Under Fire, Journalist Helen Thomas Quits
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
At age 89, Helen Thomas is known as the dean of the White House Press Corps. She retired abruptly today as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers after she made incendiary remarks about Israel.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, it appears to be an inglorious end to a trailblazing career.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Helen Thomas actually made the remarks in question in late May, but they were only released last week on a website called rabbilive.com and then posted on YouTube. She was asked at an event on the White House lawn what she thought about Israel.
Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Former Columnist, Hearst Newspapers): Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.
FOLKENFLIK: So, at a Jewish heritage celebration held at the White House, Thomas said Israelis should get the hell out of Palestine. The interviewer holding a handheld camera presses on.
Unidentified Man: So where should they go? What should they do?
Ms. THOMAS: Go home.
Unidentified Man: Where's their home?
Ms. THOMAS: Poland. Germany.
Unidentified Man: So the Jews - do you think Jews should go back to Poland and Germany.
FOLKENFLIK: Thomas apologized several times, but for many people, the suggestion that Israelis head to two countries where the vast majority of their fellow Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust was too painful to ignore. Widespread criticism ensued, most notably this morning from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Those remarks were offensive and reprehensible. I think she should and has apologized.
FOLKENFLIK: It must have been a painful turn for Thomas, the daughter of immigrants who came to the U.S. with just $17 in their pockets, immigrants notably from Lebanon. She was with the United Press newswire, earning her stripes as a scrappy beat reporter and covering presidents since John F. Kennedy. Last summer, President Obama and the White House Press Corps sang to her.
President BARACK OBAMA: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Helen, happy birthday...
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Helen, happy birthday...
FOLKENFLIK: Edwin Chen of Bloomberg News says colleagues lionized her for her tart questioning of authority.
Mr. EDWIN CHEN (Senior White House correspondent, Bloomberg News): She often was prickly. She was in your face, even. She was this she was a bipartisan inflictor of pain.
FOLKENFLIK: Chen is the outgoing president of the White House Correspondents' Association, and he condemned her remarks, but said people should not forget her pivotal role for busting up the old boys' club that ruled Washington political journalism.
She was the first woman to lead such influential groups as the White House Correspondents' Association and the Gridiron Club. Once Thomas left United Press International to write the column for Hearst, her point of view became clearer, not only in her columns, but in her questioning, often televised on cable in which she displayed deep skepticism of President George W. Bush's push for war in Iraq.
This press conference took place in March 2006.
(Soundbite of archived White House press conference)
Ms. THOMAS: Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?
FOLKENFLIK: For years, Thomas had the last word at White House press conferences, which she would end by saying emphatically: Thank you, Mr. President. Now, two months shy of her 90th birthday, she left the briefing room for what appears to be the last time.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.