The Aftermath of Helen Thomas's Retirement

The senior member of the White House press corps makes a dramatic exit

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On Monday, Hearst Newspapers announced the retirement of Helen Thomas, the oldest member of the White House press corps. The announcement followed a storm of controversy over remarks Thomas made on tape about Israel: she said the Jews needed to "get the hell out of Palestine" and return to European countries. A number of commentators called for her to be fired, or at least for her to lose her special briefing room seat or her White House press credentials. Now that the situation has been resolved with Thomas's retirement, have the calls for punishment subsided? Not quite. Many pundits are still pretty mad, while some are arguing for a sense of perspective regarding Thomas's career.

  • Why Was It So Bad? I'll Tell You Why  The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg responds to readers' questions. 
Helen Thomas's argument, if you can call it an argument, centers on the pernicious belief that Jews are strangers in a place called "Palestine." Palestine, of course, is the name that was given by the Romans to the Land of Israel precisely in order to sever the connection between the Jews and their homeland. Helen Thomas, and people like her, are thus soldiers in a (Roman-inspired) war against history. This particular war is not as offensive to most people as the war against the memory of the Shoah, but it is rooted in the same grotesque motivation: To deny to Jews the truth of their own history.  
  • Another Reason  "Many Jews did attempt to 'go home' to Poland" after World War II, The Washington Post's Roger Cohen points out. "This resulted in the murder of about 1,500 of them--killed not by Nazis but by Poles, either out of sheer ethnic hatred or fear they would lose their (stolen) homes." This was precisely the kind of thing that "played an outsize role in the establishment of the state of Israel ... Something had to be done for the Jews of Europe. They were still being murdered."
  • 'Her Life Is Very Defensible,' Politics Daily's Carl Cannon quotes presidential scholar Martha Joyne Kumar as saying. They both find her remarks on Israel inexcusable, but Cannon works hard to put them in the context of a life of groundbreaking work. Her bias regarding Israel was "no secret," he says, and he "found [it] ... disconcerting" while on the White House beat himself, but Thomas "had earned a place in White House history, and in our hearts. ... [S]he knocked down doors, literally, in a profession where that talent is respected and rewarded. She was the first female member and first president of the National Press Club, which was all-white until 1955, and all-male until 1971." He lists her other accomplishments.
  • But This Is 'the Way These Episodes Should End'  Portfolio's Kent Hoover is glad Hearst and the speaking agency (and Thomas) took care of the matter privately: "She had become bad for business." But "it would have set a horrible precedent for the White House to yank a columnist's press credentials for something she had said.
  • She Asked the Hard Questions, recalls The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who recounts some of her "questioning--heckling, really--of press secretary Robert Gibbs: 'What's the difference between your foreign policy and Bush's? . . . Why don't you know your position on Glass-Steagall? . . . What are you hiding? . . . Yes or no?'" She was even harder on Bush, he notes.
  • But Journalism Isn't Always About Asking Hard Questions  Rather, it's "to get the necessary answers," writes McClatchy's Mike Doyle. "Questions are a matter of process, and it's the story, not the process, that really matters. When questions count more than answers, then the focus has been misaligned." Adds Northeastern professor Dan Kennedy in the Guardian, somewhat more pointedly: "In recent years, Thomas's main role, as far as anyone could tell, was to take advantage of her position as the senior White House correspondent in order to engage in a kind of performance art ... she could ask impertinent questions that really had no answer, delighting many liberals, especially during the era of George W Bush."
  • Worried About a Double Standard  Attaturk of the liberal Firedoglake community wonders why Thomas has been removed from media, while Pat Buchanan, who has said "that Hitler has been poorly served by historians," is still doing fine. At The Huffington Post, Richard Greener names a dozen or so other media men who have made hateful, inappropriate remarks and remain unmuzzled, while Kathy Kattenburg at The Moderate Voice likewise argues that "there are all sorts of lessons here about who gets the Helen Thomas treatment and who doesn't."
  • The Real Question Is This: Who Gets Her Seat?  The Daily Beast's Richard Wolffe writes of "the fight over her coveted front-row center seat in the White House briefing room." He thinks Fox has a decent chance of having its correspondent take over, but notes that "the final decision is not expected until mid-July, when the new WHCA board takes over."
  • The Real Question Is the Israeli Flotilla, Actually, argues an irate John McQuaid at True/Slant. "I'm not going to defend Thomas--what she said was deeply offensive. But in the overall scheme of things, it was a trivial incident, and DC's sudden obsession with it--to the exclusion of a lot of other, more important things--is especially ironic given the parlous state of the Israeli situation."
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