Do not let Helen Thomas fade quietly into twilight

Most of me cringed when I first saw the YouTube video of Helen Thomas telling Jews, basically, that they could go back to where they came from. They came from Israel and in the Bible they are the “People Israel” but figuring that out and squaring that with centuries of history and theology is, well, above the pay grade of a former White House Press Secretary.

It is also above the pay grade of former spokespeople at that great house to decide who and who should not be there to chronicle our work on behalf of We, the American People. Ari Fleischer  was surely right that Helen’s comments were reprehensible and in need of sanction.  But I worry when officers of the White House have authority to make decisions about who constitutes “the White House Press Corps.” Those decisions should be left to the self-appointed authorities in the press who decide matters of credentials for the media – the White House Correspondents Association and the officials at the various galleries of the press who cover Congress.

In truth, no one knows today who is “The Press.” There is rampant confusion over bloggers, pundits, reporters, mainstream media correspondents (a species in decline) and out-of-bounds crazies. Helen Thomas, in her amazing career, probably qualified in all those categories. But that is where she got caught.

In my experience (now a decade old), Helen would show up at my door at 7 a.m. and ask, “What have you got for me?” Usually it was coffee and donuts provided by my staff to give her a chance to stick around and tell stories; not the breaking news she was seeking. Stories she had more of than breaking news. But for many of those young people who listened and learned from her stories about covering every president going back to JFK, Helen was a pioneer. No one should take that away from her.

But Helen also had strong opinions. When she worked at United Press International, it did not matter. She could ask the most opinioned question about the Middle East (usually countered by an equally opinioned question from Barry Schweid of the Associated Press) and both of them would file hard news copy for wire services that truly was “fair and impartial.” You would not have known the ideological convictions of either.

But Helen’s story is the story of mainstream media’s decline.  As UPI went south, Helen went to opinion.  As my friends Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil would say, the literature went from “verification” to “assertion.”  From fact to opinion. From hard news to analysis. One of my first bosses on Capitol Hill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to say, “We are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.”

Helen got in trouble because of her opinions.  They were strong and wrong. But she got us to pay attention because she made Presidents and Press Secretaries pay attention to the facts. There was never a day when I did not know that she – sitting in the front row at the briefing room – would catch me if I tried to slip something by. Please let her seat be filled with someone committed to that quest for truth.