heil, Heil . . .

Helen Thomas has every right to her opinion, and to speak her opinion. But in this case, her opinion was not just anti-Israeli oppression. It was strongly anti-Zionist and, sorry, at least borderline antisemitic. Go back home? Does she not know that there have always been Jews in that area of the world, that not all ended up in Europe and later the Americas?

I am definitely not an apologist for Israel. I don't think Jews are any more sacred a group than any other. But I think she crossed a line here. That doesn't mean she should have been "retired." But she was hoist on her own petard.

I hope she is remembered more for her amazing career than for what ended it.

Is it now against the law to be anti-zionist? In my book, that is a good thing.

I think the whole situation is unfortunate, and also a perfect re-direct of our media. All the sudden we are focusing on what Helen Thomas said, instead of the people murdered by Israeli forces on a Turkish ship.

But we are American, and shiny things do distract us.

Unfortunately as Israel becomes more and more populated with Zionists and right-wing Jews, these situation will only increase.

Just a slow-motion train wreck.

being a journalist means you report without bias. clearly, she's done this.

I find her personal politics are ... disturbing at best.

if she said all the queers should be sent to san francisco? what you would be saying?

I sat tonight and talked about this with a friend - his parents fled nazi germany.

it's painful to hear this stuff. if it were about the LGBT community? I think we might be saying something different.

dumbledork | June 7, 2010 10:42 PM

Helen Thomas forced herself out. Even she couldn't defend her own bigoted statement.

Part of the issue I have with her being forced to retirement is that there doesn't seem to be a uniform standard. Journalists and pundits on the TV engage in casual racism, sexism, and homophobia all the time and no one seems to care.

Every now and then one of these people just gets punished and we're like "These people care about anything other than their little bubble?" Oh, wait, no, they don't, they're just pulling a George Rekers and trying to make it seem like they're more PC than they really are.

Becky: I agree that there is plenty of giving and denying access based on the administration's interests, but we should definitely not be supporting a system where journalists can't work "when it's felt that a reporter's presence there might reflect badly on the administration." Their work should often reflect badly on the administration if they're doing their jobs correctly. Too bad they've become lapdogs...

While I agree with you in principle, Alex, it's just not reality. Remember when Thomas called Bush "the worst President in American history" in 2003 and was relegated to the back row for a year?

The fact is that all the reporters in that room are there are the pleasure and the sufferance of whatever Administration is in power at the time. A reporter who causes political problems for an administration as she has going to face repercussions as a result.

That's exactly what we've seen here. The only difference is that the Bush Administration tried to publicly humiliate her by moving her to the back of the room for a year, while the Obama Administration likely doled out its punishment for her "misbehavior" behind closed doors and let her exit gracefully.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 8, 2010 6:02 AM

Firstly, if you want good dependable information about the Middle East go to if you cannot get this news channel on cable. Produced in Qatar, an American ally, but with a Middle Eastern point of view and having studios in Doha, London, Washington DC and reporters on the ground in any spot on the globe. I watch them gladly and find their reporting excellent. Until they arrived in 1992 much of the Arab speaking world got all their news from state controlled sources. It is looking at the United States from their perspective. The Thomas story has already been aired there. It is also the present home of David Frost on television.

As to Helen Thomas, saying "Palestine" would mean the whole of what is the present Israel, West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights. That is unworkable and impossible. It is an absurd suggestion. It was probably an off the cuff remark and one made in anger at the piracy of Israel in international waters. But still, you are either a columnist or a journalist. No one in the public ever knew the private opinions of Murrow, Cronkite, Chancellor or Safire. They sought out and presented information straight and expected American intelligence to interpret and form public opinion.

She is fortunate, she can find another job if she wants one. She has done it before. And I don't want Rush Limbaugh to have White House Press credentials either.

Marc Paige | June 8, 2010 4:45 PM

So sad to see Helen Thomas, who did so much good, reveal herself to be so cruel, insensitive and anti-Semitic. She told Jews to go back to Poland, the graveyard of 3,000,000 Jews from 1941-1945. And where does Helen want the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel who escaped or left Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, etc. to go?? Helen Thomas has free speech, and she used it. Unfortunately for Helen, most thinking people were repulsed by what she had to say.

I'm a little wary wading in here since I haven't read every word, but I do feel strongly about it, so here's my two cents:

There is a certain minimum standard, IMHO, of humanity, decency, what have you, of opinion below which you should not go; diversity included. For instance, if someone believes African-Americans are simply inferior as people to whites, I don't think that opinion should be tolerated, much less represented in a position of prestige just because people are entitled to it. Being a public figure isn't like other jobs that everyone has an equal shot at.

Saying that Jews aren't entitled to be in the Middle East, crosses that line for me. People can argue about the politics of statehood and territory and humanitarian aid. But to argue an entire class of people should not be permitted to live there is discriminatory. Further, given that Thomas specifically cited Poland and Germany as places the Jews should go, is an extra slap in the face, given that the Jews who did come from those places were FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES is especially galling. I won't even go into the issues of the origins of the Jewish people being in Israel before ever getting to Europe.

Finally, given that Thomas's parents were immigrants to this country, it's rich that she's telling others to go back to where they (or more accurately, their forbearers) came from. Using her standard, she would be sent to Lebanon.