Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Helen Thomas

I never met Helen Thomas, but I always considered her a former colleague. That's because we both worked for United Press International.

She was the chief of UPI's White House bureau; I was a copy boy, and then a member of the Boston bureau. But it didn't matter. We worked for the same organization, and developed the same values when it came to the gathering and disseminating of news.

I still believe, today, that I learned every important lesson I've ever learned in this business by working at UPI. That's because in the end, there is no substitute for dispassionate, unbiased, thorough, concise reporting. You become a good reporter in this business by stepping back, trying to get as big a picture as you can, and by keeping yourself, and your opinions, out of your stories.

This isn't easy. They creep in even when you do everything in your power to keep them out. It may not be overt. It may come down to what you choose to highlight, or what you choose to omit. But it seeps in.

Still, the quest to remain as neutral as possible when reporting news -- while at the same time being as inquisitive as you possibly can get away with -- is the key to good journalism. I hear so often people complain about intrusive news personnel, but that's perfectly OK with me. You cannot ask enough questions in this business. It's just that when they're answered, good journalists present those answers to the public even if they do not jibe with what those good journalists really think.

Good journalists remember that the story is merely by them; not about them.

I always admired Helen Thomas. Beyond her legacy as a pioneer for women in the business, Thomas -- I always thought -- was tough, but fair. Back when she wrote for UPI, there wasn't too much room for wire service reporters to become the darlings of either side of the political spectrum. Yes, UPI and Associated Press reporters had their vehicles to write analysis and opinion pieces, but even within those parameters, the product was about as restrained as you could get.

It was only later, when Thomas left UPI and joined Hearst Newspapers as a columnist, that her liberal leanings began to emerge noticeably.

But again, the purpose of writing a column is different than writing a story. Good columnists provoke strong reactions. They (hopefully) make people think, even when the thinking runs counter to what they write. It's just as important, I think, to write a column with which people disagree vehemently as it is to write one where you connect philosophically with most of your readers.

Perhaps more than most, political and sports reporters (and I've done both in my career; they're very similar in how they're covered, actually) see their subjects, warts and all. They see the feet of clay. They observe their subjects with their masks off, and get an appreciation for the people behind the images.

Consequently, even the good ones develop a sort of irreverence about the whole process. And I think that's healthy. The last thing we need in this country is fawning reporters who treat politicians as if they're royalty or deity. My friends who consider me liberal always tell me, when I start talking like this, that I say this to justify the horrible treatment the press gave George W. Bush.

We did treat him horribly. But I'd have been more upset if we'd treated him with kid gloves. We weren't there to treat him with kid gloves. We're not there to treat Barack Obama with kid gloves either. He's no different. His feet are just as deserving to be held to the fire as anyone else.

It generally becomes a game. The media -- and this might be because of the pack mentality that governs it -- detect a flaw and swoop in on it like flies on you know what. Then, the subject of this latest pack attack complains bitterly. His/her supporters condemn the media while the opponents praise tough-minded and independent journalism.

I always tell new people in this business that if the same people are constantly upset with you, you should probably re-examine the way you do your job. Because generally, if you're good, and if you've been at it long enough, you'll piss off just about everyone sooner or later. Nobody's right all the time ... and nobody's wrong all the time either.

A couple of weeks ago, someone caught the now-89-year-old Helen Thomas in an unguarded moment (something that seems to be more and more frequent in the era of "gotcha" journalism). A rabbi at a Jewish heritage event asked Thomas what she thought about the state of Israel.

Thomas, if you didn't know, is Lebanese. Lebanon is a little finger of land that's nestled along the Mediterranean Sea, with Syria to its east and Israel to its south. Its recent history is turbulent, and its location in one of the world's most notorious tinderboxes has probably done little, over the years, to calm the fears of the Lebanese people.

I'm sure there are many Lebanese people, regardless of where they live now, who see the whole Israel situation much differently than we do in the United States. There was almost universal condemnation in the Arab world in 1947 when the United Nations proposed the partitioning of Palestine to include an Israeli state (indeed, there were even some Jews back then who weren't exactly on board with it). Obviously, that antipathy toward the existence of Israel has not waned in the ensuing 63 years.

Who knows. Obviously the rabbi caught Thomas in a vulnerable moment. Only a week after he questioned Thomas about Israel, the whole Gaza aid flotilla crisis blew up.

Whatever, she answered bluntly that Israel ought to get out of Palestine, that it wasn't their land, and that they ought to go back to Germany, Poland, the U.S., or wherever else they'd come from.

Pretty harsh words (though expressing dismay -- even after 63 years -- over the creation of an Israeli state against the will of just about everyone else who lived there isn't exactly a terrible thing to do). People have said, in defense of the reaction against Thomas, that there would have been twice the clamor had someone said that Blacks should go back to Africa.

Is what she said insensitive? It was. She probably would have weathered it had she stopped at "they should get out of Palestine." But somehow, wishing them back to Germany and Poland, with all that history, wasn't the wisest thing to say. It isn't as if the holocaust was any big secret. And besides, Auschwitz was actually in Poland -- set up there after Germany annexed it in 1939.

This follows another sad pattern of people speaking before thinking ... and paying steep consequences for it. How many times have we heard of public figures shooting off their mouths ... and losing their jobs because of it? Al Canpanis of the Los Angeles Dodgers talked about blacks not having the "necessities" to manage in the big leagues. Jimmy the Greek talked of how blacks were used for breeding purposes. Both ended up losing their jobs. When Rush Limbaugh said that people rooted for Donovan McNabb just a little harder, and maybe cut him some extra slack, it was because they badly wanted a black quarterback to succeed.

I don't like Rush, but I don't think he was wrong on this one. I also think wanting a black quarterback to succeed in the NFL was kind of a noble thing, just like hoping that an African American, or a woman, with the right qualifications could someday be president was also noble.

Whether he meant this as a slam or whether he meant it merely as an observation was never quite clear to me. One thing I will say is that when it comes to sports, conservatives and liberals often speak the same language. It's one of the great unifying factors in our society. So I'm guessing, just based on that, that Rush was merely offering an observation that, again, I didn't think was that horrible.

And even if it was a dig, I don't think it warranted him losing his job at ESPN because of it. He lost it probably because if his reputation as a lightning rod for ultra-conservatives. The reasoning, I guess, is that since Rush was a right-winger anyway, he couldn't possibly have been expressing a dispassionate observation on the media's fascination with, and coddling of, the underachieving McNabb.

Oddly enough from a New Englander's standpoint, he said this after the Patriots annihilated the Eagles in Week 2 of the 2003 NFL season, and after fellow ESPNer Tom Jackson kicked the crap out of Bill Belichick. Jackson's remarks about Belichick were 10 times worse than anything Limbaugh said about McNabb.

Here's my problem with the reaction, both to what Limbaugh said and what Thomas said: Commentators are supposed to be provocative. They're supposed to set the wheels of thought in motion, and you cannot do that by presenting yourself as vanilla all the time. Vanilla accomplishes nothing. Once in a while, you need a little Cherry Garcia and Rocky Road.

Limbaugh was merely articulating something that was -- at the time -- the two-ton rhino in the parlor. As was Thomas. Their words may have been a little rough around the edges (especially Thomas's), but if the country's leading opinionists have to worry about losing their jobs, or being forced into retirement, every time they rock the boat, I fear this country will eventually be led down some very rocky roads. These opinionists, however much we hate them, are often the only difference between something approaching good government and out-and-out thievery and fraud.

Barack Obama should be big enough to absorb all Rush Limbaugh's criticisms, and Donovan McNabb should have been too. George W. Bush and his men should have been big enough to deal with all the unfavorable coverage they received over the years (and to their credit, most of the time they were).

Helen Thomas's words, I'm sure, stung a lot of people with allegiances to the state of Israel. They certainly deserved a rebuke. And I don't think it was totally inappropriate, either, for the White House to join in the rebuke either.

But today, Thomas' long, illustrious career is over, thanks to a sentence she uttered in an unguarded, vulnerable moment. She joins a long line of people who have seen it all end, badly, because of ill-chosen words. This hardly seems fair. You go your whole life walking that line that separates public responsibility and saying what you really think; and then the one time you totally screw up and blurt something out, you pay for it with your career.

Whether it's Helen Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, Jimmy the Greek, Al Campanis or Don Imus and his intemperate remarks about "nappy headed hos," there needs to be room in this country for unpopular opinion, or unpopular satire or sarcasm, without fear of official reprisals. Unofficial reprisals will always be there and are, as they say, the price of doing business. But corporations need to do a better job standing up to people whose immediate response to thought-provoking opinion -- even if it's unnecessarily outrageous and sarcastic -- is to get offended and attempt to silence those at whom they are outraged.

After all, this country was borne of men who had the ability to embrace discussion on diverse and divisive topics and come to a consensus.

All I think of are the times I've been sitting at a ballpark, or in some football stadium, believing I was among friends, cracking wise, joking around, and saying things I'd never dream of saying if I had any idea at all they were for public consumption. It just makes me realize how quickly it can all end if someone hears even a snippet of a conversation and interprets it the wrong way.

I'm not 89. I'm 57. Hopefully, I have a few good years left in this business. This just makes me realize that those who are, in any manner, in the public eye have to be on their guard constantly.

It's a good lesson for people to learn.

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