The groundbreaking journalist's comments about Palestine are disappointing, but let's not make this her legacy
Under any other circumstances, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that Helen Thomas — the titan of the White House press corps — is retiring. For god’s sake, the woman who has reported on the U.S. presidents for five decades is turning 90 this summer. Who would begrudge the trailblazer for hanging up her press card so that she can sleep in once in a while?
But the news that Thomas is retiring from Hearst Newspapers comes in the wake of controversy shrouding her comments about Israel and Palestine. The news, then, is not so simple.
If you’ve been under a rock this past week, here’s what happened: Thomas was videotaped saying that Jewish people “should get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany or Poland. As the public recoiled from her comments, Thomas issued an apology and said that her remarks “do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.” Nonetheless, she was dropped by a national speaker’s bureau and canceled a high school commencement address she was expected to give. And now comes news of her retirement after 67 years in the journalism business.
Had Thomas retired a month ago, the news would have cued a celebration of her contributions to journalism. And let’s be frank: These contributions are truly astonishing. In 1943, a year after she graduated from Wayne State University, she was hired by United Press International. So began a long trajectory of barrier breaking in the places where media and politics meet, places that are hardly welcoming to professional women. Thomas became the first female officer of the National Press Club — which had been exclusively male for nearly a century — and the first female officer of the White House Correspondents Association. She served as the WHCA’s first female president in the mid-1970s. Thomas also helped persuade President Kennedy to sit out the press correspondent’s dinner because women were not allowed to come. As well, Thomas plowed her way into the Gridiron Club, the oldest and most prestigious Washington journalism club, becoming its first female member and, later, its first female president.
But today, Thomas’ career abruptly ends in what we are safe in assuming is a retirement not of her choosing. While I don’t mean to be an apologist for her remarks about Jewish people, I must note one thing: Thomas has been working as a columnist, not reporter, for the last decade. So it isn’t the fact that she’s publicly editorializing on current news that is the problem here; her job is to have opinions. The uproar was inspired because people don’t like her opinions.
I don’t like how Thomas voiced her opinions in this video; it was sloppy and hurtful. But her views aren’t exactly news; the gist of them are evident from her past columns. Meanwhile, Thomas joins a long line of opinion-makers who have uttered controversial, even despicable comments. Rush Limbaugh, anyone? Glenn Beck? Howard Stern? Sean Hannity? None of these voices seem to fear a forced retirement. What’s different about Thomas? For one, she’s old. For two, she’s a woman. And while I won’t pretend this is a simple scenario where ageism and sexism are wholly to blame, it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t factors at all.
Now, I’m afraid that this is the legacy Thomas will be left with: Because she wasn’t perfect, she was terrible. In fact, of course, Thomas is neither perfect nor terrible. What she represents is that uncomfortable reminder that our heroes are not infallible. They are not everything we want them to be, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. Our heroes will disappoint, sometimes egregiously.
I hope Helen Thomas’ accomplishments aren’t diminished in light of her faults. I also hope her accomplishments don’t keep us from holding her accountable when she errs. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from this debacle might be the realization that, yes, people with significant failings can accomplish great things. Knowing this, we close the distance between ourselves and those we admire. Our heroes are not other; they are us. Rather than being a disappointment, this can open the door to what we might expect from ourselves. This can be a push toward our own great trailblazing, our own groundbreaking, our own achievements.
Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader and Bitch, among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak. More Anna Clark.
More Related Stories
- My miscarriages made me question being pro-choice
- Why I tried to be a punk
- I'm terrified of the cicada onslaught
- Limbaugh: No one willing to impeach the first black president
- SAT's right answers are all wrong
- Supreme Court to rule on prayer at government meetings
- Father of gay high school student arrested for dating classmate speaks out
- Conservatives A-OK with closeted Boy Scouts
- Horrifying new trend: Posting rapes to Facebook
- Corporate greed is poisoning America -- literally
- The new geography of poverty
- Childhood ADHD linked to obesity in adulthood
- Obama to all-male university graduates: Be the best husband to "your boyfriend or partner"
- Chicago man breaks world record with 48-hour Ferris wheel ride
- I will never be able to afford Angelina Jolie's mastectomy
- GOP attorney general candidate tried to force women to report miscarriages to police
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- GOP actually bullies an anti-bullying bill
- Georgian police slow to react to mob violence at gay rights march
- 1 killed in Oklahoma tornado
- Thousands treated for sexual abuse-related injuries in military
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11