Kurtz: Helen Thomas Has Been Excused for Saying Questionable Things for Years

CNN's Howard Kurtz on Sunday said an inconvenient truth that few in his industry would care to admit: "Helen Thomas has been saying all kinds of questionable things in [the White House] press room for the past decade, but her colleagues, for the most part, had given her a pass until now."

This indeed is the real lesson behind last week's retirement of the nation's longest living member of the White House press corps: she for years was allowed by her colleagues to regularly get away with what most of them knew was unacceptable behavior.

Interesting that media members are learning this lesson only when one of their own falls from grace. The question is whether or not they'll recognize that they should always be scrutinizing each other's performance in order to maintain the integrity and professionalism key to an industry that is charged with policing government and the politicians that serve our very nation.

This seems especially important given how the same people now admitting they let Thomas get away with media malpractice ignored all journalistic standards during the last presidential campaign and have continued to do so since Barack Obama was inaugurated.

Consider that as you watch Kurtz and his panel discuss the Thomas affair on the opening segment of Sunday's "Reliable Sources" (video follows with transcribed highlights and commentary, full transcript at end of post):  

  • HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Dana Milbank, has the White House Press Corps, where Helen Thomas' views have been no secret, been protecting her for years? 
  • KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, I know you like and admire Helen Thomas. Do you think she was cut some slack because she was in her '80s...before this incident?   
  • KURTZ: Well, because she had worked for UPI, but then she was a columnist, which ordinarily would not warrant you a front-row seat.   

After playing some clips of absurd things Thomas has said in the press room in the past, Kurtz asked, "What correspondent or columnist gets to say things like that?"

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank answered, "Nobody else, I think, with the exception of her." [...] 

KURTZ: But, see, if you look at some of the sound bites we just played, some of the questions that she's asked over the years, I would agree, to some extent, she basically didn't care what people thought of her. She was there to ask the kind of questions, particularly to President Bush, who she did not like, that she called one of the worst presidents ever. But is it the role of the journalists, even opinion journalists, to denounce the war in Iraq, to accuse the administration of killing civilians?  

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, there's two sides to this. I mean, no. Obviously, you're not supposed to be in the press room advocating for a Hezbollah opposition. [...]

KURTZ: But, Lynn, did it ever make you uncomfortable when Helen Thomas would talk about the brutal military occupation by Israel, or talk about the U.S. inflicting collective punishment against Lebanon and Palestine? Did that ever bother you? 

LYNN SWEET, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Yes, it bothered me, but the -- whether or not it bothered me, yes. [...]

KURTZ: But I wonder -- here you have this room full of journalists, and they write about everybody else, and yet they don't write about colleagues who do this sort of thing. [...]

GOLDBERG: We all have or have had grandmothers who occasionally say wacky things. And when you reach the age of 89, you know, you do get some slack. 

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: Well, and there are always lines.

KURTZ: And the wacky grandmothers don't have a seat in the press room and here on television. 

Exactly. Kurtz was hitting on an important point here: this is the White House press room. Why was the "wacky grandmother" given a seat in the country's most prestigious press venue for so many years and allowed to make these statements with cameras rolling?

And why did her colleagues -- who supposedly feel pride in their profession and the journalism industry as a whole -- allow it to happen for so long without writing about it to the point that she was forced out long before this final embarrassing moment?

As the segment moved to a close, it was Goldberg that really hit the nail on the head: 

KURTZ: Do you think, Lynn Sweet, that the media are allowing this unfortunate controversy -- and it is unfortunate -- to overshadow this storied career that Helen Thomas has had? 

SWEET: Perhaps not. Stories unfold, Howie, in chapters. The first chapter had to be the news of what she said. And I think in time there will be a balance. You know, she had this seat because she was a trailblazer, not because of her views on Mideast relations. 

KURTZ: Agreed?

MILBANK: I think it will be -- the Germany remark will become the second half paragraph now, but not the first. 

GOLDBERG: But let's be real for a second. Helen Thomas has excoriated generations of White House officials, congressional leaders. She cut them no slack when they made a gaffe.

KURTZ: And therefore? 

GOLDBERG: And therefore -- 

KURTZ: The same standard should apply to her? 

GOLDBERG: The same standard should apply to all journalists.  

Indeed, and therein lies the larger lesson.

For years, so-called journalists allowed Thomas to play the part of the White House press room clown with total impunity. Now, the industry has been tarnished by their lack of diligence.

With the way these same folks have behaved in recent years -- from their abysmal coverage of the last administration to how they helped the Democrats take over Congress in 2006 and how they enabled an inexperienced, unqualified junior senator from Illinois to become President of the United States -- they had better understand the broader scope of this issue.

After all, as Kurtz and Company pointed out, Thomas wasn't the only journalist behaving badly.

In the end, when you dishonestly protect one of your own from scrutiny -- whether it's a fellow journalist you like or a politician you support -- you're doing your industry and the nation a grave disservice. 

Full transcript for those interested:

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: It came as a shock to much of the country when Helen Thomas, a White House fixture and icon, a trailblazer for female journalists, self-destructed before the cameras -- a single video camera wielded by a rabbi, to be precise. The reaction to her anti-Israel diatribe was so overwhelming, that Thomas resigned this week as a Hearst newspaper columnist. But why was it such a stunner to so many people?

Helen Thomas has been saying all kinds of questionable things in that press room for the past decade, but her colleagues, for the most part, had given her a pass until now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: A legendary career in journalism ends over some angry words about Israel.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: What happened to the 89-year-old fixture in the front of the briefings?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a very creepy and slightly chilling statement.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN: Helen Thomas seems to side with Hamas when it comes to Israel. With Hamas.

KAREN HANRETTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is a woman who thinks that Jews should go back to the place where they were eliminated, where they were liquefied, and it's Germany.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The words that abruptly ended Thomas' career were recorded by Rabbi David Nesenoff during a White House celebration of Jewish Heritage Day.

RABBI DAVID NESENOFF, RABBILIVE.COM: Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today. Any comments on Israel?

HELEN THOMAS, FMR. HEARST COLUMNIST: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestinian.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any better comments than that?

THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany and it's not Poland.

NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

THOMAS: They go home.

NESENOFF: Where's home?

THOMAS: Poland, Germany.

NESENOFF: So you think Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about this sad finale for Helen Thomas and what it says about Washington journalism, Dana Milbank, who writes "The Washington Sketch" column for "The Washington Post"; Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago Sun-Times" and a columnist for PoliticsDaily.com; and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for "The Atlantic."

Dana Milbank, has the White House Press Corps, where Helen Thomas' views have been no secret, been protecting her for years?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, protecting her in the sense that there was a great deal of fondness for her because of her history, because she was such an institution. I don't think she's ever said anything quite like this before. I think people will tolerate a stand against Israel as distinct from an anti-Semitic stance, basically, against Jews, which we heard her say there, so it was just shocking to hear that. Now, it wasn't surprising that she held those views, it was shocking that she actually said it, I think.

KURTZ: Lynn Sweet, I know you like and admire Helen Thomas. Do you think she was cut some slack because she was in her '80s?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, no, because she ended up losing her job over this --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But before this incident?

SWEET: Well, before this incident, she was a singular person in the White House. People might not know it, but organizations are given seats in the press room, as you know, Howie, not individuals. And she had that seat as a recognition of her career as a trailblazer. So, yes, she was cut slack.

KURTZ: Well, because she had worked for UPI --

SWEET: She had this seat.

KURTZ: -- but then she was a columnist, which ordinarily would not warrant you a front-row seat.

SWEET: Ordinarily, it wouldn't warrant you a seat. You always would have entree (ph). You know, Dana could go to the press room anytime he wants, he just stands on the side. It was very special for Helen to have the seat that was part of her identity.

MILBANK: ABC, NBC, CBS --

SWEET: Right.

MILBANK: -- Helen Thomas.

KURTZ: Dana stands on the side of a lot of events.

(LAUGHTER)

SWEET: Right, which is why the debate over who gets the seat is really not one that is parallel to Helen's seat.

KURTZ: The debate over the seat is of interest to about 10 people, and I wish the media would get off of it.

Jeffrey Goldberg, were you surprised by the intensity of the reaction to those anti-Israel remarks to the point where she was basically pressured into retiring?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE ATLANTIC": Not really, because these remarks marked the first time that a philosophical concept advanced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, had been voiced by a seemingly mainstream figure in America. This is not -- as has been pointed out, this is not merely anti-Israel criticism of an Israel policy. This was --

KURTZ: People criticize Israeli policies all the time. You have.

GOLDBERG: Even I have. But this is something completely different. This is an idea that the most anti-Semitic figures on the world stage have advanced. It's a kind of a --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: The Jews have no right to be on that land?

GOLDBERG: Not only the Jews have no right to be on that land, but they should "go back" to Germany and Poland, which is almost -- not only absurd, but almost sort of comically cruel. It betrays either a profound ignorance of history or a lack of caring about history.

KURTZ: But let's take a look at some of the things that Helen Thomas has been saying and asking during the past 10 years in her role as a columnist in that White House press room.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS: Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression? It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't think so, Helen.

THOMAS: We have collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.

SNOW: No, what's interesting, Helen --

THOMAS: And what's happening -- and that's the perception of the United States.

SNOW: Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.

THOMAS: Mr. President, you started this war, the war of your choosing. And you can end it alone today. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don't you understand?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now, she's there representing Hearst. What correspondent or columnist gets to say things like that?

MILBANK: Nobody else, I think, with the exception of her. In fact, often, you'd get the answers, "We'll take a break for this moment for Helen to do an advocacy minute," or, "Thank you, Secretary of State Helen Thomas."

KURTZ: So you're saying that press secretaries used her as a kind of comic relief?

MILBANK: Well, yes. Just this nice, old lady. She's saying some wacky. People -- the rest of us would sort of roll our eyes and say that's Helen being Helen. But there were also times when she would hold the president's feet to the fire on very serious issues that had nothing to do with the Palestinians.

SWEET: Well, particularly in Iraq. She kind of had another chapter of her life when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, because she was very skeptical of it and she was holding the then Bush administration's feet to the fire on that.

KURTZ: More skeptical, many would say, than many of the mainstream journalists who a lot of people think rolled over during that period.

SWEET: Right. No, she had a lot of questions that turned out that people weren't asking at the time. That's why this is, I think, a bit -- I think you used the term in your column, "a tarnished icon," and that is why this is complex. She ended a career with a few-second statement that had all this background to it.

KURTZ: But, see, if you look at some of the sound bites we just played, some of the questions that she's asked over the years, I would agree, to some extent, she basically didn't care what people thought of her. She was there to ask the kind of questions, particularly to President Bush, who she did not like, that she called one of the worst presidents ever. But is it the role of the journalists, even opinion journalists, to denounce the war in Iraq, to accuse the administration of killing civilians?

GOLDBERG: Well, there's two sides to this. I mean, no. Obviously, you're not supposed to be in the press room advocating for a Hezbollah opposition. On the other hand, her lack of awe, the lack of awe that she felt for the presidency, certainly for press secretaries, was useful and a good part of democracy, and people should adopt that general pose more frequently.

SWEET: Well, I think you need to separate out, because this is a journalism show. Almost anyone could go to a White House briefing. You can't always get to a White House press conference and get called on. I'm often surprised on why more columnists don't show up and just ask their questions, whether or not they (INAUDIBLE) advocacy or not.

MILBANK: And as it is, there are all kinds of opinionated people in that room, and I often find that it's one of the far right or far left people who ask that question. They say, oh, wait a second, wee didn't know about that, and it starts the debate in a different direction with the mainstream reporters.

KURTZ: But, Lynn, did it ever make you uncomfortable when Helen Thomas would talk about the brutal military occupation by Israel, or talk about the U.S. inflicting collective punishment against Lebanon and Palestine? Did that ever bother you?

SWEET: Yes, it bothered me, but the -- whether or not it bothered me, yes. Any time anyone says or makes a reference to the Holocaust in Germany in the way she did, one of the most horrible, horrible things that ever have happened, yes, it should bother not only me, by the way, but everybody that the Holocaust happened. So let me clear on that -- sure. But having a debate about the Mideast situation, even in terms that aren't pleasant to hear, is something that you hear all the time when you cover the White House and when you cover Washington.

MILBANK: People ask ridiculous questions all the time about Obama's birth certificate, about pedophilia. I mean, it is a circus if you actually watch --

GOLDBERG: But I think we did discover this week a true red line. I think we did discover a true red line -- don't bring up the Holocaust, OK, in that way.

SWEET: And that's why, frankly, people often just rip off comparisons -- oh, he's a Nazi. Even the food Nazi bothered me because how can you compare -- the soup Nazi. All those things, I think, really, people should think a little bit about what they're talking about.

KURTZ: But I wonder -- here you have this room full of journalists, and they write about everybody else, and yet they don't write about colleagues who do this sort of thing.

Let me throw this back to you, Jeffrey Goldberg. You know, some critics out there say -- I'm sure you've heard this -- that this shows the U.S. press is pro-Israel and you get in trouble when you criticize Israel. And if Helen Thomas had said the opposite thing about the Palestinians, she'd still have her job.

GOLDBERG: A, I don't think that last point is necessarily true. If you gave this long diatribe about the Palestinians don't exist, which is sort of the equivalent argument, I don't think you're going to last that long in the mainstream press.

No. You know, I always refer to this discussion as the taboo that won't shut up. Everybody argues all the time that you can't say anything you want about Israel. If you've looked at "The New York Times" op-ed page over the last month, I think there have been 15 different denunciations about Israeli policies and behaviors by a plethora of regular columnists and guest columnists, and that's fine.

That's fine. We're talking about a different subject.

KURTZ: Let me play a few words in the aftermath of this controversy by Fox's Sean Hannity, who had this to say about the aftermath of Helen Thomas's ouster --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Yet, for decades, the left-leaning White House Press Corps embraced her, even rewarding her with a front row seat in the briefing room.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, it's all the fault of you liberal reporters?

MILBANK: Well, I think that's just silly. Let's point out that I think it was two or three years ago, Helen Thomas wrote a book excoriating the White House Press Corps for being a bunch of pansies and too soft on President Bush. So, I mean, we can't have it both ways in this situation.

So, the notion we're protecting her, I mean, we're protecting her in the sense that it was like the crazy uncle. It's like, oh, that's Helen being Helen. But nobody agreed with her.

GOLDBERG: We all have or have had grandmothers who occasionally say wacky things. And when you reach the age of 89, you know, you do get some slack.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: Well, and there are always lines.

KURTZ: And the wacky grandmothers don't have a seat in the press room and here on television.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Do you think, Lynn Sweet, that the media are allowing this unfortunate controversy -- and it is unfortunate -- to overshadow this storied career that Helen Thomas has had?

SWEET: Perhaps not. Stories unfold, Howie, in chapters. The first chapter had to be the news of what she said. And I think in time there will be a balance. You know, she had this seat because she was a trailblazer, not because of her views on Mideast relations.

KURTZ: Agreed?

MILBANK: I think it will be -- the Germany remark will become the second half paragraph now, but not the first.

GOLDBERG: But let's be real for a second. Helen Thomas has excoriated generations of White House officials, congressional leaders. She cut them no slack when they made a gaffe.

KURTZ: And therefore?

GOLDBERG: And therefore --

KURTZ: The same standard should apply to her?

GOLDBERG: The same standard should apply to all journalists.

KURTZ: All right.

Jeffrey Goldberg, Lynn Sweet, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.