Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas is being celebrated today as a trailblazer who showed the way for young female reporters and the avatar for tough-minded journalism. Thomas deserves great credit for making her way against the odds in a man’s world before becoming a fixture as the dean of the White House press corps and a leading member of the once-all male Gridiron Club. Doing so required grit, tenacity, and the kind of work ethic that enabled her to beat out many of her colleagues and win her a place among the elites of the Washington press corps. But even the most laudatory discussion of Thomas’s career must mention its end when she was forced to resign from her last post for an anti-Semitic outburst. In order to maintain the story line of Thomas as trailblazer, obituaries like the front-page article in today’s New York Times, and appreciations like the one in the Daily Beast by Eleanor Clift, must treat it as something that does not detract from her significance or an understandable expression of legitimate opinion that showed she didn’t care what others thought.
But an honest assessment of her legacy requires us to do more than make a token acknowledgement of the “get the hell out of Palestine” statement while lionizing her as a symbol of equal rights for women. Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw. It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational. We want reporters to be tough and relentless in the pursuit of good stories and truth. Yet anyone who watched her use her perch in the front row in the White House press room as if it were a platform for political opposition to administrations whose policies she didn’t like must understand that, along with her symbolic importance, we must also give Thomas her share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.
As for Thomas’s line about throwing the Jews out of Palestine, the attempts to soften its impact by her friends still fall flat. The reporter wasn’t talking about Jewish settlers in the West Bank. She was referring to all six million Israeli Jews who, she thought, ought to go back where they supposedly belonged, to Germany and Poland. We are supposed to give her a pass for that because she was either elderly at the time or because she was the child of Lebanese immigrants, who brought their prejudices against Jews with them. Though she subsequently attempted to weasel her way out of the dustup with a statement that expressed her wish for peace, it was clear that she thought such a peace ought to be based on Israel’s eradication. This wasn’t so much, as the Times wrote, an “offhand remark” as it reflected a deep-seated hatred for Israel and its Jewish population that had characterized much of her reporting and writing throughout her career. That her fans are willing to regard this as not germane to the main story about her achievements is to be expected. But let’s ask ourselves how her stature would be affected if her offhand remarks, even in her dotage, had been aimed at African-Americans, rather than Israelis? Rationalizing or minimizing her prejudices for the sake of preserving Thomas’s reputation is intellectually indefensible.
Many people grew to like Thomas specifically because of her unrelenting hostility to the George W. Bush administration and her open opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stances are seen by some as either prescient or praiseworthy these days, but even if you shared her political position, it’s important to understand that her use of her front-row seat in the White House briefing room to promote those positions represented a disturbing breakdown in civility as well as the way the press views itself.
Thomas made no secret of the fact that she felt the mainstream press gave too much leeway to Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But her decision to fight her own war against the war on terror from inside the White House wasn’t quite the responsible position that many of her backers pretend it to be. Thomas’s point wasn’t so much based on skepticism about whether Saddam Hussein really did possess, as every Western intelligence agency thought he did, weapons of mass destruction as it was on the idea that Islamist terrorists and their allies had legitimate grievances against the United States and the West. In her view, American attempts to defend against these threats or Israeli efforts to protect their people against a bloody terrorist offensive were the real problems.
Moreover, as much as the press needs to always be on guard against a tendency to be played by the president (something that has been crystal clear during most of Barack Obama’s presidency, as much of the mainstream media served as his unpaid cheerleaders), Thomas illustrated the pitfalls of the opposite trend. At times, Thomas appeared to be acting as if she thought the role of the press was to be the mouthpiece for Bush’s detractors. In doing so, she undermined her own shaky credibility more than she cut the president down to size.
Journalists should recognize that Thomas helped paved the way for subsequent generations of women in the working press. But we should also understand that the negative lessons of her career are as instructive as the positive ones. Helen Thomas may have been a pathfinder for women, but her prejudices and poor judgment are textbook examples of how journalists should not behave.