• Helen Thomas a rarity among reporters: she was actually honest
By Michael Collins Piper
There is only one topic considered “untouchable” today, and the bizarre story of what happened to veteran journalist Helen Thomas—who died at age 92 on July 20—puts it in perspective.
For some 50 years Thomas was hailed as one of the most aggressive no-nonsense reporters in the Washington press corps. Hard-nosed and straight-forward—as a correspondent (and ultimately White House bureau chief) for United Press International, and, later a columnist for Hearst Newspapers—Thomas (unlike many in the media) was never afraid to publicly challenge presidents and power-brokers she thought were being disingenuous.
Feminists characterized Thomas—first female president of the National Press Club—as a role model for women. Thomas herself said she asked tough questions of politicians she thought were the questions a Des Moines housewife would want her to ask.
Thomas was also perhaps the most accessible of the big-name journalists. It was common knowledge if you wanted to chat with Helen you could find her dining practically every night at a small family-style Middle Eastern restaurant, the Calvert Café.
Despite her remarkable record of no-holds-barred journalism that brought widespread acclaim and international respect, Thomas was forced into retirement in 2010. Although she had won her reputation for her honesty, it was her candor on one issue—that of the United States-Israeli “special relationship”—that brought about an abrupt end to her distinguished career.
Here’s what happened:
On May 27, 2010—while Thomas was outside the White House (where Jewish Heritage Day was being celebrated) a video-camera-toting Jewish rabbi, David Nesenoff, confronted Thomas and asked for her comments on Israel. Thomas said: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.”
Waving the camera in the elderly woman’s face, the rabbi asked where the Jews should go, and Thomas responded, “They should go home.” When the rabbi demanded to know where home was, Thomas said, “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
The rabbi ran to the media with the story and the until-then respected journalist was promptly accused of being anti-Jewish even though she had told the truth about the foreign origins of many of the Jews who had settled in Palestine, displacing native Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs.
Critics were quick to point out that Thomas was the daughter of Christian Arab immigrants from what is now Lebanon and that, over the years, she had been suspected of a bias against Israel. The implicit point was that Thomas’s heritage denied her the right to comment on the Middle East (despite the fact Jewish journalists constantly spout pro-Israel opinions in the media).
Meanwhile, Thomas’s booking agency dropped her as a client (though she was popular on the lecture circuit). A writing colleague announced she would no longer work on any books with Thomas (author of six books). A Washington, D.C.-area high school dropped Thomas as its commencement speaker. And the Society of Professional Journalists announced that it was no longer awarding its award for lifetime achievement named in Thomas’s honor.
Naturally fed up, the 90-year old Thomas turned in her resignation to Hearst Newspapers. But in a speech several months later, Thomas said: I paid a price, but it’s worth it to speak the truth,” adding that “Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question in my opinion.” When challenged on her remarks, Thomas said, “I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of opinion in this country.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced that Thomas “clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite,” but Thomas—not surprisingly—got in the last word. When asked to respond to the ADL’s charges, she said, “I’m a Semite (4:42).”
Michael Collins Piper is an author, journalist, lecturer and radio show host. He has spoken in Russia, Malaysia, Iran, Abu Dhabi, Japan, Canada and the U.S.