Isn’t it time to forgive Helen Thomas?

Really now.

Before her resignation last June, Helen Thomas had covered the White House as a reporter and columnist since 1961. Photo: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

Isn’t it time to forgive Helen Thomas for her hasty comments last June? That’s when she was asked her thoughts about about Israel?

If you know Helen Thomas, you may not believe her comments were an accurate reflection of the woman many believe to be one of our era’s most notable journalists.

Thomas has been recognized with dozens of honorary degrees and journalism awards over the decades.

Important note: Thomas was a columnist, someone paid to express opinion, not a journalist, at the time she made her comments.

"She (Thomas) may be a critic of Israel but never a hater of Jews," writes journalist Danny Schechter.

Nobody makes a better case for Thomas than Danny Schechter, journalist, television producer and independent filmmaker who blogs about media issues.

Last week, Schechter called the vitriol directed at Thomas the “Media hit job of the year.”  (Read Schechter’s long but detailed blog here) Schechter wrote:

“She (Thomas) may be a critic of Israel but never a hater of Jews, a distinction the world recognizes, but that right-wing backers of the Israel lobby (and the media that backs it) refuse to accept in the name of a black/white ‘you are with us or ag’in us” ideological agenda which has no tolerance for critics, differences of opinion or the anger of the dispossessed.”

Helen Thomas asks a question to President Obama during a news conference last year in the East Room of the White House. Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images

I’ve been an admirer of Thomas since spending an evening with her at an East Lansing, Mich. dinner 13 years ago.

Thomas was the featured speaker. I was then a local TV news anchor invited to introduce Thomas to the evening’s audience.

As we discussed and debated news topics around dinner that night,  I was impressed by Thomas’ no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is style.  I suspect many Americans familiar with Thomas’ reporting over the decades felt the same way.

I didn’t agree with all of Thomas’ views that night, but enjoyed the stimulating debate she sparked at our table. She invited discourse and differing perspectives on issues as diverse as politics, the economy, the environment and human rights.

Make no mistake;  Helen Thomas had opinions, but remained open to the opinions of others.

President Gerald Ford talks with reporters, including Helen Thomas, as White House Chief of Staff Richard Cheney looks on, during a 1976 press conference. Photo: Library of Congress

I suspect these qualities made Thomas one of the most widely respected and recognized White House correspondents of the 20th Century.

Thus,  I was dismayed to hear about Thomas’ comments last year after a White House ceremony for American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day.

As she walked out of the White House, Thomas was approached and asked what she thought about Israel by Rabbi David Nesenoff:

Nesenoff: Any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today, any comments on Israel?

Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Nesenoff: Oooh. Any better comments on Israel?

Thomas: Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland.

Nesenoff: So where should they go, what should they do?

Thomas: They go home.

Nesenoff: Where’s the home?

Thomas: Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else

Nesenoff: So you’re saying the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?

Thomas: And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?

A tidal wave of condemnation followed Thomas’ comments including this one from the issued by the Board of the White House Correspondents’ Association:

Helen Thomas’ comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents’ Association board firmly dissociates itself from them. Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat.

There was a press release via Thomas’ employer, the Hearst Corporation:

June 4, 2010- “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.”- Helen Thomas

A few days later, Thomas’ retirement was announced in another Hearst Corp. release:

“Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately. Her decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.”

Helen Thomas reads through a stack of morning newspapers at her desk inside the White House briefing room in 2009. Photo: Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Thomas may wish she phrased her words differently.  I believe she raised fair questions about Israel’s actions (See the United Nations Goldstone Report) that members of the news media should be discussing.

See also: WikiLeaks: Israel said would keep Gaza near collapse

This is not meant to downplay the abhorrent tactics of Hamas in the Gaza conflict, but as Schechter notes in his blog, Thomas’ statements were born of her own personal experiences in the Middle East.

She told me she had been in Israel in 1954 and visited the Palestinian village of Kibia that was invaded by Israel in which local residents were driven out and many killed.  She told me she personally met many Palestinians forced from their homes.  She is not the only one angry about this often hidden legacy, especially because many Israelis justify expelling Palestinians in biblical terms and are supported by Christian Evangelicals in saying so. That’s ironic, isn’t it, because in our media, fanatical fundamentalists are only pictured as Muslims, rarely as Jews.

Her historic memory was clearly triggered although her views are hardly extreme.  She says Israel has a right to exist, and so do Jews “like all people. But not the right to seize others lands.” She says Israel has defied 65 UN resolutions on these issues. She was frustrated when so many Presidents danced around the issues and in her view, “caved” on human rights.

In case you’re wondering,  some of those who voice support for Thomas are Jews.  They note that Thomas’ comments were critical of Israel, the political state, and not of Jews.  Schechter himself notes:

I might add if I considered it necessary, that I grew up in a Jewish family and am proud of that identity, our culture and traditions.  But that was no big thing to Helen who worked alongside Jews all of her life in the media world, many as close friends.

So, what has happened to the friends of Helen Thomas? I count myself as a friend of Ms. Thomas.  I believe in forgiveness. I don’t believe a career of distinguished reporting should be wiped away by Thomas’ inadvertent comments last June, particularly since she was an opinion columnist, not a reporter, at the time she made them.

So, I’m speaking in support of Thomas and accept that some may be critical of my comments.

What do you think? Should Helen Thomas be someone we should be discussing? Isn’t this what free speech is about?

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
This entry was posted in broadcasting, education, Helen Thomas, Israel, newspapers, Politics, Radio, television, The United States, Uncategorized, University of Nebraska and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Isn’t it time to forgive Helen Thomas?

  1. Christine A Jubic says:

    I LOVE Helen Thomas and feel she was unfairly persecuted for her views on Israel;

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