In defense of Helen Thomas

Note: I was editing this post when the news broke that Helen’s retiring. I debated whether to post it at all, because I’m no doubt throwing myself into the lion’s den here (and ironically writing above a post about things that are better left unblogged), but this is something I believe needs to be said.

There’s an uproar over what veteran White House correspondent told a blogger last week: that Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Poland, Germany, or America. (Want to know exactly what she said? Watch for yourself.)

Some members of the White House Correspondents Association are calling for her press pass to be revoked. Other players in Washington want her fired. Her speakers’ bureau dropped her, and the reporter who co-authored a book with her recently said he won’t do another. MediaBistro also has a solid round-up of reaction.

Now I’m having my own little uproar at home: Doesn’t Helen have a right to her opinion?!

I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m saying that as a columnist, she should be allowed to tell us honestly what she thinks.

Pundits say ridiculous things all the time, and we don’t chastise them for it — we give them more air time. Ann Coulter said the widows of 9/11 were self-obsessed and enjoying their husbands’ deaths. Radio talkshow host G. Gordon Liddy offered advice on the best way to kill federal agents. (On the other hand, Bill Maher was fired for giving his not-so-politically-correct opinion.)

Part of the problem here is that the public confuses the role of reporter with the role of pundit slash columnist. This is our own fault. It’s the fault of the media for mixing pundits with journalists on talk shows, in the newspaper and online. We need to do a better job of differentiating who’s paid to report and who’s paid to give their opinion.

Helen was an awesome journalist for decades. An unbiased journalist. But now she’s a columnist. She gets paid to write her opinion for Hearst newspapers. So what’s so wrong with letting us know her opinion?

What’s wrong is that her statement wasn’t politically correct — and it has to do with Israel, which we all know is a touchy subject. Helen expressed her real opinion even though it’s not popular. Once again, I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m also not saying I don’t agree with her, since I’m a reporter and I don’t express my opinion on these issues. (I also don’t believe reporters don’t have opinions. We’re still people. But we work really hard to keep our biases from influences our reporting.)

Speaking of biases, I should tell you that I’m not just writing this about Helen Thomas, the journalist. I’m writing it about Helen Thomas, my friend and mentor. (And yes, I’m fully aware that plenty of people don’t like her.) In my first job out of j-school, Helen sat next to me in the Hearst Washington bureau. Well, on the other side of my cubicle. We became friends, and we stayed that way after I moved to Texas to write for the Houston Chronicle. She goes out of her way to mentor young journalists. Including me.

More than that, I give Helen Thomas some of the credit for where I am today. She was a trailblazer for female journalists, and it was partly due to her persistence that women have a place in the newsroom. (Even though we’re still not paid as much as our male counterparts. But don’t get me started on that.)

Maybe knowing her as a person, knowing that she’s not the evil witch some people make her out to be — would a man who asked hard questions be called a bitch? — helps me give her some leeway here.

Time columnist Joe Klein is one of the few people I’ve seen write sensibly about this whole thing:

It’s not unprecedented for journalists with odious views to have access to the press room. What is unprecedented is for such a journalist to have a front-row center seat. Thomas should no longer have that privilege. The front row should be occupied by working reporters, not columnists.

Fine. Take away her front-row seat. But firing her, revoking her press pass or refusing to work with her? C’mon, people. Let’s think a little harder than that.

UPDATE: Just saw the news that Helen’s retiring. It’s probably time. She’s old (almost 90). But I hate that it happened over this.