Helen Thomas deserved a better end to her long and famous career. But someone who has spent nearly 50 years as a White House journalist should have known better than to offer off-the-cuff incendiary, bigoted remarks about Israel to a rabbi holding a video camera at a White House reception. The fact that she made these remarks so cavalierly supports the claim that her sentiments were no mistake, no hastily-chosen words that she might wish to restate. Her apology did not undo the damage. For a reporter who has spent so many years immersed in political affairs that she might be considered an icon of political history, her statement that the Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Germany or Poland reflects amazing amnesia about history, if not sheer malevolence. Subsequent reports reveal that this was not the first or only time that this storied reporter displayed her bias against Israel.
Helen Thomas’s words downsized her iconic status to mere mortal, one with disgraceful anti-semitic sentiments at that. The fact that Thomas is almost 90 years old is no excuse for her ignorant statement, but at the same time, her great age and previously distinguished career are noteworthy — although we might also suspect that some of her private critics in the White House press corps might have been secretly delighted that her resignation finally came on the heels of the flap. Some of them were just waiting for this relentless woman to trip up, fall over, implode. And so, she did.
I first met Helen Thomas in 1972 when I was a student in Trinity’s “Politics and the Media” course taught by our own legendary Political Science Professor Dr. Betty Duke (she was Betty James back then). That was the first year that Dr. James offered this amazing course, and it was the height of the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s campaign for a second term as president.
“Media” was such a modern term for what then consisted of three network newscasts (CBS, NBC, ABC) and major newspapers, which were very important back then (the Internet did not exist then, imagine! We had to get our news and information in print or on the 6 pm news!). The previous year, 1971, the New York Times had won a major victory for freedom of the press when the Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper could publish the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post’s expose of the Watergate scandal was still a year away, though the “third rate burglary” at the Watergate that triggered Nixon’s downfall had already occurred by the time Dr. James walked into our classroom in the fall of 1972 with the news that a portion of our grade for the course required us Poli-Sci majors to do a “practicum” (today we’d call it an internship) with a news organization during the semester.
So, two classmates and I set out to find a news organization that would allow us to trail some reporters around so that we could see first-hand what “politics and the media” really meant. We decided that we might have the best opportunity to go with one of the wire services — United Press International, or UPI. I can still remember the bemused look on the bureau chief’s face (the late Grant Dillman) when we three Trinity students walked right into his office and said that we wanted to hang out at the bureau and follow some reporters around. He never heard of such a thing. Having college students in the newsroom was a brand new idea back then — we created the first internship at UPI!
And that’s how we met the legendary Helen Thomas who, even then, was a big name — she was a woman reporter in a very male world, a White House correspondent who was feisty and hard-hitting and incisive at a time that needed the press to show more courage. Meeting Helen Thomas in that UPI newsroom back then was a stunning brush with celebrity for our little Trinity contingent, the equivalent of meeting Diane Sawyer today. She was an inspiration, a woman who had really made it in that man’s world, a real journalist — not a bouffant-hairdo pretty face at all, but a sensible-shoes-down-to-earth reporter who was not afraid to ask penetrating questions.
She stood up to the president of the United States and his spokesperson time and again. She was our hero in an era when reporters were peeling away the veils of secrecy and scandal that let to Nixon’s demise. For a few brief moments in time, we aspired to be such a brave woman reporter standing up to corrupt power.
We had a great semester with UPI — we spent days visiting the press locations at the White House, the Pentagon, the Senate press gallery — they let us write copy in the Senate press gallery, banging away on old manual typewriters— and on that fateful election night in November 1972 when Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern, we were allowed to do actual work in the newsroom, tearing sheets from the clattering teletype machines (“the wires”) and carrying them to the reporters who turned the news feeds into real stories.
Years later, I would see Helen Thomas at various events around town, especially at the National Press Club where she was a pillar of the establishment. She never lost her keen interest in encouraging young women to venture into the news field.
Helen probably should have retired years ago, and yet, the fact that she continued to show up every day in the front row in the White House briefing room showed her defiance of age and commitment to journalism. Sadly, that very defiance caught up with her, tarninshing her legacy with ugly anti-semitic remarks and a level of personal bias that is simply incompatible with good journalism.
And yet, even this sad incident cannot eradicate her legacy as one of the real pathbreakers for women journalists. From the flak-vested women reporters on the front lines in Kabul to the coiffed-and-polished two women major anchors of the moment — Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric — to the very successful reporters like Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts to the new media women like blogger Arianna Huffington — all have some debt to pay to Helen Thomas whose direct style and dogged persistence led the way for subsequent generations of women journalists.
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