Monday, June 7, 2010

Helen Thomas Resigns and What! Conservatives Offer No Free Speech Defense?

I'll say right away, I think the free speech defense is a stupid one when people try to apply it to public outcry and consequences of saying what you think to the world. Freedom of Speech does not mean you can say whatever you please without repercussions. However, I'll get to that later. It's just a shame that someone who's opened doors for women in journalism has to go out the way Helen Thomas has, with her foot in her mouth.

ABC News, CNN, and other sources report that trailblazer journalist Helen Thomas, 89, has retired. The icon, a front-row fixture at White House press conferences for decades as venerable member of an elite press corps and the White House Correspondents Association, stepped into hot water recently when she was caught on video saying Jews should leave Israel/Palestine and go back to Poland or Germany.

She apologized on her website.
Helen Thomas issued the following statement today: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.” (June 4, 2010)
Before her "go back" comment, Thomas was also being blasted for asking White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on June 1 why the Obama administration did not condemn Israel's attack of a Gaza aid flotilla. Weighing in at Time on Helen's latest outburst and her bias, Joe Klein writes that "She is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants and her general views on the Middle East have long been known." He says she should have gone to the "back of the room."

I said in an email thread about Thomas's resignation and her comments about Jews in Israel:
I thought she looked as though she could be suffering from mild dementia in the video of her speaking about Israel. My mother who had Alzheimer's and another form of dementia would talk about events, when she still could, giving the opinions that would have been heard in her youth.

A statement like Helen's, that the Jews should go back to Germany or Poland, sounded like she was saying something from opinions shared more commonly decades ago, early 50s.
That doesn't mean she was saying something she didn't believe but that she, in a fog, may have not realized the kind of backlash her comments would bring in today's political climate. If she's suffering even mild dementia, she may not have grasped that what she was saying didn't make sense given history, the complexity of Middle East politics today, and so much water under the bridge. If that's the case, even if she had not resigned, the question of her future in journalism would have been moot.

The reactions to her comments, however, have been vicious. Demands that she be fired and insults against her age and appearance run wild. Of course, insulting the elderly journalist's appearance is not new, neither are suggestions that she should get lost. Bill O'Reilly had a lovely time insulting her last year. So, I'm not surprised at the venom flowing over her Israel comment.

Plus, being or even sounding like you might be anti-Israel in America never plays well. In my post about the flotilla incident, I referenced a 2008 post at in which a less-informed blogger suggested Israel should relocate. Oh, to call some of the comments "hostile" would be an understatement. The person apologized, admitting she'd written on a subject about which she was just beginning to learn. I was sympathetic because it happens. Sometimes we have opinions but find later that they're based on misleading information, and the conflict in the Middle East is one of the most complex topics in politics today.

Anyway, before Helengate fully erupted, I caught this piece at the Huffington Post about Israel's handling of the flotilla. M.J. Rosenberg, discussing Glenn Beck's promotion of a book by anti-semite while also attacking Rosenberg's denunciation of the flotilla attack, explained how it's possible to be pro-Israel yet critical of its actions.
Progressives oppose Israeli policies that would almost inevitably lead to Israel's dissolution. There is hardly a mainstream political figure in Israel, dead or living, (including current Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert) who hasn't evinced the belief that Israel cannot survive if it maintains the occupation of the lands taken in 1967. Netanyahu's choice of confrontation over negotiating the end of the occupation appears suicidal.

But that is the policy supported by right-wingers like Beck. They don't admire Israel because of its intrinsic qualities but because they view it as fighting the good fight against the people they most despise: Arabs and Muslims.
He left out that a substantial number of conservatives who support potentially self-destructive policies are also influenced by teachings in some Christian churches that the Jewish people must occupy Israel in order for Jesus Christ to return. They further believe that peace in the Middle East will signal the rise of the anti-Christ. Consequently, they believe any attempt at peace or compromise is anti-Christian.

In another corner, we have a post like this one by Field Negro, who questions knee-jerk denunciations of Israel for other reasons. He offers a great analogy at his blog about opposition to Israel and American hypocrisy in a bedtime story he told earlier last week.

Speaking of hypocrisy, has anyone else noticed that some of the same people--rabid conservatives who have jumped up to defend the free speech of Rush Limbaugh, for instance, or Don Imus in the past, pundits who have insulted people of color--don't bring up free speech in this instance? Before now they have claimed that any call for people to be dismissed after making offensive statements with racial undertones or blatantly racist themes is a violation of the offender's free speech. Those arguments go out the window, however, when conservatives rant about Helen Thomas. I'm just sayin'.

Not surprisingly, Sarah Palin is trying to score points in Helengate. Poltico quotes her saying on Twitter, "Helen Thomas press pals condone racist rant?Heaven forbid’esteemed’press corps represent society's enlightened elite;Rest of us choose truth."

Is that what happened? Did the media condone what Helen said? I'm not sure what Palin is saying otherwise. Garbled is her middle name. But I don't think she spends time denouncing her conservative pals' racist rants, except to give the weak lip service catch-all denunciation, something like, "No one should be racist. I'm a maverick."

Whether it's Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh; Dan Rather or Helen Thomas, I don't give the free speech defense as though freedom of speech means you can say whatever you like with no consequences. So, in my opinion, whether you agree with what Helen said or not, she's got to take the heat for saying something people don't want to hear or find offensive, even if she did so on her spare time. In this day of YouTube and Twitter, expect your comments may be made public at some point if you're in the public eye.

Freedom of speech does not protect her from public opinion and job loss, nor should it. It's not the government seeking penalties, and that's the agency from which freedom of speech protects us, not our peers and public opponents.

However, other people think free speech is not the issue for other reasons. Lanny Davis, a former White House spokesperson, sees Thomas as having a higher responsibility to keep her opinions on Israel to herself at all times as long as she is a member of the White House Correspondents Association:
If she had asked all Blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials -- much less a privileged honorary seat?

Does anyone doubt that my friends Ann Compton, head of the WHCA, and Joe Lockhart, who believe in the First Amendment right of free expression as much as I do, would be as tolerant and protective of Helen's privileges and honors in the White House press room as they appear to be if she had been asking Blacks to return to Africa? Or Native Americans to Asia and South America, from which they came 8,000or more years ago? I doubt it.
Could be he's right, that the WHCA would have thrown a fit if Helen had said black people should go back to Africa. Nevertheless, I don't think blacks going back to Africa and Jewish people leaving Israel is a good analogy.

For the record, Davis is not a conservative. He used to work for Bill Clinton.

But people, pay attention to who wants her fired and see if they say the same the next time Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or some other yo-yo, like South Carolina Senator Jake Knotts, makes a racist statement and is put on blast.

I think the higher up the person is, the more power he or she wields, the more we have a right and duty to say "It's time to go now" if we believe they're spreading hate speech. However, I'm pretty sure Helen Thomas doesn't have the power of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Nevertheless, if she's having trouble filtering her words and considering the consequences of her speaking her mind, then her effectiveness in media is over. But it would have been nice if the people calling for her firing or resignation could have done so without insulting her age and physical appearance. Free speech in America is nasty business.


Lola Gets said...

Jewish history is so convoluted, its hard sometimes to make heads or tails of the details. I used to be friends with a conservative Jew, and he would say, essentially, the same thing as Thomas (albeit in a nicer way).

Its a shame her career had to end on this bad note.


Robeen said...

I say only this,: Helen Thomas has been known to be a racist for many years, she is the typical knee jerk liberal- as long as she didn't say it out loud it was accepted.
I'm not a conservative, but I'm also not a knee jerk follower of all things liberal- I see the state that the Middle East is in and I attribute it to the decisions made by the Arabs in 1947/48. They told the refugees to leave Israel, then immediately after refused to accept a 2 state system- instead choosing to wage war on the tiny state of Israel. Their thinking? They would wipe out the Israelis and have the land back, to continue to use as a ghetto for the displaced of the surrounding area. Did you know that before the late 50's, it was considered an insult to be called "Palestinian"? There wasn't an Arab alive who would accept that moniker. Everyone there would identify as being from somewhere else. Now the Israelis have made the arid land arable, and the Arabs have one more thing to hate someone else for. and, yes, I am of Arab descent myself, and happy to be an American citizen. thank you Ja'ad'di, for coming to the US!

Anonymous said...

Alyssa, more and more I see our pro-Islamic-Hezbollah views, How come?


I will say it agaisn, Helen Thomas' racism & ethnic cleansing views is shameful, especially as a Lebanese she should know better, at at time that most Palestinian Arabs are not "natives", they're actually immigrants from Syria & other surrounding Arab lands. mostly their immigration occured in the years between 1880 and 1948.

Let's remember that it was the Mufti that founded the Arab Israeli conflict in in 1929 by his genocide campaign to ´Kill all Jews,´ nothing has changed since.

The Islamic Mufti influenced Arabs' racism by his Islamic radicalism!!!

The Arab world Keep on branding everything Israel does for defense as "racist" Because racist sepremacist (almost all of) Arabia & racist Palestine don't even allow Jews to live in their "pure-arab" apartheid land.

And what is Arab terror on Jews all about if not raw anti-Jewish racism?

And what is the motivation behind all the bloody cruelty upon its people by Hamas / Hezbollah to cause civilians to die in order to blame Israel for it, Is it not bigotry?

Try to conduct a poll in ALL OF ARABIA about Jews...

Most Israeli Jews are "brown." BTW! And Arabs are often treated far better than Jews, look at all court cases!

On a side note:
We should never forget what Arab Palestinian (PLO, Arafat) Muslims did to Lebanese in Damour. All the while they keep on talking about Sabra Shatilah

Vérité Parlant said...

I let Anonymous's comment through just so I could ask one question. Who in the hell is Alyssa?