The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, in a moderately complimentary review, criticized an HBO documentary about veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Shales said “Thank You, Mr. President,” omits 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). In it Shales said “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.”
He noted that one Thomas question prompted the late Tony Snow, then press secretary for President George W. Bush, “to respond, ‘Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.”
Greg Mitchell, editor of the journalism magazine Editor & Publisher, slammed Shales and defended Thomas.
“In suggesting that the Rory Kennedy documentary … performed ‘cosmetic surgery’ on the legendary reporter’s alleged major ‘flaw’ — a rabid anti-Israel bias — Tom Shales … revealed, instead, what the Thomases of the world are up against in the media. To criticize Israel at all in the U.S. media generally provokes this kind of outraged and outrageous response. Of course, in Israel itself, Israelis criticize their own government and policies all the time.”
Mitchell criticized Shales for not providing examples of Thomas’ bias or tirades. One of the more illustrative came from a 1991 press conference by President George H. W. Bush. Thomas was then United Press International’s White House reporter.
The day after Operation Desert Storm allies started bombing Iraq, the president denounced Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks against Israel in a news conference. Thomas, who has portrayed Israeli self-defense as 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?”
President Bush replied: “Against a country that’s innocent and is not involved in it?”
Thomas: “Well …”
Bush: “Israel is not a participant. Israel is not a combatant, and this man has elected to a — to launch a terrorist attack against the population centers in Israel with no military — no military design whatsoever. And that’s why. And it is an outrage and the whole world knows it and the whole world is — most of the countries of the world are speaking out against it. There can be no — no consideration of this in anything other than condemnation.”
Thomas changed the subject, and, ignoring that Iraq was continuing a brutal, four-month occupation of Kuwait, made an editorial comment disguised as a question: “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.”
Another example Shales could have cited came during an intense period of the Palestinian “al-Aqsa intifada,” when hundreds of Israel civilians, Jewish and Arab, and foreign visitors were being murdered by terrorist attacks. At the Apr. 1, 2002 briefing, Thomas 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.”
The 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.”
Among the reasons not to accept Thomas’ description or premise were that in 1993, to begin the Oslo peace process, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat promised Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to end anti-Israeli violence and resolve outstanding differences through negotiations. Further, before the “al-Aqsa intifada” started in 2000, Israeli troops had withdrawn — despite continuing Palestinian terrorism — from West Bank and Gaza Strip territory in which the vast majority of Arabs lived.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
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.”
At the center, which reportedly has hosted speakers reflecting the intolerant Wahhabi school of Islam, she also declared that “… It turns out (can you imagine?) that even Middle Easterners — Arabs — will fight for their own land. They are what we call the insurgents, or terrorists, or even the enemy. They’re the enemy in their own country, trying to defend their own land …. During World War II, those who resisted the Nazi occupation were heralded for their resistance against tyranny. But when Arabs do that, do they get that kind of salute? The Palestinians who resist every day the tyrannical occupation are in the same boat ….”
When the failing UPI was purchased by Rev. Sun Myoung Moon’s News World corporation in 2000, Thomas resigned and became a political columnist for Hearst Newspapers. In a May 19, 2004 commentary criticizing Democratic Party presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry for having voted to authorize use of force against Iraq, Thomas complains that “on the Middle East, Kerry is simply a ‘me too’ echo of Bush when it comes to endorsing Israel’s illegal land grab on the Palestinian-occupied West Bank.”
There is no “illegal land grab.”Israel’s security barrier, designed as a temporary anti-terrorism measure, encompasses less than eight percent of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). And Israelis as well as Arabs have legitimate claims in the territory, as the authors of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 — which deals with the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, including Israeli conquest of the West Bank — acknowledged.
Thomas’ Israel problem with goes deeper than Israeli control of the West Bank. She appears to doubt the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the first place. In a Jan. 22, 2007 interview on the leftist radio program “Democracy Now!” Thomas told host Amy Goodman that “if you were a Palestinian — and they were 85 percent in the majority when the Br itish 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.
“I think that since World War II, it’s that if you took a position against Israel, they were automatically — you would be labeled antisemtic. I am more Semitic than most journalists I know.”
Factually, the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Palestine mandate after World War I in part because the British government, in the Balfour Declaration, already had recognized the Jewish people’s ancient and continuing ties to the land. London quickly suspended Jewish rights to settle in three-quarters of mandatory territory and created the Arab state of Trans-jordan, now Jordan. Palestinian Arabs then generally considered themselves part of greater Syria; there was no country of “Palestine.”
Thomas’ claim to being “Semitic” also was misleading. Despite recent Arab propaganda attempts to hijack the term, as at the 2001 U.N. conference in Durban, antisemitism was coined in 19th century Germany to make hatred of Jews sound more “scientific.” “Semitic,” an 18th century German coinage, referred to a group of related languages, not peoples. A person of Arab heritage, like Thomas, can indeed be antisemitic.
Shales not alone
If Editor & Publisher’s Mitchell erupted over Shales’ mild criticism of HBO’s Thomas portrayal, he might have suffered apoplexy on reading “Documentary Forgets to Ask Hard Questions,” the August 19 Miami Herald review. Television critic Glenn Garvin says 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’ ….”
According to Garvin, HBO’s “fawning” documentary “shamelessly cherry-picks White House briefings to enhance Thomas’ reputation and deprecate the rest of the White House press corps.”
Garvin is not alone in his view of Thomas. Jack Shafer’s look at 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 Question in Press Briefings. Now She Makes Speeches.”
In Shafer’s view, “Thomas never masked her crush on Democrats when she worked as a news writer [and] she comes completely out of the closet in her columns …. As the child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas knows exactly which religious button she’s pushing when she repeatedly condemns Bush’s plans for war on Iraq as a ‘crusade.’”
But, Shafer adds, “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.”
Rather than the journalistic icon presented by HBO and upheld by Editor & Publisher’s Mitchell, Helen Thomas, Shafer contends, “helps make the press corps look like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.’” Especially if “SNL” was obsessively anti-Zionist.
Mitchell claimed that The Post’s criticism “revealed” that “to criticize Israel at all” generally provokes “outraged and outrageous response.” Meanwhile, “Israelis criticize their government … all the time.”
This fails to discriminate intellectually. Most Israeli criticism of Israeli policies does not rest on implications that a Jewish state in part of the ancient Jewish homeland is illegitimate, as does Thomas’. Nor does it begin with false charges of Israeli crimes, as Thomas’ often does.
Mitchell’s allegation that “to criticize Israel at all” in the American press generates “outrageous response” is laughable. Such criticism that is factual generally goes unremarked.
As for erroneous criticism of Israel, venerable conservative columnist Robert Novak — whose commentary has been cut back as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer — has recycled his (for allegedly driving out Christian Arabs, for example) for decades. The honored Diane Rehm’s National Public Radio interview program chronically stacks the deck against Israeli governments and policies. Long-time syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer periodically, if wrongly, decries what she describes as Israeli skullduggery and malevolent influence in the United States. All three are considered journalistic icons. Many media outlets, including The Washington Post, routinely sanitize anti-Israel terrorists as “militants” or even “fighters.” Criticism in such cases is not outrageous but rather warranted by journalism’s own standards.
E & P’s superficial defense of Thomas, its inability or refusal to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel, and its off-hand dismissal of the former undermine its claim to speak authoritatively about the craft.