Helen Thomas, the first woman to work as White House bureau chief for a news service and first female officer of the National Press Club, died on July 20 at age 92. Prominent obituaries in The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today among others minimized to near-invisibility her final quarter century as an anti-Jewish bigot.
An anti-Israel, anti-Jewish “get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Germany and Poland” mini-tirade—caught on video by Rabbi David Nesenoff—led to Hearst Newspapers’ announcement of her “resignation” in June, 2010. Obituary writers routinely noted that Thomas had apologized, stressing her hopes for Palestinian-Israeli peace.
They omitted her Dec. 2, 2010 disavowal of the “apology,” which had not corrected Thomas’ false imputation that Jews were aliens in Palestine—eretz Yisrael. The Detroit News reported that, talking with reporters, she said, “I stand by it. I told the truth” in the “Jews to Germany” declaration. “I paid a price but it’s worth it to speak the truth.”
According to The News, she then “took her remarks further.” In a speech to an Arab American audience Thomas reiterated the antisemitic canard of Jewish control:
“‘We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that,” she said, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is.”
On her death, many, like The Post’s Patricia Sullivan and USA Today’s Owen Ullmann characterized Thomas as firing “sharp” or “hardball” questions at presidents of both parties. But as far back as the first intifada and Operation Desert Storm, she was hectoring President George H. W. Bush about what she called Israel’s occupation of Arab land—in 1948.
Thomas worked for United Press International, once one of America’s leading wire services, for 60 years. Her press eulogies noted that she covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama and along the way broke a number of “glass ceilings” for woman journalists.
Two years before her videotaped outburst to Rabbi Nesenoff, CAMERA had noted what major news outlets preferred to ignore, Thomas’ antisemitism (“Editor & Publisher Defends the Indefensible Helen Thomas,” Aug. 28, 2008).
* During a 1991 press conference, one day after Operation Desert Storm allies started bombing Iraq, President George H. W. Bush denounced Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks against Israel. Thomas, who virtually always labeled Israeli self-defense as anti-Arab aggression, asked:
“Mr. President, two days ago you launched a war, and war is inherently a two-way street. Why should you be surprised or outraged when there is an act of retaliation?” Bush replied: “Against a country that’s innocent and is not involved in it?”
Bush called Saddam Hussein’s attacks against Israeli population centers “an outrage.” Thomas, then still UPI White House reporter, changed the subject. Ignoring that Iraq was continuing a brutal occupation of Kuwait, she said “why is it that any move for—move for peace is considered an end run at the White House these days?” President Bush asks “end run?” and Thomas insists that “yes, that is considered an end run, that people who still want to find a peaceful solution seem to be running into a brick wall.”
* At the Apr. 1, 2002 daily White House press briefing, when hundreds of Israel civilians—Jewish and Arab—and foreign visitors were being murdered during the Palestinian “al-Aqsa intifada,” Thomas, now a Washington columnist for Hearst, asked White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer:
“Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?” Fleischer responds that President George W. Bush supports an Israeli-Palestinian peace process leading to a two-state solution, and the administration’s “focus is on peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Legal and moral distinctions between resistance and terrorism aside, Thomas persisted: “But does he [the president] think they have a legitimate right to fight for their land?” Fleischer: “Helen, I do not accept the description or the premise of your question and the manner that you asked it.”
Thomas, muttering: “Occupation, 35 years.”
* In a 2004 speech to the Al-Hewar Center near Washington, D.C., a few days before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Thomas, then 84, returned to her favorite obsessions: “Good evening, fellow terrorists …. or is it evil ones? I simply say so because I presume that most of you are against the invasion and the occupation of Iraq.”
* In a May 19, 2004 criticism of Democratic Party presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry for having voted to authorize use of force against Iraq, Thomas complains that “on the Middle East, Ke
rry is simply a ‘me too’ echo of Bush when it comes to endorsing Israel’s illegal land grab on the Palestinian-occupied West Bank.”
Never mind that Israel won the West Bank in self-defense during the 1967 Six-Day War, that the land previously had been illegally occupied by Jordan, or that by 2004 Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority had twice rejected Israeli-U.S. proposals for a West Bank and Gaza Strip state in exchange for peace.
* During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, Thomas used a White House press briefing to accuse the Israelis and Americans of having “gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.” The late Tony Snow, formerly a nationally syndicated columnist and then White House press secretary, replied “Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.”
* Thomas’ Israel problem went deeper than Israeli control of the West Bank. In a Jan. 22, 2007 interview on the radio program “Democracy Now!” Thomas told host Amy Goodman “if you were a Palestinian — and they were 85 percent in the majority when the British decided that that could be the Jewish homeland — I mean, what would you think? Americans have to put themselves in other people’s positions. Put yourself an Iraqi. I mean, we invade a country without any cause, because it was there.
“The British have no right to give. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart. They [Great Britain] didn’t own Palestine. They got a mandate through the League of Nations, but they had no right to give it away.”
For Thomas, the reality that the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Palestine mandate in part because London already had pledged, in the Balfour declaration, to assist in the re-establishment of the ancient Jewish national home did not exist.
Those who lamented Thomas’ 2010 resignation and praised her work at her death included Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement), responsible for the murders of hundreds of Israelis and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and other countries.
A few journalists looked at the Helen Thomas icon and saw a clay idol. Jack Shafer’s article about the “grand dame” of the White House press corps for the Mar. 3, 2003 edition of online Slate magazine was headlined “Screw You, Mr. President. Helen Thomas Used to Ask Questions in Press Briefings. Now She Makes Speeches.”
Shafer wrote, “Thomas’ opinion columns are a model of restraint when compared with the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings.” Her “talent for speechifying at news conferences dates to her career as a reporter.”
Miami Herald critic Glenn Garvin likewise had Thomas’ number in a 2008 review of what he called “the fawning HBO documentary,” Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas At The White House (“Documentary Forgets to Ask Hard Questions,” Aug. 18, 2008). Garvin said that in her nearly half-century covering presidents; Thomas “broke no major White House story.”
Though she “is routinely referred to these days as iconic, legendary, and fearless, journalism has little to do with it. She’s celebrated not for her work as a journeyman reporter at a second rate wire service or as a virtually unread political columnist …. Her reputation really derives from scolding, tendentious speeches nominally delivered as ‘questions’ ….”
The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, in a moderately complimentary review of the HBO production, said it omitted Thomas’ “stridency in criticizing Israel and defending its enemies.” The Post headlined his critique, “A Story With a Few Holes; Portrait of Helen Thomas Obscures Flaws” (Post, August 18, 2008). “The film never hints at Thomas’ anti-Israeli rhetoric” or shows that “especially during the current administration, her ‘questions’ at press briefings have been more like tirades.”
After some in the White House press corps excused Thomas following her 2010 “get the hell out of Palestine” meltdown, Lanny J. Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, said “if she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa, what would the White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials—much less a privileged honorary seat?”
The Post’s media critic at the time, Howard Kurtz, wrote a column headlined “Tough love might have saved ‘Aunt Helen’” (June 14, 2010). “There she goes again. That was the eye-rolling reaction in the White House pressroom when Helen Thomas would go off on one of her rants about the Middle East. She had been there for so long, was so admired by female journalists, and was such a curmudgeonly character, that she was regarded as everyone’s eccentric aunt.
“… It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was a member in good standing of a tightly knit club that refused to question why a woman whose main job seemed to be to harangue press secretaries and presidents deserved a front-row seat in the briefing room.” But “journalists, especially those who spend a great deal of time together, don’t usually turn on each other. If Thomas was spewing bias and bile, the reasoning went, what was the harm?”
The harm, from the late ’80s on, was that news media tolerance and even adulation of Helen Thomas as a journalistic exemplar undermined the credibility of journalism in general.