Legendary Journalist Helen Thomas Quits After Israel Gaffe

After more than 50 years in the White House Press Corps, famed journalist Helen Thomas is ending her career. Her abrupt resignation comes after widespread backlash from comments she made about Jews and Israel, saying they should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Richard Prince, author of "Journal-isms," an online publication about diversity, questions Thomas’ decision to step down. And NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard discusses the fine line journalists �" and columnists - walk between offering their opinion and reporting the news.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As part of NPR's network-wide series this week on the new marijuana, we are interested in talking about the jobs in the marijuana industry. Right now that is the medical marijuana industry, but that could expand dramatically if a ballot measure this year permitting recreational cannabis use passes in California. We will talk to the head of the first local union to sign up medical marijuana workers. That's in Oakland and that's a bit later.

But first, a groundbreaking career comes to a sad end. Helen Thomas, the tough-minded reporter for the United Press International turned columnist for Hearst Newspapers, announced her retirement yesterday at the age of 89. Now, you know her as the woman in the front row seat at nearly every presidential news conference dating back to the Kennedy administration.

She was brought down by her own sharp tongue. It stems from a video seen on a website called RabbiLive.com in which she is asked questions about Israel at a White House celebration of Jewish heritage. Here's what she said.

(Soundbite of video)

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

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Reporter): Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Ooh. Any better comments?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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

Ms. THOMAS: They could go home.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Where's their home?

Ms. THOMAS: Poland. Germany.

Rabbi NESENOFF: So the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?

Ms. THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.

MARTIN: Now, this event happened a few weeks ago, but the video emerged only last week. Helen Thomas apologized several times, but yesterday she resigned her position with Hearst. She was dropped from her speaker's bureau and was also removed from the program at a commencement address she was scheduled to deliver at a local high school in the D.C. area.

Now, this was most certainly not the way this trailblazer and her fans would have liked her career to end, certainly. But we felt it was appropriate to talk more about Helen Thomas, her work and exactly what kinds of utterances by commentators are to be tolerated.

With us are Richard Prince, author of "Journal-isms" - that's an online publication about diversity issues in the media. Also with us, Alicia Shepard. She is the ombudsman for NPR. She also teaches media ethics at Georgetown University. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, thank you for having me.

Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (Author, "Journal-isms"): Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Richard, I'm going to start with you, just to give the context of Helen Thomas's career. Certainly she was viewed as a trailblazer. She was a trailblazer during the Kennedy administration. She became the first woman to close a presidential news conference with the traditional: Thank you, Mr. President.

First woman officer of the National Press Club after it opened its doors to women members for the first time in 90 years. She was the first woman officer of the White House Correspondence Association. In its 50 years of existence, the first woman president of the Gridiron Club and all this and so on and so forth like that. But setting those first aside, why was she valued as a journalist, Richard?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, you mentioned earlier her sharp tongue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRINCE: She got to the bottom of it. She had the experience of having dealt with every president since John F. Kennedy. She had a great BS detector, and she was colorful.

MARTIN: Alicia, I don't know if anybody disagrees that her comments were offensive. Have you found anybody to say that her comments were not offensive?

Ms. SHEPARD: I'm sure there were people in Gaza who might...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHEPARD: But, yes, no. I mean, it's just it's a really, really sad end for someone who is a legend, especially for a female journalist. I mean, Helen paved the way in a time which is just probably hard for most people to understand how difficult it would've been to be a female journalist during the Kennedy/Johnson era. I know I was one of the few female correspondents in the late '70s and how and I was so young, it was so tough. I mean, it was all dominated by white men.

MARTIN: Tough how? Give an example.

Ms. SHEPARD: Well, it was tough because, you know, the men were used to running it and they weren't listening to women. And Helen was, as Richard said, not afraid to hold back and not intimidated. I have to tell you, I found it intimidating and she was - never seemed to be intimidated by anything.

MARTIN: Just for the - to clarify the history for those who may not be aware, saying that Jews should go back to Poland or Germany ignores the fact that Jews were forced to flee Poland and Germany.

Ms. SHEPARD: Right.

MARTIN: Most of those who didn't get out were murdered in the Holocaust. So for those who may not know, you know, the history, I mean, it's akin to saying, you know, blacks should go back to Africa or Mexicans should go back to sort of Mexico. And I but the question I have for you is, she was no longer a correspondent. She was a columnist.

And there are those who would say within her she had changed into being an opinion columnist, and on that basis, should she have lost her job for that? Even if the comments are offensive?

Ms. SHEPARD: Yes. Oh, I think that she definitely crossed the line this time because, as you just pointed out, what she said was just so offensive. It didn't work out very well for the Jews in Germany, so why the heck would they go back there? So it's really a matter of degree. Of course, she's been giving her opinion for the last 10 years about, you know, very anti-war, very much challenging the Bush administration on why they went to war, saying they lied, being very upfront, very much a fan many liberals were a big fan of hers.

But this just went way too far. And what I can't emphasize enough - how I feel this is just so sad for someone who had 47 years as a correspondent. So this cannot be the way that she goes out. I mean, in many ways what we're reading and talking about today sounds like she died. And yet you do need to celebrate her life and what she accomplished and give her some slack as being 89 years old.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about that in a minute, but I want to hold that thought for a minute. I'm going to ask Richard Prince a question, because, Richard, you cover diversity issues in the media and you also cover reporters of various ethnic backgrounds.

And one of the things I'm curious about is, do you think there's a way in which her ethnicity played a role in this? She is Lebanese-American. This is not an aspect of her identity that I think has been much discussed in recent years. Mostly we focus on her role as a trailblazing woman reporter. But I just wonder if there's a is there an aspect of it in which her ethnicity plays a role or the subject in which that she discussed plays a role in the outcry?

Mr. PRINCE: Oh, I think it does. And I also think her age plays a role. It's easy to forget that when Helen Thomas was growing up, this was the era in which people were deciding whether there should be in Israel. And there were lots of people who didn't believe that there should be. And they believed that the land belonged to the Palestinians and that the rest of the world was wrong to give Israel this land.

So she probably has felt this way all along, just never said it because she was a correspondent. The world has moved on and now Israel is accepted and recognized as a sovereign state, but that hasn't prevented Helen from still believing that the land belongs to the Palestinians and that the rest of the world was incorrect in, you know, in creating the state of Israel.

So I think that her age, as well as her ethnicity, played a role in her expressing...

MARTIN: You mean her age in a sense that she's using anachronistic terms and viewpoints that her contemporaries have sort of moved on from, like using the term colored, for example, or calling women girls or something of that sort? You think it's no, I mean, obviously it's of a greater degree. I don't want to make the analogy that historically what she said is along those lines, but do you think that's part of it? Is that...

Mr. PRINCE: I think it's part of it. Yeah, that she grew up in an era where this was actually a debatable point, whether there should be a state of Israel. And...

SHEPARD: But, Richard, there are other...

MARTIN: Let me just jump in just to say, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Richard Prince, author of "Journal-isms," an online publication about diversity issues in the media, and Alicia Shepard, the ombudsman for NPR and also a professor of media ethics at Georgetown. We're talking about Helen Thomas, who resigned yesterday after remarks she made about Israel were publicized.

Alicia, you were going to say?

SHEPARD: Well, I was just going to remind Richard that there are quite a number of correspondents who grew up in that era, even NPR's own Dan Schorr. And so I don't you know, when I talk about the age, I think about how old people older people say things that, you know, are shocking because it's really what they think and their filter is gone and they don't feel that they need it anymore.

MARTIN: And I wonder why that hasn't been more discussed. I think that there -obviously seniors, just like younger people, just like teenagers are along the continuum, you know, just people of all age groups function along a continuum. But the fact that she is 89 years old, and is it possible that her social filter, her professional filter that would have caused her to have more discipline has evaporated?

And I do wonder whether that should be considered. Or is that giving her a pass, Alicia, because the fact that she was still functioning professionally in that role at the time she made these remarks? This isn't like something she said in retirement where one could say, well, you've already laid down the marker of you're not longer active professionally. What are you thinking?

SHEPARD: Well, she certainly became a special case. People talk about two sets of rules. There's one set for the White House correspondents and then there's Helen Thomas rules. And I know that, you know, within the journalistic brethren there are a lot of people who think, why was she allowed to continue? She would say things that would make her colleagues cringe.

And so I think that just this was the final blow, where she had just gone a little too far and this was a good way to end it. Because I know she made many of her colleagues uncomfortable by exhibiting her biases. And not just about what was happening the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the war and challenging the presidents on this.

MARTIN: Do you, Richard, are there any other analogies that come to mind here? I mean, she's not saying that she was censored. I mean, she has not spoken since she announced her resignation. She's not spoken publicly since she's announced her resignation. She's not saying that she's censored or anything of that sort. I wonder, do you you know, how will this whole episode be viewed? Do you think it'll just be as a sad coda to a storied career or is there something more to be learned from this, Richard?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, I think there's something more to be learned from it. What got me thinking was that now we're what parameters have we set for acceptable discourse? For example, Michelle Malkin writes a book saying that the internment of Japanese in World War II is perfectly fine, and she gets invited to be on ABC's "This Week" show.

Pat Buchanan says the country is becoming too brown, we need to restore a white majority and papers keep running his column and he gets invited on MSNBC. What's acceptable and what's not acceptable, and this is just an interesting development in that whole continuum.

MARTIN: And, Alicia, final thought on that. That is an interesting point. I was thinking about the Rush Limbaugh example, where he made comments many people consider racist and he was removed from a position as a color commentator at the NFL. And the argument was, well, you have a right to speak, you just don't have a right to speak there. But what about Richard's point that people who have made comments that are offensive to other people still have these high profile media platforms?

SHEPARD: I think that what we're overlooking is the sensitivity of the Arab-Israeli conflict and how passionately people feel about this. And as the ombudsman at NPR, I can tell you that even right now today because of the flotilla incident, I am hearing from people all over the world, country, and they are so angry. They say NPR is National Palestinian Radio, or else they say a mouthpiece for Israel. They're hearing the same stories.

MARTIN: Alicia Shepard is the ombudsman for NPR. She teaches media ethics at Georgetown University. She was kind enough to join us here in our D.C. studio. Also with us, Richard Prince, author of "Journal-isms," an online publication about diversity issues in the media. He was with us from member station WETA in Arlington, Virginia. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. PRINCE: Great, thank you, Michel.

SHEPARD: Thank you.

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