Helen Thomas Reminds Us of the Power of Words

She’s almost 90, so it isn’t surprising that Helen Thomas is retiring.  That she is retiring because of her own words, does surprise me.  The words were harsh and she should not have said them, of course.   Helen Thomas is  a woman who has spent a lifetime thinking, speaking and writing.    My own experiences with Helen Thomas have been nothing short of delightful.  When I wrote Seen and Heard:  The Women of Television News, she was my first choice as a foreword writer.  I found her phone number in the Washington, D.C. phone book and knew I found the right “Helen Thomas” when her unmistakable voice on her answering machine prompted me to leave a message.  I left her my best “nice, favor-asking voice” message inquiring about whether or not she would write a foreword for my book about television newswomen.  A month went by with no response, so I followed-up and got the same answering machine message.  I left the same, nice favor-asking message as I did before.  A week later she called to say she’d be interested in reading the manuscript and if she likes what she reads, she would write the foreword.  So I shipped her the pages and a month later, in her own handwriting she faxed a five-page foreword for the book.  I trimmed it a bit, but it was what I wanted:  the perspective of a woman who had worked in the media for a long time.  She wrote:  “These women of television news toughed it out and fortunately were driven enough to insist on equity.” 

A year later, when Penn State Lehigh Valley needed a commencement speaker, she sprang to my mind.  Again, the phone call, and this time a written letter follow-up and she was all ours.  Her speech was brief, but it was gracious and inspiring.  Her interactions with students, faculty and staff were also warm and fun.  She was terrific.

Helen Thomas is stepping down.  By anyone’s standards she has  had a long and good run.  She said of the women profiled in my book:  “They had to prove themselves over and over again in a tough, demanding and sometimes merciless profession.”  She ought to know.  I take my hat off to Helen Thomas.

Nichola D. Gutgold is associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley.


2 Responses to “Helen Thomas Reminds Us of the Power of Words”

  1. June 7, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    To many in Washington, two sets of rules seemed to apply for journalists covering the president: those for regular White House correspondents, and those for Helen Thomas.

    Ms. Thomas, 89, made a name for herself asking tough, provocative questions of every president since John F. Kennedy, but her tart tongue may have finally brought her career to a close. Ms. Thomas said on Monday that she will retire, following an uproar over her recent remarks that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.”

    The departure of Ms. Thomas, 89, was a sudden and surprising twist to a controversy that has gone viral in the last several days. Her retirement marks a rather ignominious end to a career that was trailblazing and historic. Few White House correspondents ever achieved her high profile and respectability. From her coveted seat in the front row of the White House briefing room to her ability to cow even the most hardened White House press secretary, Ms. Thomas was a legend in Washington.

    Especially in her latter years as a journalist, she posed questions in a provocative and opinionated manner that was highly unusual for a member of the White House press corps.

    Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
    Helen Thomas in 2009.
    “The rules have been different for Helen for many years, and only for Helen,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary under George W. Bush who had called on Ms. Thomas to step down. “Helen earned that right and she was treated differently. And I never minded it. I enjoyed my ideological thrust and parry with Helen, but this is in a category entirely of itself. And sadly she brought this on herself.”

    Mr. Fleischer called her retirement “tragic and sad.”

    Ms. Thomas issued a statement through her employer, the Hearst Corporation, apologizing for her comments on Israel.

    “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Ms. Thomas’s statement said. “They 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. May that day come soon.’’

    Those comments, which first surfaced late last week after a Long Island rabbi posted a video on his blog, spiraled into a viral phenomenon. She immediately found herself under fire from pro-Israeli groups and conservatives. The video circulated widely on the internet and has been viewed nearly 1.1 million times on YouTube.

    Her encounter with Rabbi David Nesenoff took place on May 27 on the White House grounds. Mr. Nesenhoff said in a phone interview that he and his son and his son’s friend were visiting the White House for a Jewish heritage event that day and just happened to run into Ms. Thomas on the grounds.

    He asked her rather innocuously, he said, what she thought of Israel, and her response shocked him.

    “I recognized her and thought, ‘Oh this is interesting.’ I went and said hello I had told her what we were there for and I had been asking people about Israel,” Mr. Nesenhoff said. Mr. Nesenhoff said that while he was wearing a baseball cap, both his son and his son’s friend were wearing yarmulkes, which he said he believed Ms. Thomas, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon, could see.

    “I couldn’t believe what came out of her mouth,” he said. “I was shocked and hurt.”

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