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Helen Thomas

A Tribute to Helen Thomas

July 21, 2013

Sadly the renowned journalist Helen Thomas passed away on Saturday at the age of 92. In the following two videos we see Helen help Colbert roast Bush at the legendary White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2006 and, in 2010, in a Real News interview, we see her defend herself admirably after her resignation. For more of Helen on the Real News see here or for more on her passing see the following by Ralph Nader: There will Never be Another Helen Thomas.

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White House journalist Helen Thomas remembered as a trailblazer

Alex Wong / Getty Images file

Veteran reporter Helen Thomas (C) asks a question to U.S. President Barack Obama during a news conference at the East Room of the White House May 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Thomas passed away Saturday at age 92.

By Andrew Rafferty, Staff Writer, NBC News

As news spread of Helen Thomas’ death Saturday, journalists, politicians and admirers paid homage to the trailblazing reporter who was a fixture at White House daily briefings for decades.

“Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Helen Thomas.  Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

“She never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.  What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” he added.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton said in a statement that Thomas was “a pioneering journalist” who added “more than her shares of cracks to the glass ceiling.”

“Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy,” the Clintons said in the statement.

Female journalists took to Twitter to thank the woman who many said helped shatter the perception that political journalism was a profession only suited for bourbon-quaffing men.

“Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed: woman pioneer journalist broke barriers died today,” tweeted NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell.

“Any woman who has had the privilege of sitting in the front row of the White House briefing room owes huge debt of gratitude to Helen Thomas,” tweeted Julie Pace, White House correspondent for the Associated Press.

“RIP Helen Thomas – died this morning at 92. Amazing trail blazer, fearless journalist and friend & mentor to so many women reporter,” Judy Woodruff, host of PBS Newshour, tweeted.

Thomas was also remembered fondly by those who faced her brash style of questioning in the White House briefing room.

“Rest in peace, Helen Thomas. First day I ever took the podium she came to encourage me,” tweeted Dana Perino, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush.

She loved her job, and Thomas’ colleagues said it showed in all of the 49 years she spent as a member of the White House press corps.

“I asked Helen Thomas about her life choices she said, ‘I would still be a reporter. I consider that my greatest decision in life,'” tweeted CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer.

Thomas career ended in 2010 when she abruptly retired after saying Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine.”

“Helen Thomas died Saturday in D.C. Glass ceiling breaking journalist–1st female Gridiron member. Later controversial. Rest in Peace,” tweeted Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet.

“Women and men who’ve followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened,” White House Correspondents Association President Steven Thomma said in a statement. “All of our journalism is the better for it.”

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Related:

Helen Thomas: I’m Not Antisemitic, I’m A Semite!

[youtube http://youtu.be/hPh—EShYU?]

Helen Thomas: Playboy Interview

By David Hochman

For more than half a century, Helen Thomas owned the most valuable piece of real estate in the White House briefing room. Her front-row seat at presidential press conferences and its attendant benefits—she was often called on first and usually ended the gatherings with a signature “Thank you, Mr. President”—made her the unofficial dean of the White House press corps. Her bold, irksome questions were like hot pokers to 10 U.S. presidents, and her fearless approach rattled press secretaries and set a tone for generations of straight-shooting, badgering reporters.

Last summer, still working full-time at 89, she saw her decades-long career fall to pieces after a two-minute video clip went viral on YouTube. A Long Island rabbi and blogger visiting the White House turned his camera on Thomas on May 27 and asked for “any comments on Israel.” Thomas instantly shot back, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” adding that the Jews “can go home” to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.” Endless media outrage ensued, prompting Thomas to issue an apology and abruptly “resign” from Hearst Newspapers on June 7. Her speaking agency dropped her, journalism schools and organizations rescinded awards named in her honor and she lost that prized seat in the White House.

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Helen Thomas: Thrown to the wolves

At a time of forgiveness, why is Helen Thomas still being ostracized?

Danny Schechter Last Modified: 29 Dec 2010 13:58 GMT
Helen Thomas, who once 
occupied a front-row seat in the White House briefing
room, has been completely ostracized due to some inelegantly-put remarks
about Israel captured
on film by provocateurs [EPA]

In 1960, I was fixated on emulating the courageous media personalities of the times, from Edward R. Murrow to a distinctive figure I came to admire at presidential press conferences – a wire service reporter named Helen Thomas.

In recent years, my faith in the power of dialogue in politics has been severely tested – as, no doubt has hers – in an age where diatribes and deliberate demonization chills debate and exchanges of opposing views.

Once you are labeled and stereotyped – especially if you are denounced as an anti-Semite – you are relegated to the fringes, pronounced a hater beyond redemption, and even beyond explanation.

As the legendary Helen Thomas soon found out.

The rise of a legend

As a member in good standing of an activist generation, I saw myself more as an outsider in contrast to Helen’s distinctive credentials as an insider, as a White House bureau chief and later as the dean of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

Yet, beneath her establishment credentials and status, she was always an outsider too – one of nine children born to a family of Lebanese immigrants in Winchester Kentucky, who despite their Middle East origins were Christians in the Greek Orthodox Church.

She became a woman who broke the glass ceiling in the clubby, mostly male, inside-the-beltway world of big egos and self-important media prima donnas.

Her origins were more modest. She grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Detroit.

Helen received her bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 1942, the year I was born. Earlier this year, her alma mater, of which she had taken so much pride in her achievements, canceled the award in her name.

A fall from grace

The withdrawal of her name from the prominent award was a striking gesture of cowardice and submission to an incident blown out of proportion that instantly turned Helen from a ‘she-ro’ to a zero.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center put her on their top ten list of anti-Semites after angry remarks she made about Israel went viral and exploded into a major story.

President Barack Obama who cheerfully brought her a birthday cake, later labeled her remarks as “reprehensible”.

You would think that given all the vicious ad hominems, Godwins and putdowns directed at him, he would be more cautious tossing slurs at others.

But no, all politicians pander to deflect criticism whenever the wind of enmity blows their way.

Now it was Helen who was being compared to Hitler in the latest furor.

Snakes and Foxes

Then suddenly last June, I, like everyone in the world of media, was stunned to witness her public fall from grace, partly self-inflicted, perhaps because of the inelegant language used in response to an ambush interview by provocateur father-son Israeli advocates posing as journalists.

They were following in the footsteps of the vicious comments by Ann Coulter earlier denouncing Thomas as an “old Arab” sitting yards from the President as if she were threatening him. She refused to dignify that smear with a response.

I didn’t know until she told me that she had also been hounded for years by Abe Foxman, a leader of the Anti-Defamation League who demanded she explain 25 questions she asked presidents over the decades.

“I didn’t answer,” she told me, “because I don’t respond to junk mail.”

Bait and switch

Helen always stuck to her guns. She was considered the marquise of journalists that presidents respected. She even went to China with Nixon.

She has, however, always been polite enough to try to answer questions from strangers without always realizing who she was dealing with in a new world of media hit jobs, where  “gotcha” YouTube videos thrive on spontaneous embarrassing moments, what we used to call “bloopers.”

She had been baited and fell for it. Unaware of how the video could be used, she vented and then regretted doing so. It was too late. That short media snippet triggered millions of hits.

Helen later apologized for how she said what she did without retracting the essence of her convictions.

But by then, it was too late. Her long career was instantly terminated. The perception became everything; the context nothing.

Damage control

She tried to be conciliatory, saying, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

Her remarks were derided and dismissed, with the pundits and papers demanding her head. She had no choice but to resign after her company, agent,  co-author and many “friends” started treating her like a pariah.

“You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive,” she says now.

She was forced into retirement and thrown to the wolves in a media culture that relishes stories of personal destruction and misfortune. It’s the old ‘the media builds you up before they tear you down’ routine.

As blogger Jamie Frieze wrote, “I don’t think she should have been forced to resign. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t come with the right to be comfortable. In other words, the fact that you’re uncomfortable doesn’t trump my free speech. Thomas made people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean her speech should be punished.”

But punished she was.

A lesson learned

When I called Helen Thomas to ask if she might be willing to share some of her thoughts on what happened, I found her as eloquent as ever, supportive of Wikileaks, critical of grand jury harassment in the Mid West against Palestinian supporters and angry with President Obama for his many right turns and spineless stands.

She was, she said, on a path outside the White House when a rabbi, David Nesenoff, asked to speak to her, and introduced his two sons whom he said wanted to become journalists (one of whom wasn’t actually his son).

“That happens to me a lot,” she said, “and I told them about my love of journalism and that they should pursue their goals. I was gracious, and told them to go for it.”

Then the subject abruptly changed. “‘What do you think of Israel’ they asked next. It was all very pleasant and I don’t blame them for asking,” she told me. But, then, she added, she didn’t know the people would’ve “shoved a microphone in my face like a jack knife.”

It wasn’t just any rabbi making conversation. Nesenoff is an ardent Israel supporter who runs a website called ‘Rabbi Live’ and can be a flamboyant self-promoter. He says, “Even though I was born in Glen Cove and grew up in Syosset Long Island, Israel is my Jewish homeland. It is the homeland for all Jewish people.”

The sin of silence

She remembered being moved by a rabbi who spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington in 1963. I was there also, and heard him speak too, and so I looked him up.

It was Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress who made a speech that influenced a younger Helen Thomas. He said, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Helen says her whole career has been about combating the sin of silence.  She says she has now been liberated to speak out.

“All I would like is for people to know what I was trying to say, that Palestinians are living under tyranny and that their rights are being violated. All I want is some sympathy for Palestinians,” she says.

Forgotten but not forgiven

Now it’s the holiday season, allegedly a time of peace and forgiveness when presidents issue pardons to convicted criminals and reflection is theoretically permitted, a time when even a State Department hawk like Richard Holbrooke can, on his deathbed, it is said, call for an end to the Afghan war that he had dogmatically supported.

We have watched the rehabilitation of so many politicians over recent years who have stumbled, taken money or disgraced themselves in sex scandals, including senators and even presidents.

Helen Thomas is not in that category.

Yet, many of those “fallen” are back in action, tarnished perhaps, but allowed to recant, to work and then reappear in the media.

But, to this day, there has been almost no compassion, empathy or respect shown for one of our great journalists, Helen Thomas, who has been presumed guilty and sentenced to oblivion with barely a word spoken in her defense.

How can we expect Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile if our media won’t set an example by reconciling with Helen Thomas?

Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He directed Plunder The Crime of Our Time, a film on DVD about the financial crisis as a crime story. (Plunderthecrimeofourtime.com)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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Helen Thomas on Her Resignation and Middle East

Helen Thomas, an interview

Click on the photo

Cashiering Helen Thomas

By Ralph Nader

June 15, 2010 “Information Clearing House” –The termination of Helen Thomas’ 62-year long career as a pioneering, no-nonsense newswoman was swift and intriguingly merciless.

The event leading to her termination began when she was sitting on a White House bench under oppressive summer heat. The 89-year-old hero of honest journalism and women’s rights, the scourge of dissembling presidents and White House press secretaries, answered a passing visitor’s question about Israel with a snappish comment worded in a way she didn’t mean; she promptly apologized in writing. Recorded without permission on a hand video, the brief exchange, that included a defense of dispossessed Palestinians, went internet viral on Friday, June 4.

By Monday, Helen Thomas was considered finished, even though she embodied a steadfast belief, in the praiseworthy words of Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank, “that anybody standing on that podium [in the White House] should be regarded with skepticism.”

Over the weekend, her lecture agent dropped her. Her column syndicator, the Hearst company, pressed her to quit “effective immediately,” and, it was believed that the White House Correspondents Association, of which she was the first female president, was about to take away her coveted front row seat in the White House press room

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