Helen Thomas: Asking the Questions Real Democracy Demands

helen thomasI don’t think a tough question is disrespectful.–Helen Thomas

American democracy took a big hit with the forced retirement of Helen Thomas, the First Lady of the Washington Press Corps..

When one considers how many scoundrels remain in powerful positions in both public and private life, the swiftness with which she was dumped after 50 years of reporting on U.S. presidents was breathtaking. More so when you listen to TV talking-heads blandly repeating corporate and Pentagon PR as “news” and Faux News blowhards like Beck and Limbaugh shamelessly make vicious slanders, perpetrate outright lies and create disinformation.

The last thing one hears in most places is the kind of tough question that was Helen Thomas’ trademark.

Every president thinks that all information that comes to the White House is his private preserve after they all promise an open administration on the campaign trail, but some are more secretive than others. Some want to lock down everything.–Helen Thomas

Thomas recognized that it is essential for real democracy that the press must have an adversarial relationship to the president, in order to get to the facts about what the government is actually doing and why. She wasn’t afraid to challenge the prevailing “defense of democracy” narratives about U.S. wars and occupations—whether the President pushing them was a Republican or a Democrat. Whether it was George W. Bush, who Thomas called “the worst president in American history” or President Barack Obama, who MSNBC cheerleaders like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow hesitate to criticize, Thomas bluntly pierced the propaganda.

Government secrecy is an enemy of real democracy, and Thomas was a bright light trying to reveal what politicians aim to hide from the American people: no-bid contracts for “private contractors” bilking the public and committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture minimized as “enhanced interrogation,” the contradictions between presidents’ speeches and actions.

You don’t spread democracy through the barrel of a gun. — Helen Thomas

For Thomas, “collateral damage” is a cover-up word for civilian men, women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan — and, yes, Gaza — killed in the service of corporate empire-building. She made their deaths visible while most media erases them. Thomas focused on policies, not political party. She had no interest in the political “horse race” coverage that dominates so much reporting.

What got Thomas fired was a May 27 off-the-cuff remark about Israel — the “third rail” of U.S. foreign policy. Thomas is the only contradictory journalistic voice that could be heard in the so-called “mainstream” (corporate-owned) media.

From the New York Times to CNN, reporters have mouthed the mantras provided by Israel about their attack on the “freedom flotilla” ships that tried to take humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Washington Post was at least honest enough to headline Glenn Kessler’s piece for what it was “Israel give its account of raid”. The rest of the U.S. media mostly went along with Israel’s claim that heavily armed IDF commandos acted in “self-defense” against ships of civilians from 40 countries. Soldiers fired live ammunition, used tasers and flash bombs on human rights activists, a Nobel Prize winner, Ed Peck (a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East) Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, peace activist and retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright. Yet, unless one goes to the Internet and the international press (including dissenting voices in Israel itself), the attacks on the Freedom Flotilla have been told only from Israel’s perspective.

Telling the other side was certainly possible within three days of the IDF assault as the Freedom Flotilla activists were released and speaking with or writng for international media outside the U.S. For example, Swedish author of the ‘Wallander’ mystery series, Henning Mankell’s ‘Flotilla Diary” was published in the UK Guardian newspaper.

Would Helen Thomas, at a White House press briefing, have quoted the emerging eyewitness accounts of the commando raids on the ships? Would she have raised the facts that the rest of the world already knows about Israel’s three-year blockade of humanitarian aid to Gaza? Would she have asked President Obama how Israel’s “security” was threatened by the ships’ medicine, toys, wheelchairs, olive trees and cement for Palestinians still living in rubble and on what the World Health Organization has called “a starvation diet”?

Would any other reporter have done so?

She did.

On June 1, Thomas grilled White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “The initial reaction to the flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean you regret something that should be so strongly condemned, and if any other nation in the world had done it, we would have been up in arms? What is this ironclad relationship where a country that deliberately kills people and boycotts every aid and abet… the boycott [blockade of Gaza]?”

It was an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) priority to conceal as much as possible of the attack from the world through censorship. Journalists and activists on the Freedom Flotilla are saying their satellite transmissions were quickly jammed. The international press is interviewing these journalists who say that IDF soldiers confiscated or immediately destroyed all cameras, cell phones and lap top computers. There was no return of those devices — which presumably had raw footage of the attack that would contradict Israel’s propaganda campaign. However, raw, unedited footage of the Israeli assault is now becoming available, and it shows the falsehood of the IDF-edited footage distributed widely shortly after the attack. Israel has now admited that audio was added to the IDF footage that U.S. media widely broadcast.

The June 10 edition of “Democracy NOW!” interviewed one of the journalists on the Flotilla and has some of the raw video Israel did not manage to suppress.

Robert Mackey has also complied the raw video:

But, without Helen Thomas in the White House press room, will anyone confront Barack Obama about the U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, or the additional $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel recently authorized for expenditure over the next decade?

We in the press have a special role since there is no other institution in our society that can hold the President accountable. I do believe that our democracy can endure and prevail only if the American people are informed. — Helen Thomas

Increasingly, one hears about a “crisis in journalism” that is too often debated in terms of profits: “How can newspapers compete with the Internet? What’s the 21st century economic model?”

What corporate-owned newspapers fail to debate is the real crisis in journalism, the crisis of content and perspective, independence and purpose of journalism in a democracy.

The career (and firing) of Helen Thomas speaks directly to the juncture that American journalism finds itself at: “Infotainment” or information? Probing for facts or press release distribution? Asking questions or echoing statements from public relations flunkies? Thomas didn’t just jot down what press secretaries or presidents said. Unlike most of the Beltway hacks working in the corporate media, Thomas knows the difference between public relations and journalism.

Unfortunately, for the last 25 years, the job descriptions of the two fields increasingly have merged as schools of journalism and departments of advertising/marketing/public relations have been folded together into “communications” departments. Many of today’s reporters don’t appear to even know the difference between the craft of journalism and the craftiness of PR. They are simply, “stenographers to power,” as writer Micheal Parenti calls them in a critique of the press of that name.

There’s a reason that journalism is the only profession protected under our Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson remarked, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Democracy is threatened when the people do not know what their government is doing. Democracy can not survive when citizens are not informed about the issues of the day and the policies proposed to address them.

Consider the gobbledy-gook that passes for reporting whenever another U.S. war is proposed or the confusion and sound-bites surrounding the health care “reform” bill approved by President Obama. When America’s youth are to be sent around the world to kill and be killed or when major legislation that affects everyone, such as that on health care, is to be voted on by Congress, what is needed is deeply informed reporting that is skeptical of those with political power and wealth. Without that kind of journalism, citizens cannot possibly participate in democracy in any meaningful way — and true democracy is more than voting for packaged candidates every two to four years.

Few in the White House press corps have dug deeply enough to be actually informed. Acting more like celebrity writers, they worship the powerful people true journalism is supposed to hold accountable.

I doubt anyone left in the White House press room has the guts regularly shown by the petite 89-year-old woman who was just forced to retire.

American democracy will be further diminished towards a state of facade without Helen Thomas’ questions.

Lydia Howell

Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the 2007 Premack Aard for Public Interest Journalism, and producer/host of “Catalyst:politics & culture” on KFAI Radio.


  1. michael thomas says

    Helen Thomas had a great career for 57 years, a half century at the White House. This one comment should not end her career. Nor should she be judged by one bad moment in a long career and life of integrity and courage.

  2. surferpl says

    I hate to disillusion you but Helen Thomas has always had an anti-Israel bias – always. As a journalist working for the same entity Thomas once worked for I can tell you you do everything to keep bias out of your stories but it does color your work. David Brinkley once said being unbiased is impossible; the best you can hope for is to be fair. One of my colleagues who worked with her the longest objected to all the “piling on” resulting from her comments. I say she got what she deserved. She didn’t deserve a front-row seat anymore because she wasn’t on staff as a reporter. She was a columnist. In this country, we have free speech. You can say what you want, but your words come with consequences.

    It’s very fashionable to be anti-Israel these days, but when it all comes down in Iran – and it will, it’ll be Israel that will be the staunchest ally the United States will have and it will be the one nation this country can count on to do its dirty work.

    • GreenAdvocate says

      If it is “fashionable” (what a demeaning way to stereotype those you disagree with) to be anti-Israel, perhaps it is because what Israel is doing is perturbing an increasing number of people.

      Because you agree with Israeli policies, you try to belittle the people who hold another view.

      You can’t dismiss them with your silly adjective, which you apparently use as a shield from those facts which disturb you.

  3. Elaine says

    I do not agree with what Helen Thomas said but I do agree with her right to say it. I thought she had been in the press room for 60 years but maybe I am wrong. That job was her life. Who was the person with the camera who was right up in her face & got those comments out of her anyway? Israel had every right to search that ship before any goods went to the Gaza strip because they did not need weapons being carried in there. They should have announced they were coming & followed Israel’s direction as to where to go to unload the goods. Reuters put out some pictures in which it showed a couple of Israel Military guys on their back & the people standing over them were holding knives. They admitted to their mistake after they were caught. I think it was a set up. How would you like to be the only democracy over there sitting in the middle of a bunch of people that just as soon kill you as look at you? But Ms. Howell your comment Faux News blowhards like Beck and Limbaugh shamelessly make vicious slanders, perpetrate outright lies and create disinformation is a lie within itself. They do not lie or create disinformation, in fact they make sure what they say is true & if they make a mistake they own up to it. Unlike many Liberals I know. Glen Beck is giving you history books you can read & believe you me that will bring back what we learned in school & more. It wouldn’t hurt if maybe you listen for a while instead of assuming they are lying. You are just repeating what you hear from your liberal friends, because if you had every really watched a Glen Beck show or listen to Rush Limbaugh you would know better.

  4. Rick The Clown says

    I guess ‘Rick’ thinks it’s OK that Ms. Thomas got fired because she’s a “leftist”…never mind the underlying issues of freedom of speech and the perpetually omnipresent tyranical threat of being seperated from one’s career should you have the temerity to question this odious entity known as Israel. Whatever, Rick. You’re an American on paper maybe…but that’s about it.

    I would like to commend the writer of this piece, Lydia Howell, who I’m sure had more than one moment of pause over her laptop weighing the value of her soul and her responsibilities as a journalist to report the truth as she (and most sane, rational people I might add) sees it, versus the venal hollowness of allowing her mind and heart to be subjugated to the current epicenter of ugliness in the world in trade for something some people in the media call a ‘career’. I applaud your ethics and your courage, Ms. Howell. Those qualities that used to be synonymous with American values are sadly now the exception.

    Hope I didn’t use too many big words for ya, Rick. I’d hate for you to miss out on the full value of this lesson in humility.

  5. Marshall says

    When you want to ask a news question, you do not put opinion words such as “mr president, why did you do such a low class, union supporting, job of cleaning up the oil? that is not correct. You can ask ” what problems do you see in the oil cleanup, How long do you think it will take, Who is going to do the clean up work?, When will you suspend the “jones act”? You can put a person on the spot without using such words that give away your feelings. Once, I did an interview for five days (eight hours each day) and never used words that were in poor taste or made any threating remarks. I could ask questions all day and with few notes, I could do that because, I was trained to do it, I knew what I was talking about, I usually knew the answers and just wanted to hear the subject verify what I alread knew. Each answer I heard was the seed of my next question. I have done all types of interviews, witness, subject, friendly, debriefings, and hostile and never had to resort to vie words or my opinions. I am not too happy with TV interviews left or right, few of them really know how to do it. Helen could have asked better questions and actually received more information.

    • says

      TJ, the facts do not show what you claim. If the flotilla had been as you describe it they would have been armed with AK47s, shoulder fired missiles and the like. You are just regurgitating the lies of the Israeli Defense Forces and the right wing Israeli political parties who have turned against the democratic traditions of the Jewish people who had hoped to create a bastion of freedom and democracy as a homeland but instead were pushed on to the land of another people. You really need to study the history of the establishment of Israel by the United Nations and then ask: If your property and house were given away by the United Nations to a group that immediately made it a religious state and made you a second class citizen would you just walk away? TJ, your constant ranting about Islam and Muslims seems to demonstrate a virulent prejudice against Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and others and it makes one wonder if you are racist or simply ignorant. I hope that you are just ignorant since you can overcome that through study, thought, and developing a democratic perspective that is respectful of others.

  6. Louisa says

    Thank you for supporting Helen Thomas’ right to free speech.
    She certainly has been a trailblazer in her coveted field. It’s a shame she wasn’t able to freely present her point of view. Apparently, Rabbi Nesenoff chose to blast her interview on you tube, and the rest is history. Sadly, Helen was forced into an untimely retirement. I am also very displeased with the White House as representatives so readily chastised her behavior. Apparently,
    the White House is not concerned about the weather newscast video
    that Rabbi Nesenoff created several months ago. In it, he appears
    to mock Mexicans and immigrants. Obviously, Nesenoff maintains a double standard for speech. Only MSNBC’s Keith Obermann has had the
    courage to publicly decry Nesenoff’s video. Where is the outrage and
    what are the consequences?

    • harry says

      The guy/girl on the 6 PM news it there to tell you what happened today and not his/her opinion of what happened.

      The guy/girl on the 8 PM show are there to discuss what happened today and are not news people, they are opinion people. It looks like Helen wanted to be an opinion person and now she has her wish and I wish her no ill.

      • SK says

        Helen Thomas was no “girl telling the news.” It’s her opinions that set the stage for her tough questions the government would rather not answer. She showed more courage in her career than all the rest of her illiterate colleagues put together. While other journalists reported the reasons President Bush gave for going to war in Iraq, Thomas demanded proof of the Bush Administration’s claim of weapons of mass destruction.

        Would you rather have journalists be lead around like little puppies “reporting” the news that’s fed to the by the government? If so, you should head over to Fox Faux News where sexy young blonds will meet your every empty news need.

      • GreenAdvocate says

        Interesting. You say “news people” are simply there “to tell you what happened today.”

        Tell you? Tell you what? As we see with the story of the flotilla, it is not always so clear as to “what happened.”

        There are differing versions, there are doubts. What were the motivations? What planning was involved? What were the real intentions of both (or more) of the sides? Who was there, etc. Ferreting that out IS journalism.

        There is no simple set of objective facts to be reported as “the news.” If that’s how it is presented, we are being short-changed, being used by so-called “credible sources” or even out-and-out lied to. On the “news.”

        Who is quoted or used as a source IS the filtration process [bias or opinion] inherently underlying the “news” story. It is the investigative part of journalism, so rarely practiced seriously today, that attempts to dig down to find facts not readily presented by official spokespeople or visible on the surface.

        If you have a problem of what the facts show, or where they lead, and feel they contradict your convictions or beliefs, then it is you that have some fact-searching, if not soul-searching to do. All too many folks are happy to accept the PR pablum posing as “news” fed to them daily, because it reinforces a belief system they already have. That’s the Fox Formula. Quick and painless junk food news that reinforces the mindset and jiggles the emotions.

        Helen Thomas is a journalist looking beneath the surface of given “facts” and as such does us all a favor. Efforts like hers are what makes democracy even remotely possible.

  7. Steve Lamb says

    National treasure? Linchpin of Democracy? Queen of White House reporters? Funny, I always thought she was just a quarrelsome old hag who occasionally managed a pointed question. had no idea she wanted my mother to go to the ovens in Poland. Bitch.

    Well I doubt any of the Jew hating anti Israeli so called “liberals” or “progressive” Bigots here and elsewhere would have tolerated hate and death speech about say African-American males,homosexuals, lesbians, Illegal Aliens,radical Islamicists (like it turns out, Ms. Thomas herself)abortion doctors, Armenians,Feminists and so on. You would have DEMANDED an instant resignation in shame. What a bunch of feckless hypocrites you “progressive” Jew haters are!

    The tragic thing is that Mrs. Thomas views arfe identical to and probably were given to her by members of the Arab Brotherhood- you know those WW2 NAZI collaborators? The ones who supported Hitler in order to get BP off their backs (true story- read some history sometime, and for the majority of you who are uninformed about History, BP used to be the Anglo Iranian Oil Company and used to more or less run the Middle East through a British Colonial Enterprise). It’s more likely the Media axed her because some BP exec realized her views would probably mean some discomfort for the worlds most oppressive oil company……..

    Hey- keep the Jew and Israeli hatred up, somday even I may start to believe Rush and Preger when they say the left are Nazis. They do have plenty of evidence…….

    • Paul McDermott says

      I find it amusing how TL Winslow, Steve Lamb, and Marshall have jumped all over Helen Thomas for her anti-Israeli comments, all the while they are spewing hate-filled comments about Arabs, Muslims, Islam, and anti-Zionist progressives. What utter hypocrisy! Why just the other day TL suggested in his comments on this site that the Gazans move to the Sinai Desert.

      If readers haven’t already read Saree Makdisi’s excellent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times (Sunday, June 13) I suggest they check it out:


    • SK says

      What a sexist rant Steve! From your choice of insults and amount of venom you just hurled at this great journalist, it’s clear that you’re the real hater.

      As a Jew, I’m appalled that Israelites think they have a God-given right to any piece of land on this planet. As an American, I’m ashamed that billions of dollars of our tax money is used to oppress and kill innocent people. And as a feminist, I can see that your hatred of strong women runs deep.

      For future reference, pointing out that Israel is murdering and terrorizing Palestinians and other Arabs doesn’t mean you hate Jews, it means you disagree with institutionalized terrorism.

    • says

      Steve: We stand against oppression and injustice, not against Israel. If you can direct us to articles standing against oppression and injustice in the Middle East from Israel’s perspective, we would gladly consider them. — Dick Price, Editor

  8. Joe Walsh says

    Helen Thomas is a national treasure and will be missed by anyone who can read and write. She is the last journalist in the White House press and the rest are about as spineless as the democrats. I wish you well my Lady of the real news. It is our loss she was forced to retire. What a shame this is to our land of the free and home of the smucks!

  9. Marshall says

    Opinions are not the trade of news people, they report the opinions of others. Beck is not a news person, but an opinion person. You can take him or leave him. Helen held herself out as a news person and for these lat many years, she has really been an opinion person. Even her questions contain her opinion. Now she can be free to write her opinions as much as she wants. Her history is awful, how does she think that the Jewish temples came to be built below those of other faiths? Were the Jews there first or did they dig caves and put there place of worship below an already built temple of another faith.

    I feel her head knows the truth but her heart is not with the Jews.

    • Paul McDermott says

      What you are referring to is the stuff of archaeology, the bones of history. Just because the Hebrews had a kingdom there almost 30 centuries ago doesn’t give them some special right to the land. A Native American probably lived in a village underneath your condo, Marshall.
      The sad irony is that the Palestinians, those Semitic people your Ashkenazy friends are trying to dispossess from their lands, probably have more Hebrew blood in them than you. We know that many of the Jews of Palestine became Christians beginning in the first two centuries C.E. Those people had descendants. Many of the Jews remaining in Palestine at the time of the Arab conquest welcomed the Arabs’ deliverance from Byzantine rule and eventually converted to Islam. Not only would they benefit economically from being coreligionists with their new overlords but Rabbinic Judaism and Islam are similar legalistic religions. These people also had descendants.

  10. says

    Sorry, but the facts show that the Freedom Fraud Flotilla was used by violent Turkish jihadists as part of their plan of exterminating Israel, and the others on board were used by them. The seething hate of Islam towards the existence of a Jewish state of Israel has been all their doing, and will never stop until Islam itself is kaput. Westerners should stop being used by them and wake up that the elimination of Israel will just be used as a steppingstone by Islam on its way to jihad against the West. As for Helen Thomas, nobody fired her, she retired, and nobody’s stopping her from writing, blogging, making appearances etc.

    Scope Jerusalem’s history with the Historyscoper and see why history awards it and environs to the Jews not Arabs, holy books or no holy books:


    • Sharon Brown says

      And just who’s facts would you be referring to? The “facts” that are presented by this Israeli government have about as much credibility as those “reported” by Fox news.

    • Paul McDermott says

      The notion that the world is coming to a point where it is unable to bear the racism and brutality of Israel as a state never enters the conversation. Israeli talking heads will not apologize, will not stray from the official line: “We, Israelis are right and they, everyone else are wrong; we are good and they are evil; we are victims of age-old anti-Semitism and they are hateful, violent Muslims intending to kill innocent Jews.”

  11. Donna says

    I miss Helen already! What’s more, where are the likes of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? While the jury is out on Obama, I am becoming increasingly antsy with regard to the ugliness that continues to peek its head from beneath the lovingly warm blanket of freedom we all enjoy.

    Someone please ask the tough questions!

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