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Fellow journalists let Helen Thomas down by not reining her in

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; C01

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!"

Nesenoff also says "there are individuals within the media" who are "pursuing an agenda," though he declines to identify them. (Critics have derided him for portraying a stereotypical Mexican with a bad accent in a video on his Web site, which the rabbi dismisses as a harmless Purim skit.) Had they called, Nesenoff says, he would have explained that he has founded an anti-bias task force, consulted for the Justice Department in the Denny's restaurant discrimination case and spoken with Mel Gibson about his drunken, anti-Semitic rant.

To those who say he wound up infringing on Thomas's freedom of speech, Nesenoff says that she had a public platform "for 60 years. I had it for two minutes, and I shared my two minutes with her. It was specifically her freedom of speech that caused this problem."

Since Thomas was a columnist, she had every right to her opinions -- even if her view was that Jews should be banished from Israel. But she didn't have a perpetual right to a newspaper column or a White House pressroom seat. Hearst bears some responsibility for keeping Thomas on as her behavior grew more disturbing. It's not that a pro-Israel press corps drove her out; it's that Thomas could not defend her remarks, and indeed apologized for them.

All this might have been avoided had Helen's friends gently suggested it was time to retire. But here the insular nature of Beltway life clearly came into play. Those who were accustomed to seeing Thomas around town regarded her as one of Washington's harmless gadflies, perhaps forgetting that she still had access to a powerful megaphone.

There were exceptions -- Slate's Jack Shafer and the New Republic's Jonathan Chait have noted that Thomas was asking "wildly inappropriate" questions, as Chait put it, but the story line got no traction, even when the late White House spokesman Tony Snow accused her of offering "the Hezbollah view."

Thomas, meanwhile, positioned herself as the truth-telling alternative to Washington's weenies. Her 2007 book was titled "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public." In a March interview with Vice magazine, she said -- with some justification -- that "everyone rolled over and played dead" during the run-up to the Iraq war. Thomas added, rather conspiratorially, that she was "sure the big communications corporations got orders from on high. So they played ball."

Back in 1996, after a long night of election coverage, the incomparable David Brinkley said he'd had enough "goddamned nonsense" from Bill Clinton and that the president "is a bore, and always will be a bore." Brinkley apologized, but days later he stepped down from hosting his revolutionary program, "This Week."

As with Brinkley, no one can take away Thomas's trailblazing career, but those decades in the spotlight also imposed a responsibility to meet certain minimal standards. Why wasn't she reined in earlier? For the same reason I've been tempted to pull a couple of punches in writing this: Who wants to beat up on an octogenarian lady? But a little tough love might have spared her this final blot on her legacy.

Asked and answered

Sarah Palin was right when she told Greta Van Susteren that "you're not afraid to ask the questions."

The Fox News host indeed asked a question Friday that was buzzing online -- started by photos posted on Gawker.

"Breast implants: Did you have them or not?" Van Susteren said.

The former Alaska governor allowed that "Boobgate is all over the Internet right now because there are a lot of I guess bored, idle bloggers and reporters with nothing else to talk about. . . . Nooo, I have not had implants."

The question likely would have boomeranged on any man who dared raise it. And Van Susteren correctly predicted that Palin's answer would overshadow their discussion of energy policy.

Palin also took a shot at Newsweek for its new "Saint Sarah" cover -- depicting her with a halo -- for a story on her impact on conservative Christian women. While acknowledging she hadn't read the piece, Palin referred to The Washington Post Co. seeking bids for the magazine: "It's not interesting stuff that they're making up and writing, and that's why they're going down."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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