“I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’” – Helen Thomas
The Grand Dame of the Washington Press Corps files her last report. Will they regret giving her so much deference?
The memoriams to Helen Thomas have thus far ventured no where near hagiography-status, due largely to the anti-Semitic statements and acrimonious questions that defined her later years. But to follow Thomas’ career trajectory is to follow the style and influence of the mainstream media. Thomas admirably fought her way into the newsroom, asked probing questions with at least a veneer of respect (hence, her concluding remarks of “thank you, Mr. President” after every presidential press conference), and then devolved into a caricature of an angry, biased reporter holding some extremely ugly and racist views.
Indeed, it would appear that most of Helen Thomas’ biography resides in her later years as she viewed American foreign policy through a Star of David lens, leading even prominent liberals to ostracize her. Much of the coverage of her passing, from news reports to her Wikipedia page, focus largely on her 2010 comments on Israel, declaring that Israelis should “go home” to Europe and the United States.
Thomas’ start in the media was anything but controversial.
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas worked as a reporter for the United Press in 1943 on “women’s topics” – essentially fluff articles on baking and clothing. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s, after having written the equivalent of Washington gossip columns, that Thomas was able to cover major federal agencies and far more noteworthy news items. From her post as the head of the Women’s National Press Club and later a White House correspondent during the Kennedy administration, Thomas was able to get women a greater role in journalism – having previously been denied access to organizations like the National Press Club and events like the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Worthwhile accomplishments, to be sure. But having spent most of her professional life fighting for acceptance, even once Thomas was in the door, she couldn’t stop her role as an endless antagonist to those she personally disagreed with. Thomas was most certainly not an “example for journalists,” although her behavior of biased reporting and lack of decorum has definitely been followed by many current reporters.
Thomas’ defenders often claim she was a bitter pill to politicians of all stripes. Of course, Thomas’ White House harangues for Democrats typically involved criticizing them for not moving further left, as she once famously declared that Barack Obama was not liberal. Bill Clinton “personified the human spirit” while George W. Bush was the “worst president in history.” When Thomas joined the Hearst Syndicate in 2000, whatever restraint she had held before vanished, hence her above quote about being able to “hate” whomever she pleased.
From trail-blazer, to provocateur, to angry activist with a byline – does that not also describe the evolving role of the mainstream media in the past 60 years? Thomas was unfortunately another trendsetter in the end – a forerunner of the mixture between opinion and reporting; of a style of journalistic coverage that smears ideological opponents and debases politics regardless of facts. Stephen Colbert might recoil at the thought, but Helen Thomas was one of the originators of the “truthiness” that Comedy Central’s mock conservative loves to sling at others.
I’m a liberal, I was born a liberal, and I will be a liberal till the day I die. – Helen Thomas
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