Fellow journalists let Helen Thomas down by not reining her in

That empty feeling: Helen Thomas's retirement left a void in the White House briefing room.
That empty feeling: Helen Thomas's retirement left a void in the White House briefing room. (Chip Somodevilla/getty Images)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

There she goes again.

That was the eye-rolling reaction in the White House pressroom when Helen Thomas would go off on one of her rants about the Middle East. She had been there for so long, was so admired by female journalists, was such a curmudgeonly character, that she was regarded as everyone's eccentric aunt.

But that's not how she was seen by much of the country, which still viewed her as the groundbreaking correspondent she once was, not the cranky columnist she had become. So when Aunt Helen snapped that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" -- and go back to Germany, among other places -- many onlookers were stunned.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that she was a member in good standing of a tightly knit club that refused to question why a woman whose main job seemed to be to harangue press secretaries and presidents deserved a front-row seat in the briefing room. Only the furor that followed a chance encounter with a rabbi armed with a video camera prompted the 89-year-old Thomas to retire last week.

Journalists, especially those who spend a great deal of time together, don't usually turn on each other. If Thomas was spewing bias and bile, the reasoning went, what was the harm?

None of this is to detract from what Thomas accomplished beginning in 1960, when the press corps mainly comprised white men in skinny ties, and women occasionally showed up to write about a first lady's social activities. Thomas was never known for great writing or breaking stories, but she was a dogged daily chronicler for United Press International.

After joining Hearst Newspapers a decade ago, however, Thomas became a marginal figure. Few were reading her column, especially in Washington. Her stature -- the Society of Professional Journalists gave out a Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement -- derived from her earlier career and her choice bit of real estate.

There was something to admire in Thomas's determination to ask uncomfortable questions. But when she declared George W. Bush the "worst president ever" in 2003, she shed any pretense of fair-mindedness. As time went on, her questions turned into speeches, as in this 2007 challenge to Bush over Iraq:

"Mr. President, you started this war. It's a war of your choosing. You can end it, alone. Today. At this point bring in peacekeepers, U.N. peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled the country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don't you understand? We brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq." One might agree or disagree with those sentiments, but she was performing as an activist, not a journalist.

Former CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre wrote last week that "there's a big difference between asking tough questions and getting answers to tough questions. Anyone can ASK tough questions. But figuring out how to hold government officials accountable, by posing questions in such a way that they can't avoid answering them, is a much harder, and far more valuable journalistic exercise than just venting from a padded front seat in the White House briefing room. Helen Thomas' questions were not designed to probe weaknesses in the president's policies. They were just meant to provoke him."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum said on his blog that "calling on Helen Thomas was a notorious method for a hard-pressed White House press secretary to EVADE tough questions from the rest of the press corps. A zany, out-of-left-field protest from Thomas would disrupt a flow of unwelcome queries, maybe spark a tension-breaking laugh, maybe change the subject altogether."

David Nesenoff, the Long Island rabbi who triggered Thomas's resignation by asking for her thoughts on Israel, says he has received death threats and more than 25,000 e-mails, many of them obscene and hate-filled. One called him a "dirty Jew," saying: "Hittler [sic] was right! Time for you to go back in the oven!"

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