On July 20th, the courageous, irrepressible, trailblazing former White House Correspondent Helen Thomas passed away at the age of 92. Born to Lebanese parents who did not read or write English, Thomas was referred to as “the First Lady” of the White House Press Corps.
Throughout her career, Thomas epitomized journalistic excellence while covering every president from Kennedy to Obama. Not only did she carve space for women in the field of journalism, thereby empowering a marginalized group, but she also embraced the responsibility bestowed upon the press in the American democratic system. Known to never shy away from asking tough and direct questions, Helen Thomas exposed the circuitous replies of sitting United States Presidents and gave the American people transparency when opacity was the order of the day.
Helen Thomas became a symbol for democracy for her probing and incisive journalism. The United States of America is viewed as the beacon of democracy. One of the most fundamental aspects of democracy is freedom of speech. Helen Thomas not only believed in that, she lived it. Her career as a journalist, indeed, her career as an individual is one marked by honesty and courage. She also understood the price that comes with being honest and forthright. Her journalistic ethics remained firm while demanding transparency and honesty from our elected officials. She loved what she did, but did not expect love from others because of what she did. As she accurately put it, “You don’t expect to be loved in this business.”
The latter days of her life have been tainted because of a remark she made with reference to Jews in Israel, namely, “They (Jews) should get the hell out of Palestine.” She further stated, “Remember, these people (Palestinians) are occupied, and it’s their land.” After she made those statements, the media went after her with fury and vengeance, as though she committed a crime or violated her journalistic ethics. In fact, even after her death, Israelnationalnews.com described the end of her career as marked by an “anti-Semitic tirade.” Is Helen Thomas an Anti-Semite? “Hell No,” as she put it herself. In fact, she said “I’m a Semite,” reminding the public that Semitic traditions transcend the religious boundaries of Judaism. Be that as it may, Thomas became the subject of constant and unwarranted scrutiny.
Rather than have honest discourse about the Israel/Palestine conflict and ask why Helen Thomas would make such remarks, the media took it upon itself to act without conscience and commence a campaign of vilification against her. Many Americans do not properly understand the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Her remarks should have sparked honest debate, not dishonest smears of anti-Semitism. After such attacks, she was forced to resign.
Notice she referred to the Palestinians as “occupied.” This very word is at the heart of the conflict and should be understood by every American. The media’s purpose is to inform the public not of false concocted events, but of realities on the ground. If her statement that Palestinians are occupied people is false, she should have been vehemently attacked on that basis. But the media was not concerned with facts, just her opinion that “they (Jews) should get the hell out of Palestine.”
In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas said she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced mutual respect and tolerance. She ended with “may that day come soon.”
We need to hold our leaders accountable, and Helen Thomas empowered us to do so. We need honesty in our political discourse, and Helen Thomas helped to foster it. We need members of the press who question the status quo, and Helen Thomas never refrained. We need people in power who speak the truth, and Helen Thomas fearlessly spoke.
Americans should always remember Helen Thomas as a hero, not a villain. Whether you agreed or disagreed with her, she was always honest with the American people, and for that she should be respected and admired. Helen Thomas recognized her own critical place in the system of American democracy: “We in the press have a special role since there is no other institution in our society that can hold the President accountable. I do believe that our democracy can endure and prevail only if the American people are informed.”
As a proponent of the American democratic system, CAIR-Chicago is grateful to Helen Thomas for her 70 years of service to the American public.