Helen Thomas: The Good And The Bad : Tell Me More NPR host and former Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Michel Martin says Helen Thomas always had her back.  But she says her recent comments about Israel went too far.
NPR logo Helen Thomas: The Good And The Bad

Helen Thomas: The Good And The Bad

Does it annoy you when a public figure has said something offensive and his or her famous friends come out of the woodwork to tell you why he or she isn't a bad guy or gal, why he or she didn't really mean what he or she said? Why there isn't a racist or sexist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or whatever bone in his or her body?

That gets on my nerves, too.

So I'm not going to do that (not that I'm famous).

Venerable journalist Helen Thomas reads the newspaper while sitting in her chair in the White House press room. Thomas covered the White House for more than 50 years. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

But I do know the subject of our lead story today -- Helen Thomas, the longtime, justifiably legendary White House reporter who famously put her foot in her mouth a few weeks ago and as a consequence retired or resigned on Monday. This was after her comments that the Jewish people should leave Israel and go back to Poland or Germany, made to a White House guest and aired on his website, became public and were widely disseminated.

When I was a White House correspondent I appreciated Helen because she would back you up, even if you were a little baby reporter trying asking a tough question, maybe especially if you were. No disrespect to any of the WH press secretaries, but they all play the same game -- they try to shut you down, ridicule you, ignore you, dismiss you, if you are getting to something they don't want to talk about, especially if you were not one of the big-time network people, which I was not.  If she thought you had a good point, she'd back you up. I appreciated that.

But having said that, because I respect Helen, I am not going to dismiss what she said.

You don't need to be a Holocaust scholar or survivor -- indeed I would argue one need not be Jewish -- to be disgusted by her comments. You do need to know that millions of Jews were tortured, burned alive, experimented upon and otherwise destroyed in a genocidal campaign to rid those two countries of Jewish people.

Why Helen, a reporter who has had a front-row seat to history for all these years, would say that is a mystery to me.

A logical explanation is that she actually believes that.

So now, many questions emerge, some of which we covered in today's conversation.

If she believes that, should she be able to say that?

If she believes that, should she still have a seat in that coveted spot at the White House, even though no other opinion columnists do?

And, should these comments define her career?

I'll answer the last one -- I hope not. But if she truly believes what she said, then her detractors have every right to make those comments a part of the story of her career. Why shouldn't that be part of the total picture? She is a person whose job has been to tell the truth as she sees it. I feel sad that no one told her when it was time to stop talking, but perhaps protecting her legacy was not as important to her as it was continuing to have her say, however offensive. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.