I first became aware of Helen Thomas when I was a seventh grader at Central Junior High School in Nederland (yes, Texas). She came to speak to the students at our school.
At 13, it was just a thrill to get out of class for a program. I didn’t care what the topic was.
But this rather imposing-looking — and even more imposing-speaking — woman captivated me.
I can’t tell you today what she spoke about, but I remember being rather impressed with her.
As I grew older, I would see her in the White House Press Corps, front row as always, “sticking it to” whoever happened to be at the podium at the time — regardless if they were just running some positive PR for the White House or if the speaker was the president himself.
If the floor was open for questions, she was right in there.
As I grew older, I kept an eye out for her.
I learned about her history in the Press Corps — at the time I had no desire to become a journalist, but she was an inspiration.
Her history in the profession is impressive, to make a gross understatement.
Imagine the events she covered — the Kennedy administration and his assasination, Watergate, the hostage crisis during Carter’s administration, and the list goes on.
She was respected by those she dealt with in the White House, too.
And her Press Corps peers, if you could call them peers, seemed honored to step aside in order to give her the floor.
She held our presidents’ feet to the fire and became one of the foremost — if not the singular formost — experts on the White House.
For half a century she was the epitome of what good jounalism should be — ask the questions, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable, no matter the person or their position, and be fair and impartial in all things.
Her position on my list of people I admire quickly rose. And especially so after I started at the Daily Progress.
Helen Thomas became one of my heroes.
Then, this past week, half a century of really good, tough, appropriate journalism was virtually erased because of one statement Thomas made.
“What do you think of Isreal?” she was asked.
“They should get the hell out of Palestine,” was her reply.
The outrage at her statement was immediate and harsh — so much so, she resigned as a Hearst columnist this week.
How dare they!
I suppose she is a casualty of her own profession.
It’s a precarious thing to be a journalist and express your thoughts and beliefs without them tainting your work and credibility.
It is difficult for readers to keep an opinion expressed separate from your actual work, I guess.
As journalists, we are tasked with presenting the events of the world around us fully, fairly and impartially while showing both sides of each story and holding those who are in charge accountable for their actions.
That’s what Thomas did for more than 50 years.
And to be completely realistic about her current situation, her opinion on Isreal shouldn’t matter. It’s one person’s opinion — get over it.
Last I remembered, we still lived in a place with freedom of speech. And along with that comes freedom of thought.
It angers me that she was lambasted so harshly for expressing her personal opinion. That 27-second sound bite undid for many the 50 years of amazing work she did.
Jon Friedman quoted Robert Scheer in his column on the matter: “The media tirade against Helen Thomas is as illogical as it is hysterical. The few sentences uttered by her were, as she quickly acknowledged, wrong — deeply so, I would add. But they cannot justify the road-rage destruction of the dean of the Washington press corps. Suddenly this heroic woman who broke so many gender barriers and dared to challenge presidential arrogance was reduced to nothing more than the stereotypical anti-Israel Arab that it is so fashionable to hate.”
Yes, Thomas was a victim of her own profession, her peers.
Journalists have a reputation of being out for that one good sound bite.
And, yes, when we get that one quote that cracks a story open or makes a public figure look like a baffoon, we do tend to get a little giddy.
As Friedman wrote, “as someone who did her share of playing ‘gotcha’ to subjects, Thomas should have been wise to the game.”