Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Person Who Asked Why

Four years before a churlish Washington press corps booted her from her coveted front row seat in the White House briefing room, Helen Thomas had pissed them off in a big way. In 2006, she'd partnered with Stephen Colbert for his famous public skewering of the churlish Washington Press corps during his stand-up routine at their annual prom. Helen Thomas was an integral part of that show. And she had a seat at the table of honor.

Helen Thomas had to go. Why, she wasn't even a paying member of their Association!She only wrote an opinion column! She was not a stenographer to the powerful, like them. When, in 2010, she made what some considered to be imtemperate remarks -- to an ambushing rabbi with a video cam! -- on Israel and its attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla -- it was just the opportunity the Washington establishment had been waiting for. Helen was gone from her front-seat perch in a Beltway swamp minute. They could barely contain their glee. Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs courageously scolded her empty chair in order for the cameras to capture the enforced silencing of a woman who had practiced the art of afflicting the comfortable for half a century. That empty chair was eventually, and symbolically, contaminated by Ed Henry of Fox News.

Like I said, they're a churlish bunch. They were not happy when Colbert, with a hysterically cackling Helen Thomas by his side, reviewed the function of journalists in the Age of Inverted Totalitarianism:
But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
Helen Thomas was perhaps the last intrepid reporter left in Washington. So she had to go. She was not a member of the club, and did not adhere to their rules. Had she been allowed to stay, she probably would have asked Jay Carney if Obama gets a hard-on at Terror Tuesdays, as he decides who lives and who dies by predator drone. 

But now that Helen Thomas is safely dead, they're coming out of the woodwork with their effusive phony praise. She was a maverick. She opened doors. She broke the glass ceiling. She broke their precious little hearts.

Here's a quiz. See if you can guess* when the following remarks were made: whether after Helen Thomas broke the forbidden rule about speaking ill of Israel, or after Helen Thomas died:

1) "It's a shame, because Helen really was an institution in Washington." -- President Obama.

2) "Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened..." -- White House Correspondents Association leadership.

3) "Michelle and I were saddened ... Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism." -- President Obama. 

4) "Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed" -- Mrs. Alan Greenspan (Andrea Mitchell.)

5.) "A sad way for her career to end." -- Mrs. Alan Greenspan (Andrea Mitchell.)

The treatment given to Helen Thomas by her colleagues a couple of years ago is  very much being echoed in the current criticism by the establishment press of Glenn Greenwald. Here's smarmy Chuck Todd of NBC -- the poster boy of fawning access reportage --  waxing hysterical about the uppity Helen Thomas in 2010:
Well, I think there were a lot of people that have been uncomfortable with the fact that she's been an opinion columnist for years now. You know she's not been a reporter for a long time. And you know the definition of reporter and columnist has gotten, the lines have been blurred now for over a decade. It gets even worse in this case in distinguishing the two. And this was something that was a topic, frankly that I think a lot, in the White House Correspondents Association, everybody was kind of avoiding. Right? This issue of talk radio. Look there's a couple of talk radio hosts that hard passes, too. They just don't have a front row seat. But they ask very opinionated, you know it's not really a reporter. You can't call them a reporter, these folks. They're really just sort of on the, you know they're columnists. They're, talk radio hosts are nothing more than, sort of, verbal columnists. And so you wonder what is the line here? And I think that this is reigniting that debate on, you know, who is there to do reporting on the White House and who is there to just write a column? No one should say that they shouldn't occasionally be allowed in the press room But do you get a front row seat? Do you get a seat at all? And I think that's reigniting that debate. And I think you're gonna see some more stringent rules form the White House Correspondents Association going forward.
And here's Chuck again, whining about Greenwald's un-clubby backtalk to fellow steno David Gregory:
Glenn Greenwald, you know, how much was he involved in the plot? It's one thing as a source, but what was his role –did he have a role beyond simply being a receiver of this information? And is he going to have to answer those questions? There is a point of law. He's a lawyer. He attacked the premise of your question. He didn't answer it.
And Helen Thomas dared ask Bush why he invaded Iraq. She dared have a point of view. She dared to be the dreaded breed known as Activus Journalistus. She belonged to that rare, increasingly marginalized species known as reporters with an independent brain: Greenwald, the late I.F. Stone, Chris Hedges. Had Helen Thomas been embarking on her career today, she would have had her own blog. Those newspapers and wire services where she got her start? Either all gone, or sucked up into the voracious maw of the corporate conglomerate.

Goodbye, Helen. You were an inspiration to me. Your star will long outshine all the feeble little winky-blinks that have sputtered to life over the years, only to choke and die from inhaling too many of their own toxic fumes.

You were a breath of fresh air. You still are.

A year after she was fired, Helen Thomas was asked how she'd like to be remembered . After tearfully predicting she'd only be remembered as an anti-Semite, she responded,
“As the person who asked why. That’s what I want as my epitaph: ‘Why?’ It’s always been my favorite question, even though it rarely gets answered."

1) Career obit.
2) Career obit.
3) Corporeal obit.
4) Corporeal obit.
5) Career obit.



James F Traynor said...

"...she cried." Poor woman. Reduced to tears because
she feared being remembered as an anti-Semite. Israel is the anti-Semite, the Palestinians being arguably more representative.

annenigma said...

Obama said "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*** " WTF?

Hello? Does Obama ever hear or grasp his own words? Does the sycophantic press corps? Hold our leaders to account when everything is a State Secret?

If Helen Thomas were sitting in that front row seat, she would surely have thrown those words back in his face without a moment's hesitation, no matter who he was eulogizing, and challenged him on every deceptive word. They must be so relieved she's not there, especially these days.

RIP, Helen Thomas. Another great one gone.

system failure due to insufficient evolution? said...

Maggie's ghost: what is haunting Europe

Pearl said...

When I read the obituary of Helen Thomas in the NYTimes, including the
private comments she had made about Israel without explanation for the
reasons and the milieu in which they had been made, I sent in a comment
supporting what she had said and why. To my surprise, I got a high number of
recommendations with most people supporting her right to speak out on many controversial
issues. There were a few angry responses to my comment but not many. I think history has shown that the Israeli experiment has failed its people as well as trampled on the rights of the original Palestinians living on the land who were forced out when Israel was officially inaugurated.
It is sad that her career was ended so unfairly with the name calling of
anti semitism ringing in her ears. She played an important role in asking
the right questions at press conferences which have now deteriorated to an echo chamber. And yes, she would have held Obama's feet to the fire.

A great column, Karen, and proper tribute to this great lady.

Noodge said...

Helen Thomas, no doubt, was a great reporter and her place in history as someone who broke barriers for women is secure. But her passing is no reason to start with the revisionist history. Helen Thomas was part of the American school of anti-Semitism that would have us believe the Jews run everything.

"Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion." - Helen Thomas

These sentiments are a thing apart from her (or my) feelings about the plight of the Palestinians or the conduct of the Israeli government. They are pure, unadulterated anti-Semitism. Glossing over this or pretending that she was a victim of anything other than her own prejudice is wrong. If Helen Thomas feared being remembered as an anti-Semite, she shouldn't have gone public with her anti-Semitic views.

Pearl said...

Helen Thomas retired in June 2010, following negative reaction to comments she had made about Israel, Jews, and Palestine in an unscheduled video made by Rabbi David Nesenoff of for his website promoting his own views. Nesenoff approached Miss Thomas on the sidewalk as she was leaving
the White House and without preamble, asked her comments on Israel.

Miss Thomas replied: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” and
“Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German,
it’s not Poland…”

When the rabbi asked where Israeli Jews should go, she replied they could
“go home” to Poland or Germany or “America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?” She mentioned she was of “Arab background.” Nesenoff broadcast her responses on his website
without asking her permission.

And, Ralph Nader was the first to publicly note the “double standard”
where one off-hand “ill-conceived remark” ended Helen Thomas’ career while "ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters” engaged in “bigotry,
stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a
blatant anti-semitism against Arabs.”

Gary Leupp in CounterPunch called the interview an “ambush” because it
was a sudden running up to her on a sidewalk, and he wrote the “they”
referred to did not specify whether it was all Jews or Jews in the
Israeli-occupied West Bank. He also criticized the White House for being
more outraged by Thomas’ comments than by Israel’s May 31, 2010 Gaza
flotilla raid which killed nine Turkish activists.

Paul Jay on Huffington Post wrote Thomas “clearly” was referring to Jews
from Germany, Poland and America who II, mostly because “the American, not drop their anti-Jewish quotas” and that most refugees would have
preferred to go to those nations.

Following, Miss Thomas posted on her web site: 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.

I highly recommend reading Noam Chomsky's book The Fateful Triangle.


Zee said...


I agree with your assessment of Helen Thomas, 100%.

Hers were not one-off, "intemperate" remarks in response to an ambush by a rabbi, David Nesenoff.

In fact, the words you quote were made after her resignation--and a feeble attempt at an apology--for earlier remarks, in which she told Nesenoff that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland, Germany, America, or anywhere else.

The words you quote were made when she backtracked and decided to "defend" her first remarks--to Nesenoff--before an audience in Dearborn, Michigan.

"On December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech for the eighth annual "Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans" conference in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas told reporters that she still stood by the comments she had made to Nesenoff. Referring to her resignation, she said 'I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth.'--Wikipedia

"Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, 'I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country.' --Wikipedia

Yes, Helen Thomas was a journalistic trailblazer. But IMHO, in later years she go lost somewhere in the wilderness along the way.

CitiZen said...

Helen mentioned Congress, White House, Hollywood, Wall Street being owned by Zionists.

Just Google any prominent member of any of these institutions. Start with the oxymoronic television 'journalists' David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, Wolf Blitzer and go on from there.

When pointing out those facts causes anyone to be called an anti-Semite, that pretty much speaks for itself.

Pearl said...

I just came across this item about the Rabbi who interviewed Helen Thomas
which I believe happened before his interview with Ms. Thomas. It is dated
June 2010.

"Welcome to the second chapter of the story of Rabbi David Nesenoff.
America first got to know this man as the guy who recorded Helen Thomas on
his flip-cam saying what many believed to be offensive comments regarding Jews. But just just as a pendulum swings both ways, the nature of viral video swings back to reveal Mr. Nesenoff in what many will surely see as an offensive and stereotypical portrayal of Mexican-Americans in a hackneyed weatherman shtick.

This video was published three months ago, and is just now surfacing, thanks
in part to the website Race Wire.
It’s hard to get through the entire video, mostly because its just not at
all funny. But there are plenty of ethnic stereotypes at play here, namely for the dishwashing jokes (Mexican laborers wash dishes? Hilarious!)

Update – the video has been removed at the request of the persons involved."

Other comments I am finding indicate that the Rabbi only reported statements made in answer to his questions as part of a much longer discussion and possibly taken out of context as to which Jews in Israel should return to their homelands (possibly the new settlers with extremist views).

Zee said...


A casual search using Google reveals that 11% of the members of the U.S. Senate, and 5% of the members of theU.S. House of Representatives are Jewish.

This hardly seems to me to constitute ownership of Congress by Zionists.

You'll have to dig deeper and prove that the corporations, banks, and large private donors--who really own Congress--are dominated by Zionists in order to prove your case.

Denis Neville said...

I'm not going to defend Helen Thomas' career ending comments nor am I joining the Helen Thomas condemnation fest.

Many have condemned her comments as being way over the line and extremely insensitive. We used to have the freedom in this country to make such statements. We may not agree with what she said, but we should defend to the death her right to say what she said.

Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. Some is. Helen Thomas’ wasn’t. Calling Helen Thomas an anti-Semite is a baseless slander, particularly since Thomas herself was a Semite. I doubt many know what the word Semite means. Indigenous Jews lived peacefully with Muslims and Christians in Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel.

What Helen Thomas untactfully expressed was her frustration at the bigoted and racist political oppression that Israel engages in against Palestinians, who are not Jewish or Israeli, for daring to want to live on the land where they have always lived. In her comments she mentioned Palestine, not Israel. She said nothing anti-Semitic. On the contrary, standing up for Arab peoples subjugated and forced into submission by an occupying force is pro-Semitic.

The issue is not the perception that she’s guilty of bigotry, but the wrong kind of bigotry.

Compare the self-righteous condemnation fest against Helen Thomas to the overwhelming non-reaction to incessant and ongoing anti-Arab bigotry. Similar statements are apparently completely appropriate when made about the Palestinians, i.e., demands that the Palestinians leave the West Bank and go back to where they came from.

Severe punishment was meted out to Thomas, who engaged in the wrong kind of prejudice, while those who proclaim the right kind of prejudice can do so with total impunity. There are severe consequences for the actions only of the powerless, but never the powerful. Thomas was professionally dead thereafter.

An uppity woman, who nailed more US Presidents with her hammer-blow questions than any other member of the White House Press Corps, said something that was deemed overly insensitive against Israel, even though she apologized, and was banished.

White House press briefings and presidential news conferences have been much more amiable since her departure. Today’s docile toady AIPAC stenographers are willing participants in the White House circle jerks. Let’s all obey the guidelines and don’t say anything that is inappropriate, or insensitive, or we’ll all be as dead as Helen Thomas.

“Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe!” — Thoreau

Pearl said...

Some time back there was a discussion on Sardonicky along these lines about
the influence and involvement of Jewish Americans in the business of the country. There were statistics showing that due to the high standards that Jewish families held their members to, a disproportionate number of Jews entered professions, politics, financial and business organizations and therefore had more influence than their numbers indicated. You use the word
Zionists as Helen did but that does not mean they were active as Zionists
but that they support the Zionist leadership in Israel. Just look at the
influence on political affairs the AIPAC has in the U.S.
Those of us who are critical of the politics of Israel and the Jews in the
U.S. that support it (less and less now), are attacking those Jews who
follow and support Israeli destructive policies and we are not targeting Jews per se but those who we feel have sold out to the worst interests.
We are easily labeled antisemitic to silence us but it is becoming obvious
this is no longer working.
Please read more about what Zionism is all about and you will understand our point of view. Zionism does not represent all Jews or their interpretation of its purposes in Israel and elsewhere. Many reformed Rabbis have become members and founders of Peace groups in the U.S. and Israel claiming that they are distorting the meaning and purpose of true Judaic principles. This
division has to be recognized to understand why there is so much conflict happening in this area.
I cannot tell you how many Israeli citizens spoke to us privately about
their concerns along these lines when we were in Israel and were fearful of
their future there. Many that were able to did leave the country and went
back to their original place of birth.
There is a great deal of literature backing up my statements much of which is coming from the current Jewish Peace groups which are more strongly supported these days.

Noodge said...

Mr. Neville;

I usually enjoy reading your comments, but this one was offensive. You criticize me (although tangentially) for things I did not say and arguments I never made; a very disingenuous debating technique. Nobody said Helen Thomas didn't have the right to say whatever it was she said. Certainly I didn't, nor did Zee. Nor did I say that Helen Thomas' career should be judged based only her anti-Semitic statements. And by anti-Semitism, I mean it as defined by Merriam-Webster: hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

And there can be no doubt but that Helen Thomas harbored such views.

It's funny, though, that neither she nor you ever saw that her very life put the lie to her notion that Zionists controlled, among other things, the American media. If that were the case, how did Helen Thomas manage to hold on to the most important, powerful chair in the media for nigh on half a century?

The fact that there are certain kinds of bigotry that are more palatable to the American public than anti-Semitism does not make anti-Semitism any less bigoted, nor did Helen Thomas' legitimate criticism of the Israeli and American governments lend legitimacy to her illegitimate criticism.

And there is simply no way to spin this statement:

"Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion."

so that it betrays something other than hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. You may call it what you will, but the dictionary calls her comments anti-Semitic.

Helen Thomas was, on balance, a great woman. The good she did in her life far outweighed any of the bad. But we don't do ourselves any favors by glossing over the uglier aspects of her personality. To point that out is not to engage in any condemnation fest or to be unfair to her. Ulitmately, she was hoist with her own petard.

Zee said...

@Pearl (Part One of Two)--

As always, I appreciate your thoughtful remarks on this hot-button topic.

I don't think that I have ever accused anyone in this forum of anti-semitism, but my memory is not as encyclopedic as, say, Denis's. If I have done so, I will apologize immediately when I am shown the error of my ways.

Still, I think that Helen Thomas showed genuine anti-Semitism—or, if one wants to argue semantics about who is a “Semite,” ill-will towards Israeli Jews—when she suggested that Israeli Jews “should go back where they came from,” or words to that effect.

Native Americans might as well suggest that I go back to Germany, whence most of my ancestors came starting in the 1860s and 1870s (or so I am told by a sister who has spent some time on our genealogy). I'm here owing to a series of historical events—fortunate or unfortunate, depending upon your viewpoint—going back at least to 1776, that are far beyond my control; I'm here to stay, and it's foolish for anyone to expect otherwise.

Likewise, the State of Israel owes its origin to a series of historical events—some very unfortunate—that are beyond the control of any living Israeli Jew, and going back more than 116 years to when Theodor Herzl, in 1897, formally established the Zionist movement in response to even earlier, extreme anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe. (Perhaps some of my ancestors were among the “guilty.” I just don't know.)

These unfortunate historical events include: (1) the aforementioned violent anti-Jewish sentiment in early- and mid-nineteenth century Europe (but actually going back to the Diaspora) which spurred the initial European-Jewish desire to return to Ottoman Palestine; (2) many an Ottoman-Palestinian-Arab landowner who was quite ready to sell seemingly worthless land to the newly-arrived Zionists; (3) the League of Nations' mandate that Britain assume responsibility for Ottoman Palestine following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, accompanied by much arbitrary European re-drawing of other national boundaries to suit their own needs for oil; (4) further British mischief via the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that actually stated that “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in [British] Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people;” (5) at least some upper-class, Palestinian-Arab involvement (read: collaboration) in suppressing the lower-class “Arab Revolt” of 1936-1939; (6) The Holocaust, which left some 6 million Jewish dead at European hands—not all of them German—and which left many of the survivors nowhere to go other than Israel wherein they could feel safe; and finally, (7) a United Nations'–mandated partition—And aren't we all supposed to defer to the United Nations?— that was to try to remedy all of the prior, unfortunate historical events.

Well, the best-laid plans of mice and men...


Zee said...

@Pearl--(Part Two of Two)

It was not the majority of Jews—at least insofar as I understand it—who rejected the partition in 1948. Rather it was Palestinian Arabs who instigated a civil war, upon which, when it became clear that they were losing, armies from five Arab nations—Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan—joined in, only to be eventually defeated by desperate Israeli forces, leading to an Armistice in early 1949. And yes, along the way, atrocities were committed by both sides on the way to Jewish independence.

The birth of the State of Israel was a trans-national tragi-comedy of errors in which Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews initially played only a subordinate role to the so-called Great Powers. The problem remains, “How do we fix it?” just as the Brits and the Irish had to figure out how to deal with an Irish Protestant minority, unfortunately imported by the Brits hundreds of years earlier, and who were not—like me—going anywhere soon?

“History happens,” and sometimes it remains to the “survivors” to try to equitably pick up the pieces left by now-defunct players of the “game.”

I do not approve of just about anything that Israel has done since—and including—the 1967,
6-Day War, which appears to have been a war of “choice” in retrospect. Having once seized the West Bank, the Israelis should have negotiated it back as “land for peace.” Instead, the Israelis chose to “colonize” it, another tragic mistake in a long line of such.

I think that I understand the “transmogrification” of Theodor Herzl's original spirit of Zionism into the “expansionism” of the more recent Israeli regimes, and I think that it is yet another “unfortunate historical occurrence.” When one envisions ones' back to the wall, one will do anything to survive. But sometimes, that's just an excuse for expansionism.

I don't condone it at all, and yes, I am sympathetic to the damages that Palestinians have suffered at the hands of the Israelis since 1967. Give back the West Bank, I say.

Still, in the end, both Israelis and Palestinians have only themselves to blame for the current impasse. Just another unfortunate accident of history that one might hope “reason” might resolve, but which probably won't.

Today, I don't have much truck with Jewish-Americans ( i.e., AIPAC) who can find no fault with modern Israel's international conduct. But I can understand it. Americans love an “underdog,” and barring the 6-Day War, Israel has fit that bill.

Nor do I see it as “anti-Semitic” to condemn Israel for its current, expansionist ideals. But it's still important to emphasize that distinction.

Hope this further explains my "position." I keep trying to better understand this conflict and I would be happy to read more about it. I have a book on my “To Buy” list recommended by a participant here at Sardonicky that might better explain it, but I just can't read as fast as Denis.

One book at a time, and right now I am reading Bailout by Neil Barofsky. I do the best I can.

Pearl said...

Zee: I am very appreciative that you have taken the time to respond so well
to what we are both concerned about. It is also obvious that you have read
beyond what most people have of the clouded events that occurred during the formation of Israel in l948. If various countries had allowed the many
surviving souls of the holocaust to find refuge among them (the U.S. was
especially neglectful in this regard due to various political conflicts),
the need for a country like Israel may not have been necessary.

And as you obviously know, its birth was accompanied by violence on both
sides, which anger poisoned its future. I can only again recommend Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle revised in l999. I was unable to read the first one written in l948 because when I started to glance through it I became too emotional about what he had validated for me. He was then sharply criticized by the
entrenched Zionist-religious factions as usual, but his book has stood the test of time.

I carry around a picture in my mind of my father whose dreams for the future of Israel soothed the terrible remembrances of how Jews were treated during the holocaust, and when he returned from that visit to Israel during the l970's in his old age, he finally realized and saw with his own eyes what we had been trying to tell him that we had witnessed and of our concerns for the future of the country. The pain of knowing that his hopes and dreams would never come true destroyed his spirit, and as a result I can never personally forgive the expansionist, oppressive policies, and warlike solutions and invasions of other countries by the leaders of Israel who were

The writings of some of the concerned Israeli progressives in Israel
occasionally appear in Counterpunch and well worth reading. (Uri Avneri is one of them).

Zee said...


I will add The Fateful Triangle to my reading list.

The other book that was recommended to me by another Sardonick-er is

A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Mark Tessler.

I will ask my local bookstore to order them for me.

Zee said...


I will add The Fateful Triangle to my reading list.

The other book that was recommended to me by another Sardonick-er is

A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Mark Tessler.

I will ask my local bookstore to order them for me.