Helen Thomas Retires After Controversial Remark

Guest

David Folkenflik, media correspondent, NPR

Legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas has retired after 50 years of covering U.S. presidents, after controversial remarks she made about Israel. The 90-year-old doyenne of the White House press corps said that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to Germany and Poland.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page.

Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House Press Corps, covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. Today, she abruptly retired.

In recent days, Thomas faced heavy criticism for remarks she made at the end of last month about Israel and Palestine, comments that were caught on video and now are circulating on the Internet.

(Soundbite of Internet video)

Rabbi DAVID F. NESENOFF (Founder, RabbiLIVE.com): Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today, any comments on Israel?

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Former Columnist, Hearst News Service): Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Ooh. Any better comments on Israel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Helen has one.

Ms. THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land. Not German. It's not Poland.

Rabbi NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

Ms. THOMAS: They can go home.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Where is their home?

Ms. THOMAS: Poland...

Rabbi NESENOFF: So the Jews...

Ms. THOMAS: Germany.

Rabbi NESENOFF: You think Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

Ms. THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.

CONAN: Comments that led Helen Thomas to retire today from her job as a columnist for the Hearst News Service. Well talk with NPRs David Folkenflik in a moment about the controversy and her legacy.

We also want to hear from you: Where is the line, and is that line different for journalists and for columnists? We especially want to hear from those in our audience who are journalists and columnists. What do you think; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join our conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey. Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And give us some context to these remarks that Helen Thomas made.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, theyre remarks that occurred in late May at a White House event. It was, of all things, a Jewish heritage celebration day at the White House. Prominent Jews were invited to take part; she was there on the lawn. And this is not only exceptionally incendiary remarks - after all, you know, the vast majority of Jews in Germany and Poland were killed - the Nazi regimes, you know, during the Holocaust. To suggest somehow that they should just go home, thats the home to which they feel affiliated, is deeply offensive for many people, both Jewish and not.

But this is what you would call, absent the import and the pain inflicted by the remarks, this is what youd call an unforced error. She didnt need to say this. You know, I think its important to remember that, you know, Helen Thomas is both 89 years old and therefore, perhaps not as filtered as one might otherwise have been. And at the same time, that shes the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who came to this country with $17, were told, between them...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: ...and that over the years, as she shifted from being a very tough, pugnacious, acerbic wire reporter, somebody who said presidents deserve respect but not awe, and therefore was willing to ask slightly more edged and pointed questions than some of her colleagues, that as she segued from the wire service of the United Press International in 2000 to become an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers, her beliefs became even more open and transparent.

And although she retained a position in the press corps - youd often still hear her among the first people called upon to ask questions of presidents - it was clear that she had deep skepticism of President George W. Bushs invasion of Iraq, for example, in 2003. And some clarity of her position towards - particularly towards the Middle East. Theres no particular reason, for example, to believe that this is that far from her policy beliefs about the Middle East and about Israel - that is, that the Israelis are occupiers, as she does say on that videotape.

CONAN: And that this is Palestine and belongs to Arabs, and the Jews should leave.

FOLKENFLIK: Correct. I mean, thats what she said. That said, I think its worth remembering, take a moment. She said shes retiring from Hearst Newspapers, and it has every sign of being a retirement from journalism in toto. This is somebody who has had extraordinary mark upon political journalism in Washington. I mean, shes covered every White House since John F. Kennedy - five decades. She was not only a tough questioner and an - shall we say, an aerobic reporter, not simply taking handouts, but she also busted up, in many ways, the old boys' club of the circles of Washington at the time: the first female to head the Gridiron Club, the first female to head the White House Correspondents Association.

This may seem a little clubby and insider-y for people who are not inside those Washington worlds, but it sent a signal that women were evolving into full partners of the journalistic circles. And I think that shouldnt be forgotten in what is clearly a painful moment for both Thomas and for those who are quite understandably very critical of her this past week.

CONAN: The remarks that we broadcast just a moment ago were made following a White House news conference on May 27th. Much of that press conference focused on the BP oil leak. Helen Thomas was called upon to ask a question, and this is what she chose to focus on that day.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Former Columnist, Hearst Newspapers): Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bush-ism - if we don't go there, they'll all come here.

CONAN: And that may wind up being her last question in a White House news conference.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. And sort of a quintessential Thomas approach - don't give us a Bush-ism, you know? Not exactly a shrinking lily here asking the question. She's very strong, very pugnacious. And you know, she prided herself on being, in some ways, a counterpoint, and somebody asking questions that were out there but that others might not be willing to do.

It must have been particularly painful for her to be criticized, as she was just today, by the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, from the lectern - you know, where so many people had stood where she had been the one either offering questions or more recently, criticism. And indeed, it must also have pained her that so many journalists came forward, including the board of the White House Correspondents Association just today, which said that, you know, her remarks were insupportable.

One of the things they were doing was considering whether she should be allowed to have that front-row seat - that perch right, you know, within footsteps of presidents and press secretaries - to ask those famous questions. You know, they said, we don't know that that's appropriate anymore. You know, again, for people not steeped in Washington, that may seem a very small thing, but it was stripping, really, of the dignity and of the stature that she had built over so many decades.

CONAN: And do we know at this point whether she was asked to leave by the Hearst News Service, or whether she offered a resignation?

FOLKENFLIK: We don't officially know who said what, but what we do know was that, you know, her own speaking agent had dropped her over the weekend; a prominent Washington, D.C., public high school dropped her as a...

CONAN: Commencement speaker.

FOLKENFLIK: ...you know, commencement speaker. And it was clear that the ground was sort of yielding beneath her, that this was not going to be a supportable position. She'd apologized once or twice saying, you know, she was in favor of a time that she hoped that all parties in the Middle East would realize the need for peace.

But that's very different than making up ground for those who seemingly have injured in so incendiary a rhetorical way.

CONAN: Well, she did say, at one point, she stepped over the line. And she's a columnist; she's somebody paid for her opinion.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it's a little different to have an opinion about whether or not, for example, the time is ripe - or for peace in the Middle East, whether Prime Minster Netanyahu or whether the Hamas movement are partners who are likely to join together, than to tell people to get out - and particularly that, not only were Israeli occupiers - which is a position that some people even inside the state of Israel will articulate from time to time - but that, you know, Israelis should get back to the countries where their, you know, fellow Jews were, you know, the victims of genocide.

It's just not a supportable statement for somebody in the mainstream of modern journalism, even opinion journalism, to hold. And she is not somebody who sort of stakes out a career, like a talk show a.m. host who's - you know, seemingly comes up with a one offensive thing after another just to gather attention. Although she was provocative, it wasn't seemingly for that reason.

CONAN: And you remember - you've been describing her long career - those of us old enough will remember her asking some of the most pointed and persistent questions during - from Watergate to, well, the impeachment of President Clinton.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And Ronald Reagan's, you know, Iran-Contra affair in between. You know, there was always this thing growing up, you know, when you watch presidential press conferences, you'd remember this sign-off phrase: Thank you, Mr. President. It was her way of closing the event. It was her voice that sort of signaled that it was done. And she had sort of a semi-authority role that she was playing there.

It was a nice little gathering together of the threads. It was also the title of a rather admiring documentary aired by HBO just two years ago. She really held that place. And you'd even hear it occasionally in Hollywood films as a way of signaling some verisimilitude.

It was the questions that mattered the most to her. And clearly, this robbed her of the stature and ability to be the one asking the questions. Ari Fleischer, press - former President Bush's press secretary, for a number of years, you know, demanded her ouster. Lanny Davis, an aide to many Democrats, did the same over the weekend. She certainly wasn't going to be in a position where anybody would look to her as the source to be asking reasonable questions.

CONAN: Email from Mary(ph) in Iowa. Oh, Helen, why did you resign? This is America. Why should you resign for giving an opinion? I believe journalists are held to a double standard. Yes, they're supposed to report the news in an unbiased manner, but how can they help from forming opinions about the issues they report? Helen Thomas and all journalists have earned the right to express an opinion. You will be missed, Helen. The awkward end to your career cannot diminish your accomplishments.

Well, I think that last point is right. But there is a line and Helen Thomas, in interviews since she made these remarks, admitted that she stepped over it.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I think that, you know, if she had any hope of continuing, she did. And it's not clear whether this is reflective of the way she talks in private or if this was, you know, just a moment where she unfiltered said something a little more vigorously than she intended to. She did in that video, you know, say they should go back to Germany and Poland - and America and other places. She sort of tacked that on at the end. I think the damage was done.

CONAN: Yes. And the idea that she was someone who never flinched from asking a hard question and that part of this - that part of her, that is certainly going to be the part that's missed.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And you know, there are number of criticisms of the White House Press Corps. There's the notion that somehow, that they are too pliant, that they simply take talking points from political figures, whether inside the White House or their critics. There's the notion that they're preening. They're playing to the TV cameras in a way that they wouldn't have done before cable television carried so many of these press conferences, even with just the press secretaries, live, and that they're looking for their own pronouncements to be more important.

She certainly had some pretty tough preambles. If you remember some of those press conferences with President George W. Bush...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: ...she made it pretty clear that she thought that he was interested in war from the day he entered the White House, well before he expressed his interest to the American people in going to war against Iraq. And at the same time, you didn't get the sense that she was doing it because she thought she was a TV star.

I mean, she was anti-glamour, but she was there for the questioning. She saw that as the forum in which presidents and their administrations were forced to be - held accountable to the American people, a nd that she saw herself as a vessel for doing that.

CONAN: Something of a departure for us on the Opinion Page this week. We're talking about an opinion that has landed Helen Thomas in, apparently, the end of her career. She retired today as a correspondent - as a columnist for the Hearst News Service after controversial remarks about Jews and Israel and Palestine.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guest is David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, with us from New York. And let's go to Lina(ph), Lina with us from Lexington, Massachusetts.

LINA (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Lina. Go ahead, please.

LINA: First of all, I think that Helen Thomas is a human being before being a columnist or before being into whatever job she is doing, so she has the right to say her opinion. And we live in a free country. And you know, she was hired to say her opinions, to be seated in that first seat. And everybody knew that she was controversial, but everybody liked her opinion. Plus, I would like to add a little bit about my opinion. You know, Palestine has been Palestine until 1948, until Israel existed. And it is an occupation. And I really feel that it is unfair that people don't recognize that it is an occupation.

CONAN: Do you think the analogies some drew - including Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary - was, how would you have responded if she had substituted the words: African-Americans should go back to Africa?

LINA: Well, you know what, African-Americans did not occupy the United States of America. They were brought here as slaves. And they - if they would like to go back to Africa, that is their prerogative, but it is not the same - you cannot analyze apples based on oranges. It is not the same situation.

CONAN: All right. Lina, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Here's an email we have from Paula(ph) in Ohio. Has she lost sight of her words or how they might be perceived, from being a powerful journalist for too long? Her remark was really odd, considering she knows her history.

And this is from Lisa(ph) in San Francisco: As an older Jewish woman, I have no problem with what Helen Thomas said about Israel getting out of Palestine. She was correct to say Israel occupies Palestine. Her comments about Jews returning to Poland, Germany and America appear to be a reference to the fact that Israel is a nation created by people who came from elsewhere, and forced its rightful occupants from their homes by force. While I think her words were poorly chosen, her sentiment does not strike me as anti-Semitic, and it's about time someone in the mainstream media raised a voice for Palestine.

Well, a lot of support, in general, for Helen Thomas' opinions. I can't say that's been the broad stream of opinion, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's interesting also, and I think the caller Lina raises an interesting point when she talks about, you know, her having opinions. Obviously, when she's a columnist, her writing is vetted. And it's not that her opinions have to conform to an editorial line by Hearst Newspapers, but at least you're going to have somebody go through it and say, you know, is this a constructive contribution to the public discussion around an issue? This was done by, you know, a guy holding a handheld video camera, posting it online.

In a sense, although it happened - it was posted online last week, several days after the event in late May at the White House, the immediacy of the outcry reminds you what power she had when she was a wire-service reporter. You know, it gets posted online by a guy with a little video camera costing not a lot. And suddenly, you know, outcry and condemnation rings down from all over the country - and all over the profession, I might add. This was something where, you know, free speech in America means that you are not, in any way, enjoined from being able to say what you think. And she did so in a non-official outlet, certainly not through Hearst.

But that said, there are consequences for saying what you say. It's not as though you say something and therefore, you're inoculated from public condemnation. If you are willing to speak in a semi-public way about these things, you know, you have to recognize there can be complications that ensue.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last email in here. This is from Ron(ph) in Tennessee. I was in journalism 23 years. Yes, there's a double standard, but all journalists accept that. You cannot offer even impartial coverage if you're exposing - espousing private opinion. Most journalists I dealt with admit to having their own opinions but worked very hard to keep them in perspective. The situation reminds me of a complaint the Courier-Journal ombudsman received once about a reporter admitting to a particular side in a school board fight. The ombudsman repeatedly - allegedly told the caller, she should not have asked him that question, and she should not have given that answer.

So there - somebody in the profession weighing in on the case of Helen Thomas. If you're just joining us, the longtime White House correspondent for the United Press International, most recently a columnist for Hearst, retired today, announced her retirement, after a controversy erupted after she made controversial remarks in a handheld video comment taped at the White House May 27th that's now circulating on the Internet.

David Folkenflik, thanks very much for your time today.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CONAN: David Folkenflik is NPR's media affairs correspondent, with us today from our bureau in New York. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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