Helen Thomas: Thrown to the Wolves

     At a time of forgiveness, why is Helen Thomas
     still being ostracized?

Danny Schechter
29 Dec 2010

Helen Thomas, who once occupied a front-row seat in the
White House briefing room, has been completely
ostracized due to some inelegantly-put remarks about
Israel captured on film by provocateurs [EPA]
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

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

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

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.

Damage control

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

"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

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

"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

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?

Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He directed
Plunder The Crime of Our Time, a film on DVD about the
financial crisis as a crime story.

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