The Helen Thomas Incident

Helen Thomas, the veteran journalist who covered the White House for fifty years, and who was serving as a columnist for the Hearst newspapers, was forced to resign from her job for saying on camera that the Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to where they came from: Germany, Poland, and America. She apologized for saying that and rightly so. She was wrong in her opinion, but being wrong should not be a deadly offense.

Her apology was not sufficient for the bloodhounds who wanted her fired. She spoke her mind, but, in a politically correct world, she had to pay by resigning. That was very unfortunate, because the push to be politically correct is creating a world where no one would dare challenge conventional wisdom of the West. If one does, one has to be ready to pay the price by ending their productive career.

As much as I am exposed to the American media, it never ceases to amaze me how powerful the pro-Israeli frame of reference really is in this country. It is more powerful than the legendary pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC. It is more pervasive and it is sharply honed to collect any comments about Israel that are considered derisive or even mildly offensive. No one dares to apply the same standards of freedom of speech regarding Israel as they do about everything that is not part of the United States. I was watching Washington Week in Review last Friday (June 4, 2010). The subject was Israeli commandos’ killing on the Turkish peace vessel that broke the Israeli embargo that day. All four journalists on that show were doing their best to dance around the issue. I invite the reader of this column to watch that show.

But entirely different standards are applied to Islam and most things Muslim. When I read about a cartoon contest insulting the Prophet of Islam, or damning Muslim women for wearing hijabs, or banning of hijabs in France in the name of secularism, or the recent vote in Switzerland about disallowing the building of the minarets to a mosque and the related hateful cartoons making the minarets looking like missiles, I wondered how those “fearless” practitioners and defenders of freedom of expression would behave when it comes to Judaism or Israel. There are even laws in some European countries making it a crime to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. I think it is idiotic to deny the occurrence of a shameful incident in history (or any other historical incident for that matter). However, sending someone to jail for denying it is a borderline insane act.

Then there is Helen Thomas, who had very unconventional ideas about the Middle East and Israel, as a dispatch of the Washington Post makes its quite clear. She asked hard questions that no regular American journalist dared ask about America’s war in Iraq: “Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. . . . It’s outrageous” she asked. Regarding the Israeli intense bombing of Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006, she told Tony Snow, one of many Press Secretaries of George W. Bush, 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 acerbically thanked her for “the Hezbollah view.” On another occasion, according to a freelance cameraman, she was reported to have said “thank God for Hezbollah” for driving Israel out of Lebanon, then added “Israel is the cause for 99 percent of all this terrorism.”

Okay, these are not conventional views, and some of them are certainly politically incorrect. However, the last time I checked, Helen Thomas is living in a democracy, and she has views like all thinking persons or journalists. She was not a reporter, but a columnist. As such, she could (and did) ask questions that were more editorial remarks than questions. So, what? Why shouldn’t she ask them? Just because she was the only person of the White House Press pool given an assigned seat did not mean that she should have become a mouthpiece of whichever president was in the White House or should have never asked questions that would have rattled America’s special friends.

As much as we hear that there is freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the United States, one must also keep in mind a highly implicit aspect of that freedom which goes like this: if you ask politically incorrect questions, and especially anti-Israeli questions, you will pay the price by losing your career or being cast away as a “whacky” person or “nerd.” Almost all dispatches that I read on the Helen Thomas incident identified her as a Lebanese American. One of her former colleagues, Sam Donaldson, former ABC News correspondent and an obnoxious questioner of the powers-that-be during his career, without defending her comments on Israel, said her views likely reflect the views of many people of Arab descent.

If it is okay to relate Thomas’ views with her ethnicity, I wonder how others would react if I were to merely report that a Jewish-American columnist for National Review, Jonah Goldberg, said the following about Thomas: “She’s always said crazy stuff.” Or, another Jewish American, Ari Fleisher, former Press Secretary to George Bush, was reportedly leading the campaign for her ouster and was in the lead in “e-mailing journalists who might have missed her remarks.”

Ideological warfare is becoming too pervasive and strident inside the American political and social arenas. There are extreme right wing Tea Baggers and their pal, Sarah Palin. You want to get your blood boiling? Start or end your day by watching the “fair and balanced” Fox channel, or listen to Rush Limbaugh to find out how much the airwaves are being polluted with insult, bigotry, and other nonsense in the name of journalism.

What is important to know (and remember) is that for most of us there are rules, which we cannot violate even in the name of freedom of expression. For some selected few, no such rules apply. Helen Thomas belonged to the former category.

Comments are closed.