Watchdog Blog

Myra MacPherson: Helen Thomas and the (So-called) Correspondents at the White House

Posted at 10:21 am, June 11th, 2010
Myra MacPherson Mug

Full disclosure up front. I have been a Helen Thomas friend ever since we stood on a tarmac, interviewing Jackie Kennedy through a crack in the window as The First Lady sat in a limo, waiting for her infant son, John, and three-year-old Caroline, to arrive in a plane and commence life in the White House.

It was a White House that was Helen’s home, too, through 10 presidents. When Helen opened her mouth, media mayhem often ensued as she asked tough questions most toadying White House reporters eschewed. A recent example, as casualties mount in Afghanistan: “Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’”

Her confrontational statement/question style did not show in her straight down-the-middle reporting when she was with the United Press International wire service. I remember her rattling off a piece on the phone with such fast clarity that she was like a piece of machinery, just giving the facts. As a Hearst columnist in recent years, the edginess of her questions came through in her writing, which is a columnist’s prerogative.

But now, the once “dean” of the White House press corps is chopped liver, disowned by colleagues and even dumped by her long time speakers bureau run by Diane Nine. It can safely be said that Helen Thomas made Nine a lot of money and remained steadfastly loyal to her when larger bureaus would have died to have her. The cliché “biting-the-hand-that-feeds-one” comes to mind. (We once spoke jointly and the mob of 700 at a morning book festival came out solely for Helen, not for me or anything I had to say about journalism.)

We all know why Helen is in purgatory. Of Lebanese stock and always strident on the subject of Arab/Israeli relations, Helen responded when a rabbi questioned her on the Middle East at a recent Jewish ceremony at the White House. She told him, on camera, that the Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Asked where they should go, Thomas said back to their homeland of Poland or Germany—or the United States and “anywhere” else.

Thomas apologized for the “indefensible” and insensitive remarks, which they were. But anyone who knows her would understand that she was referring to Germany and Poland as they are today, not during the Holocaust. She is now called a racist and anti-Semite. I suppose it matters not that in 50 years I have never heard her utter anything anti-Semitic and that she adored among her many Jewish friends my two husbands who were Jews.

She also said she was for a two-state solution, the position most Western leaders and those sympathetic to Israel endorse. As Benjamin Netanyahu continues to plan West Bank settlements and condones harsh treatment in the occupied zones, the hopes for peaceful Israeli-Palestinian solutions fade. And one has to wonder what the response would have been if a right wing pro-Israeli columnist of Jewish origin had verbally attacked, for example, all Arab Palestinians as terrorists? Very little is my guess.

The bottom line in all this fracas is that Helen’s comments were the excuse her White House colleagues were waiting for. “Insensitive” is the kindest word to label the comment of Ken Herman, who was on the board of the White House Correspondents Association when the majority sentiment was that Helen should be moved out of her honored seat in the front row because her “questions/statements often were out of line.” Now here comes the really heartless comment. “Nature, we told ourselves, would take care of the problem,” wrote Herman. In other words, Helen, who turns 90 this year, might just conveniently die and save the White House correspondents the fate of having to make a decision. Oh for the ancient Eskimo tradition of finding an iceberg and sending her out to sea.

She was an embarrassing trouble maker with her “out of line” toughness. But she was also a “trailblazer” Oh my. What to do? Move her and look “heartless” or keep her there and look “gutless?” The majority went with “gutless” although Helen herself “voiced no objection to the potential move.” [Ken Herman in the Austin-American Statesman, June 9.]

And just who are these brave stalwarts of the First Amendment? These critics of Helen who seldom ask a tough question? Who are content to be access whores for publishers who want the “insider” front page or TV lead story to parade as an exclusive even when it is a lie as whopping as WMD’s? Or repeat the lies of Cheney, Rove and Bush without question? Or give Obama a pass when he artfully dances around an issue?

A few years back CBS-TV correspondent Bill Plante, another of a tough former breed of journalists, was forced to shout a question when Karl Rove was resigning; President Bush praised Rove’s intelligence, then refused to answer questions. “If he was so smart why did you lose Congress?” shouted Plante, and was lambasted for his “unprofessional act.”

Plante replied “Reporters are not here as guests. We’re here to ask questions. If we were ever to agree to ‘behave’ we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role—and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”

Listen up, all you self righteous little White House correspondents.

20 Responses to “Helen Thomas and the (So-called) Correspondents at the White House”

  1. Dan says:

    “I suppose it matters not that in 50 years I have never heard her utter anything anti-Semitic.” That probably says more about what you consider “anti-Semitic” than it says about Helen Thomas. I have a hard time believing that somebody who says Jews (from anywhere) should “go back home to Poland and Germany” accepts the veracity of reports of anti-Jewish genocide. If, at some level, you deny the Nazi genocide, then you are anti-Semitic to my way of thinking.

  2. Barry Sussman says:

    For a brief time, in 1987, I was a managing editor at United Press International. In the first few days, I looked at reporters’ and editors’ pay and decided that Helen Thomas really should have a raise even though there wasn’t much money to go around. I got her $50 more a week without her asking and without me telling her. When it showed up in a paycheck she came to me, asked if I had given her the raise and then asked me to take it back. She said she didn’t make much from UPI but she gave speeches and was doing okay; it was others at the wire service who really needed the money. Give it to them, she asked. It would have been too complicated for me to take back the raise – but asking me to was a nice gesture.
    –Barry Sussman,
    Editor, Nieman Watchdog

  3. AlwaysAskWHY says:

    I’m absolutely certain that Helen’s unedited comments merely reflect her own, like the world’s, complete and utter frustration at how Israel has become more like their historic oppressors than they are willing to admit. Using BILLIONS in U.S. taxpayers’ money, they have become indifferent and sadistic torturers, murderers, occupiers. We’re all sick of the stories of women and their unborn babies dying at the gates of Israel’s wall, with Israeli soldiers sadistically refusing to let them pass to get to doctors and hospitals who could have saved them. Sick of the walls right through ancient olive orchards, or Israeli tanks destroying them – and tanks driving over and killing unarmed people like Rachel Cory. Sick of Israeli soldiers shooting children who throw rocks at them.

    I’m sure that Helen would, as we all would, be satisfied if Israel would just pick up their crap, leave the settlements to replace the thousands of Palestinian homes and farms they have destroyed, and move back beyond the 1967 borders.

    The whole world is SICK OF ISRAEL. I’m sure Helen was merely expressing her frustration, too.

    Not that anyone cares in our government, in Israel, or other countries in the Middle East, but I think they all need a 12-STEP PROGRAM.

  4. Don Capps says:

    Having never been a “real journalist” — my meager work in this field of endeavor being limited to motor sports, motivated in no small part by the early realization that I could get in for free — nor having much in the way of inclination — or, truthfully, the talent — for such an occupation, the recent drop kicking of Helen Thomas onto the rubbish pile strikes me as a particularly telling symptom of the state of the press, especially those covering, in theory, the White House.

    It would appear to even The Untrained Eye that it seems that whatever Ms. Thomas said in this instance was irrelevant. In the land of The Gutless, to use Ms. MacPherson’s term, someone such as Helen Thomas was an Inconvenience. That the members of the White House Press Corps and others piled on in their condemnations of Ms. Thomas, it seemed to me that it much the same behavior that the Press once upon a time condemned: the lemming-like pack mentality.

    With only a few exceptions, my life was spent in the military, an institution where the Press is rarely viewed as anything but as an adversary, the usual methodology being to fight them every inch of the way or seduce them. The latter works very well, many a member of the Pentagon Press Corps becoming a complicit member of the Military-Industrial Complex. Over the years I have found that very few members of the Press seem to have the gumption to actually ask questions that were challenging or to even know what questions to ask. My impressions of the White House Press Corps are not very favorable ones to begin with, this use of Ms. Thomas as a punching bag only reinforcing an already low view of this group.

    The demise of Helen Thomas is, I would suggest, an event of greater significance than most here or in journalism can — or wish to — grasp at the moment. I would suggest that it its significance is that it prompts this question: The “problem” with Helen Thomas is not what journalism once was, but rather what it has become.

  5. Janet Newcomb says:

    The censorship of blunt but credible remarks from savvy “old timers” like Ms. Thomas is a sad reflection of the neo-nazi type of mind/mouth control we’re seeing more and more of. Given the Freedom of Speech vs. Politically Correct censorship we’re all drowning in, I vote for Freedom of Speech….those radio and tv assholes barf their uniformed opinions daily without criticism — probably because they’re entertainers, not journalists. Helen Thomas is brilliant and this is a travesty. I look forward to her “free speech” output from her early retirement roost.

  6. Mike H says:

    Helen Thomas got nailed for saying what was always on her mind: The Jewish state of Israel is illegitimate and its foes (Hamas, Hezbollah, the PFLP, Syria etcetera) deserve to triumph over the Zionazi entity. I think it was her advanced age that finally let it slip out.

    The funny thing is that while the left loves Thomas for asking the “tough questions” she asks them in such a shrill partisan manner that press secretaries and presidents can easily ignore them due to the outlandish nature of them, “Mr President, when are you going to stop slaughtering Palestinian children and giving their organs to wealthy Jewish cosmopolitans”, and not look unreasonable when they do.

    I shouldn’t expect less from MacPherson though … anyone who can defend the likes of outed spy IF stone can defend any one.

  7. Chaotician says:

    I certainly agree that the so-called press are at best a group of sychophanic fools; the FOX mob are actually declared traitors, roaring liars, and useless human beings! This debasement of their “sacred” duty in our society is to be viewed as the final straw that has broken the experiment know as America; a country striving to be a nation of laws without regard to wealth and position, a nation with a government that was to serve the people, a government that was to act with the consent of the governed! This was the sacred duty of the press! To ALWAYS advocate for the people; to ALWAYS expose the venal craven acts of our members of government; to ALWAYS stand apart from government, from the military, from the corporate bosses; the Press was the peoples advocate shining light onto the darkness of political machinations, the back room deals, the tycoon excesses and abuses! Now they are just one more co-opted group of corporate shills, willing to blather nonsense, even lies, to get their celebrity hat, their access to the pretty people, and their chance to swill at the public trough. It is sickening, scary, and very, very sad!

  8. bill m says:

    If those comments were her last comments as a correspondent, she said what was needed to be said with her predictable, painful bluntness. As someone who has seen first hand the entire episode which only continues to defy logic, Helen Thomas responded the way she responds best to such defiance…with raw emotion. I, for one, am thrilled that she permitted her frustration with the
    Israeli government to show so vividly. More of the same I expect is inevitable. Perhaps history will suggest that her wisest analysis of this dispute was her last.
    If only someone of import, on the other side, would simply state the obvious again…Israel’s going nowhere so live with it. Then Helen could return to her chair and she and that unnamed person of import, on the other side, might have sprinkled a shred of wisdom on the folks who need it.

  9. Monte Montgomery says:

    Nice piece, Myra. I guess it’ll be a while before the dust settles from Helen’s awkward and hasty departure . . . but the question I keep coming back to in the meantime is, who will pick up her torch? In a (rather narrow) way, the partisan and shrill nature of many of her questions wasn’t the point: it was that she was willing to ask them in the first place. We can only hope that someone will come along who’s magnetic enough to pull the increasingly inert press corps out of its tight little orbit, and remind them that their “bended knees” work better if they straighten out once in a while.

  10. Barbara says:

    I’m Helen’s sister. She is just the greatest human being in the world when it comes to everything where truth fights injustice. The pain of Palestinians is right there in our faces, in our lives, but they do not matter to U.S. – Israeli goals. The U.S. couldn’t care less as long as the Israelis manage to pull it all off without too much noise. What would happen if the U. S. spelled out the two state solution as the necessary solution– which it is– and finally got dead serious—Israel could finally join the forces of humanity for others. Why does Israel have to have it all? I read that she believes that Jordan should be annexed — annexed? And all of Syria, and all of Lebanon? How about Iran?

  11. craig corey says:

    Thank you Ms. MacPherson for writing this dignified article, and for helping us all keep this unfortunate situation in check. I hope others in media will learn from your example.

  12. Myra says:

    and thank you Craig

  13. Rob Master says:

    How stunning that this obviously biased, ignorant and personal diatribe supporting Helen Thomas’ anti-semitism is all, and i do mean ALL, that the Nieman Foundation and Harvard University chooses to publish about Thomas’ horrendous and sad views that all Jews in Israel should return to the nations that murdered them. Shame on you, and please think twice about publishing anything this MacPherson jew-hater-enabler writes again, or risk associating Nieman and Harvard with such views. Unless, of course, you agree, then that’s your choice, and says so.

  14. Reardon says:

    If Myra whomever-she-is is such a longtime friend of Helen Thomas, she must of known the woman reviled Jews from day one, and now she and Harvard seek to rehabilitate her with this revisionist crap? Where is the balance on this site that purports to be the Vatican of journalism? Apparently you are saying, along with Helen, Jews deserve to burn again in Germany and Poland. At the very least invite someone to write about why Thomas said was so sickingly wrong! Or explain why this Myra nobody deserves to speak for Harvard on this topic.
    Nieman should take a hard look at WPost’s Howard Kurtz on who Thomas really is..

  15. Reardon says:

    How can the Nieman Foundation allow this biased column to be its only published writing on Helen Thomas’s horrific comments? Your silence beyond this piece implies support for anti-semitism.

  16. Rob Master says:

    Funny how the newspaper once run by Bob Giles, supposed headmaster of Nieman, sees Helen a bit differently: “A noted NYC-based group of Holocaust survivors is blasting the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn for financing a statue of journalist Helen Thomas to be placed in its building, saying it would tarnish its reputation.” — Detroit Free Press..

  17. Barbara says:

    Helen thomas brings more fairness and truth to the Israeli-Palestinian problem than any other writer that most people know. She has lived with the painful life stories of Palestinian survivors, refugees for most of her life, sixty years and more. She could never be anti-semetic. Her love for people, her great sense of humor, her unequalled generosity for all causes and needy persons that she could afford to help at great denial to herself, especially in her early working years. Does she have to be anti-Semetic to give a great big damn for the ravaged, stripped bare, Palestinian children, women men, and elders, all who have never known another land or place? And have no way to be taken seriously for the terribly robbed and murdered people that they are? Why should any Jewish person wishing for security and safety not wish the same for these people who certainly deserve self governance in their very own country.

  18. Rob Master says:

    Oh, and by the way Barbara, you fail to mention in your latest post that you are Helen’s sister:

  19. Rob Master says:

    How in the world can the Nieman Foundation, which presents itself as the Vatican of Journalism, continue to facilitate such revisionism about a woman — Helen Thomas — who continually espoused such hateful speech? It is stunning that Nieman has had nothing to say about this issue other than to present the views of her anti-semitic friends and family.

  20. Rob Master says:

    Hey Barbara, Helen’s sister, learn how to spell “anti-semetic” if you’re such an expert. It’s spelled anti-Semitic. Since you obviously are one, like her, at least spell it correctly.

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.