This past week was a sad week in American journalism. In the face of mounting pressure and criticism, Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, decided to resign. She was one of the bravest, no-nonsense, journalists of our time. For the past fifty years dating from the Kennedy era she has been dutifully performing her duty by asking tough questions that few journalists dared to ask the White House. Her career demise came with a simple politically incorrect answer to a sly question from a Jewish rabbi -- David Nesenoff of Long Island, New York, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration on May 27. He asked the Hearst Newspapers Op/Ed columnist Ms. Thomas, “Any comments on Israel?” Her response that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany, Poland and America – where they came from to occupy Palestine triggered a wave of denunciations that a narrowly worded apology did little to quell.
As expected at the forefront of such criticism against the 89-year old Ms. Thomas this time are guys like Ari Fleischer (GW Bush’s first press secretary) with dual nationality of Israel and the USA. In 2002, Thomas asked Fleischer: “Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?” Four years later, she told Tony Snow, Fleischer’s successor, that the United States “could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon” by Israel, but instead had “gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.” Snow tartly thanked her for “the Hezbollah view.”
Through her grilling questions, Thomas had earned respect from many within the anti-war community but befriended none within the White House. One may recall her questioning of President George W. Bush in 2006 after he finally ended a long boycott of Thomas questions. “Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis,” she began. “Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true.” It was a gutsy criticism of the most powerful man on earth!
Remember the post-9/11 era of embedded journalism when every American journalist of name and fame seemed more like a brain-dead reporter parroting the Washington position than being objective? Very few dared to challenge the official explanation about the justification of Bush’s crusade against the Muslim world a.k.a. Global War on Terror, e.g., finding the so-called WMDs. Helen Thomas was an exception to that sad saga of American journalism in the 21st century. She proved bold, courageous and refreshing in a profession that had ceased to remain honest, truthful and objective, away from the damning influence and interest of the powerful lobbies and big corporations.
Thomas advised Bush not to “keep threatening war every day.” She berated Bush at a press conference in July 2007, “Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand, you brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq?” She challenged President Obama three weeks ago: “When are you going to get out of Afghanistan?” “Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’” Then there was her questioning of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: “What’s the difference between your foreign policy and Bush’s?” “We go in to kill and maim and send drones -- is that Christianity?”
As a keen and objective analyst of world affairs, and with roots in the Middle East, Thomas knew very well that Israel has been the cause for ‘99 percent of all this (Middle-East centric) terrorism.’ Unlike most others in her profession working in the USA who are sadly mortgaged to the Israel lobby, she was not willing to duck or hide such unkind and ugly assessment of the rogue state. She likened Palestinian protesters resisting the “tyrannical occupation” by Israel to “those who resisted the Nazi occupation.” During White House press briefings, she asked such tough questions like: “Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. . . . It’s outrageous.”
Obviously, Ms. Thomas’s pointed questions were embarrassing to the war party. She earned enmity not only from those merchants of war but also from many Jewish and Christian-Zionist colleagues whose allegiance remained more to the Zionist state than the USA. They despised her criticism of Israel and wanted her to die or disappear. Not surprisingly, her harsh remarks about Israel on May 27 were videotaped and later posted in Nesenoff’s RabbiLIVE.com website by the rabbi’s son. Over the next few days, the pro-Israel lobby, politicians and journalists savaged Thomas over her candid statement repudiating Israel. They called her anti-Semite, a Jew-hater, offering the ‘official Hamas and Hizbullah position,’ and so on and so forth. Robert Gibbs denounce her remarks, and the White House Correspondents’ Association announced that it was considering whether to revoke her privileged seat in the front row of the White house briefing room. That meeting will no longer be necessary. She resigned.
Helen Thomas stood out for truth and honesty in journalism away from the overwhelming dehumanizing influence of the Israel-firsters in Washington. In a pro-Israel, Zionist dominated media world, expressing views that are perceived to be hostile to the interest of the pariah state of Israel can be journalistically suicidal. It was, thus, not a question of why but when that final curtain would be drawn on Helen Thomas’s glorious journalist career. And that’s what happened last week in Washington.
Helen Thomas will be deeply missed by millions of her admirers who have learned to expect that she would never betray their public trust. With her pointed interrogations and politically incorrect and candid remarks, she showed the best in journalism and earned their respect and admiration. Now that Helen Thomas is gone, there is more need than ever before for others in the White House press briefing room to fulfill that noble role and share her courage and opinion. Every one standing on that podium should be regarded with skepticism and must face tough interrogations, and not soft-balls, so that nothing but the truth comes out. As Thomas famously remarked last year of the White House, “What the hell do they think we are, puppets? . . . They are our public servants. We pay them.”
Will the next Helen Thomas emerge in the White House press briefing room?