Howard Kurtz and the Problem of Helen Thomas

People have interpreted the Helen Thomas controversy any number of ways.Some were disappointed in her remarks, since they are overshadowing the fact that for years she’s asked questions about issues that the rest of the press corps didn’t care about.

Others have suggested that Thomas’ questions about war and the killings of civilians were a warning sign,and that other journalists should have stepped in to stop her sooner.

That’s the view of the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, who led his piece today (6/14/10) with this:

There she goes again.

That was the eye-rolling reaction in the White House pressroom when Helen Thomas would go off on one of her rants about the Middle East.

Kurtz explained that Thomas was protected by her eye-rolling colleagues:

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was a member in good standing of a tightly knit club that refused to question why a woman whose main job seemed to be to harangue press secretaries and presidents deserved a front-row seat in the briefing room….

Journalists, especially those who spend a great deal of time together, don’t usually turn on each other. If Thomas was spewing bias and bile, the reasoning went, what was the harm?

Bias and bile?Kurtz delivered the proof:

There was something to admire in Thomas’ determination to ask uncomfortable questions. But when she declared George W. Bush the “worst president ever” in 2003, she shed any pretense of fair-mindedness. As time went on, her questions turned into speeches, as in this 2007 challenge to Bush over Iraq:

“Mr. President, you started this war. It’s a war of your choosing. You can end it, alone. Today. At this point bring in peacekeepers, U.N. peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled the country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand? We brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq.” One might agree or disagree with those sentiments, but she was performing as an activist, not a journalist.

Kurtz goes on to write that “Hearst bears some responsibility for keeping Thomas on as her behavior grew more disturbing.”

This is reminiscent of the New York Times story about Thomas (6/7/10) lamenting the “increasingly hostile and outlandish nature of her questions”–which was illustrated by the observation that Thomas “seemed particularly critical of the Iraq War and repeatedly pointed out during White House briefings that the American-led invasion was costing civilian lives.”

Kurtz also led his Sunday CNN show with the Thomas controversy (6/13/10). To drive home the point that Thomas was trouble, he showed these apparently damning excerpts:

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.


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?

Kurtz responded by wondering, “What correspondent or columnist gets to say things like that?”

He added:

If you look at some of the soundbites 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.

Now hold on a second. Helen Thomas didn’t care what people thought of her? And by “people,” does that mean other White House correspondents? Scandalous indeed.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.