Clearly Helen Thomas has given the world a gift by opening a window into the minds of liberal journalists, and I suspect her legacy will be a lot longer (and different) than she might ever have imagined, assuming she had time to imagine other things besides Jews going back to their “homes.”
And James Taranto is one who’s willing to help her extend that legacy. This hilarious bit of real journalism is a little long, but I assure you the payoff is worth it…
We hope you’ll indulge us as we take yet another whack at the dead horse that is Helen Thomas’s career. We were getting a little tired of the subject too, until Sally Quinn weighed in.
Quinn, along with husband Ben Bradlee, is a past recipient of the Helen Thomas Award from the American News Women’s Club. Quinn is a writer for the Washington Post; Bradlee is a former executive editor of the Washington Post. “We have . . . been honored by the award because Helen Thomas set the standard for excellence in journalism,” Quinn writes.
OK, but how did she set this standard? What stories did she break or advance? What risks did she take in pursuit of the public’s right to know? What original analytical insights did she offer?
Are these merely rhetorical questions? Perhaps. Quinn certainly doesn’t have an answer to them. She implicitly acknowledges that Thomas’s output as a columnist has been junk. This she blames not on Thomas but on her employer:
Helen will be 90 years old this summer and she clearly hasn’t been herself in recent years. Hearst Newspapers, her employer, should not have allowed her to continue in her role as columnist, representing them at the White House. It seems to me that they were exploiting her for her name and her reputation, with little regard to what was happening to her. Someone should have protected her. Someone should have asked her to resign years ago and given her a huge farewell party where she could have been honored by the entire White House press corps.
But of course Thomas was at the White House for nearly half a century. In her prime, she accomplished . . . well, what exactly? In her lead paragraph, Quinn offers this:
She was the first woman president of the White House Correspondents, and the first woman admitted to the Gridiron Club.
Unlike many women in powerful positions in those days who guarded their positions, Helen embraced not only me but every other woman entering the field. She was a huge supporter and champion of mine and so many others, always generous with her friendship and advice. She was always so professional that people didn’t see her as a “woman” journalist but simply as a journalist. She really did pave the way, by setting an example for other women who joined the profession and we were proud to know her and to be her friend.
Hmm, “people didn’t see her as a ‘woman’ journalist.” Is that why Quinn goes on about how she was the first woman this and the first woman that and a champion of young female journalists? Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, and arguably in Thomas’s day becoming a journalist was an achievement for a woman. Being a woman, however, was not an achievement for a journalist.
Helen is of Lebanese descent and her favorite hangout was a quiet little Middle Eastern restaurant on the “wrong side of town” called Mama Ayesha’s where she held court. Before long it became the hottest, chicest place in Washington, attracting all of the old Jockey Club and Sans Souci patrons who flocked there to see and be seen.I spent many a night with Helen and her best pal, Fran Lewine–who just happened to be Jewish and who was another female pioneer in journalism–
Sorry, we know it’s rude to interrupt midparagraph, but we think it’s important to amplify Sally Quinn’s point that some of Helen Thomas’s best friends are Jewish. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:
–eating pita bread and hummus and stuffed grape leaves and drinking wine. There was always plenty of wine and laughter. Not only was Helen a great journalist but she loved her friends, loved to have a good time and nothing thrilled her more than to have heated discussions of the issues of the day. She was opinionated. She definitely held strong positions on the Middle East. But I never heard her utter a word that was unreasonable or out of line about Israel or Palestine. There was never a hint of anti-Semitism.
After this long disquisition on Thomas’s social life and her taste in restaurants, we come to Quinn’s considerably shorter and less vivid discussion of Thomas’s professional output:
She was equally outspoken and fearless in her work. She asked questions in the White House press conferences that nobody else would ask. She was respectful but clearly never intimidated by anybody, including presidents. For over half a century she was one of the most respected journalists and Washington [sic]. She was a legend. By all rights she should have gone out in a blaze of glory.
Hmm, she asked questions that “nobody else would ask.” This sounds to us like a nice way of saying that her questions were truculent and batty, which in the past decade they certainly were. Maybe in earlier years she asked serious and probing questions, but if so, an example or two would be helpful. (Maybe we’ll rename our “Questions Nobody Is Asking” feature in Thomas’s honor.)
To be fair to Thomas, Quinn is better known as a socialite than a journalist, so perhaps it is unreasonable to expect more from her than personal reminiscences of how much fun Helen was to be around. Yet perhaps Quinn’s tribute is a fitting one, for we have not seen any evidence that Thomas’s reputation as an excellent journalist was based in anything other than her standing as a longtime member of the club.
To be fair to Quinn, she does not defend Thomas’s call for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews–though she does employ the classic Obama dissociation dodge: “The person who called for Israel to get out of Palestine is not the Helen Thomas I knew.”
Quinn reports that the recipient of this year’s Helen Thomas Award from the American News Women’s Club is Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift. That’s got to be embarrassing for Clift–and perhaps for the American News Women’s Club, too. We emailed and phoned the ANWC to ask if it plans any changes to the event in light of the circumstances of Thomas’s “retirement.” So far, we haven’t heard back.
Nor did we ever hear from Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, whose website still touts Thomas, namesake of the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, as “a living icon of journalism.”
Helen Thomas, the living icon of journalism whose admirers cannot be reached for comment.
And true to his word…
The Helen Thomas Memorial Compilation of Questions Nobody Is Asking
• “Are Typosquatters Hijacking Your Brand?”–headline, AdAge.com, June 10
• “Why Are Wolves Sacrosanct?”–headline, National Review Online, June 9
• “Why Isn’t There a Liberal Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley?”–headline, The Weekly Standard website, June 10
• “Will a Tourism Strike in Greece Affect You?”–headline, CNN.com, June 10
• “Would You Rather Feel Excited About the New iPhone or Bad About Oil-Covered Birds?”–headline, AdAge.com, June 9
• “The Vapors: How Can America Trust Elena Kagan if She Doesn’t Own a Cat?”–headline, Slate.com, June 10
• “Is Obama Really Kicking Ass?”–headline, PoliticsDaily.com, June 10