Helen Thomas in February 2009
August 4, 1920 |
Winchester, Kentucky, United States of America
|Alma mater||Wayne State University (formerly Wayne University) (B.A., 1942)|
|Occupation||Author, retired journalist and columnist|
|Spouse(s)||Douglas B. Cornell
Helen Thomas (born August 4, 1920) is an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and opinion columnist. She worked for the United Press and post-1958 successor United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau manager. She was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. She covered every President of the United States from the last years of the Eisenhower administration until the second year of the Obama administration. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written six books; her latest, with co-author Craig Crawford, is Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (2009). Thomas retired on June 7, 2010, following controversial comments she made about Israel, Israeli Jews and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Early life and education 
Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky, the seventh of the ten children of George and Mary (Rowady) Thomas, immigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Thomas has said her father's surname, "Antonious," was anglicized to "Thomas" when he entered the U.S. at Ellis Island, and that her parents could neither read nor write. Thomas was raised mainly in Detroit, Michigan, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store. Of her experience growing up, Thomas has said,
"We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people."
She has also said that in Detroit in the 1920s, she came home crying from school, "They wanted to make you feel you weren't 'American'... We were called 'garlic eaters.'. She was raised as a Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church
She attended public schools, deciding to become a journalist while she was in high school. She enrolled at Wayne University (now Wayne State University), in Detroit, receiving a bachelor's degree in English in 1942.
Early career 
Her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, but shortly after she was promoted to cub reporter, she was laid off as part of massive cutbacks at the paper. Thomas joined United Press in 1943 and reported on women's topics for its radio wire service, earning $24 ($318 today) a week. Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote UP's "Names in the News" column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. After 1955, she covered federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Thomas served as president of the Women's National Press Club from 1959–60. In 1959, Thomas and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Presidential correspondent 
In November 1960, Thomas began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, taking the initiative to switch from reporting the "women's angle" to reporting the news of the day. She became the White House UPI correspondent in January 1961. Thomas became known as the "Sitting Buddha," and the "First Lady of the Press." It was during Kennedy's administration that she began ending presidential press conferences with a signature "Thank you, Mr. President," reviving a tradition started by UPI’s Merriman Smith during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.
In a 2008 article, the Christian Science Monitor described her thusly: "Thomas, a fixture in American politics, is outspoken, blunt, demanding, forceful and unrelenting. Not only does she command respect by the highest powers in the US, her reputation is known worldwide." When Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked in the early 2000s what was the difference between democracy in Cuba and democracy in the United States, Castro reportedly replied, "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas." Thomas considered Castro's reply to be "the height of flattery."
Thomas was the only female print journalist to travel to China with President Richard Nixon during his historic trip in 1972. She traveled around the world several times with all U.S. Presidents since Richard Nixon, and covered every Economic Summit since 1975, working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief, a post she would hold for over 25 years. While serving as White House Bureau Chief, she authored a regular column for UPI, "Backstairs at the White House." The column provided an insider's view of various presidential administrations.
Thomas was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House Briefing Room. All other seats are assigned to media outlets.
Departure from UPI 
On May 17, 2000, the day after it was announced that the UPI had been acquired by News World Communications Inc., an international media conglomerate founded and controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon which owns The Washington Times and other news media, Thomas resigned from the UPI after 57 years with the organization. She later described the change in ownership as "a bridge too far." Less than two months later, she joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, writing on national affairs and the White House.
After leaving her job as a reporter at the UPI, Thomas became more likely to air her personal, negative views. In a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she quipped, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’"
George W. Bush administration 
During President George W. Bush's first term, Thomas reacted to then-Press Secretary Ari Fleisher's statements about arms shipments to the terrorists by asking: "Where do the Israelis get their arms?" He responded "There's a difference Helen, and that is --". "What is the difference?", she asked. He responded: "The targeting of innocents through the use of terror, which is a common enemy for Yasir Arafat and for the people of Israel, as well as --". She interrupted him, saying: "Palestinian people are fighting for their land." He responded: "I think that the killing of innocents is a category entirely different. Justifying killing of innocents for land is an argument in support of terrorism."[vague]
In January 2003, following a speech at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet, Thomas told an autograph-seeker, "I'm covering the worst president in American history." The autograph-seeker was a sports writer for The Daily Breeze and her comments were published. After that she was not called upon during a press conference for the first time in over four decades. She wrote to the President to apologize.
Traditionally, Thomas sat in the front row and asked the first question during White House press conferences. However, according to Thomas in a 2006 Daily Show interview, this ended because she no longer represented a wire service. During the Bush administration, Thomas was moved to the back row during press conferences; She was called upon at briefings on a daily basis but no longer ended Presidential news conferences saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." When asked why she was seated in the back row, she said, "they didn’t like me...I ask too mean questions."
On March 21, 2006, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time in three years. Thomas asked Bush about the War in Iraq:
I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, [about] your decision to invade Iraq ... Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? .... You have said it wasn't oil...quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
Bush responded by discussing the War on Terror, and stated as a reason for the invasion that Saddam Hussein chose to deny inspectors[clarification needed] and not to disclose required information. Thomas was criticized by some commentators for her exchange with Bush.
In July 2006, she told The Hill, "The day Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is another liar... I think he'd like to run, but it would be a sad day for the country if he does."
At the July 18, 2006, White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, "The United States ... could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis... we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Press Secretary Tony Snow responded, "Thank you for the Hezbollah view." Other members of the press weighed in. According to Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, questions like the one above have sounded more like "tirades" and "anti-Israeli rhetoric."
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?" Perino immediately took offense, responding:
Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a...it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
Obama administration 
On February 9, 2009, Thomas was present in the front row for newly elected President Obama's first news conference. President Obama called on her with the statement, "Helen. I'm excited, this is my inaugural moment," seemingly a reference to her long-term presence in the White House Press Corps. Thomas asked if any Middle Eastern country possessed nuclear weapons. Obama replied that he didn't want to "speculate" on the matter.
On July 1, 2009, Thomas commented on the Obama administration's handling of the press, "we have had some control but not this control. I mean I'm amazed, I'm amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and you have controlled...". She also said that not even Richard Nixon tried to control the press as much as President Obama.
On August 4, 2009, Thomas celebrated her 89th birthday. President Obama, whose birthday is on the same day, presented Thomas with birthday cupcakes and sang Happy Birthday to her before that day's press conference.
Resignation controversy 
Thomas retired in June 2010, following negative reaction to comments she had made about Israel, Jews, and Palestine during a brief videotaped interview with Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com. Nesenoff was on the White House grounds with his son and a teenage friend for a May 27, 2010 American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day, and he questioned Thomas as she was leaving the White House via the North Lawn driveway.
When asked for comments on Israel, she replied: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." and "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland..." When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she replied they could "go home" to Poland or Germany or "America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?" She also mentioned she was of "Arab background." A one-minute excerpt of the May 27, 2010 interview was posted on Nesenoff's website on June 3.
On June 4, Thomas posted the following response on her web site:
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.
Thomas's agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., immediately dropped her as a client because of her remarks. Craig Crawford, who co-authored Listen up, Mr. President, said "I ... will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects." Her scheduled delivery of a commencement speech at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was canceled by the school. The White House Correspondents' Association, over which she once presided, issued a statement calling her remarks "indefensible." On June 7, Thomas abruptly tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers.
On June 8, in an interview on NBC's Today Show, President Obama called her remarks "offensive" and "out of line." and said her retirement was "the right decision." He remarked that it was a "shame" her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, and at the same time he recognized her long service covering U.S. presidents, calling her "a real institution in Washington." Her comments also garnered rebukes from numerous others, including White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, former special counsel to and White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson.
Ralph Nader noted the "double standard" where one off-hand "ill-conceived remark" ended Helen Thomas’ career while "ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters" engaged in "bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs." Gary Leupp in CounterPunch called the interview an "ambush" because it was a spontaneous one and wrote the "they" referred to did not specify whether it was all Jews or Jews in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He also criticized the White House for being more outraged by Thomas’ comments than by Israel’s May 31, 2010 Gaza flotilla raid which killed nine Turkish activists. Paul Jay on Huffington Post wrote Thomas "clearly" was referring to Jews from Germany, Poland and America who had to go to Israel after World War II, mostly because "the American, Canadian and British governments would not drop their anti-Jewish quotas" and that most refugees would have preferred to go to those nations.
Former managing editor for United Press International Michael Freedman said that Thomas had "shown that most dreaded of vulnerabilities—she is human" and "Let’s not destroy Ms. Thomas now." The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote: "Her remarks were offensive, but considering her journalistic moxie and courage over many decades—a sharp contrast to the despicable deeds committed by so many littering the Washington political scene – isn’t there room for someone who made a mistake, apologized for it and wants to continue speaking truth to power and asking tough questions?" Activist Medea Benjamin stated at a White House protest supporting Thomas: "We are clear what Helen Thomas meant to say, which is that Israel should cease its occupation of Palestine and we agree with that." Former White House correspondent Sam Donaldson disagreed with Thomas statements but praised Thomas' achievements as an early female journalist, and said her comments likely reflected the view of many people of Arab descent.
Hezbollah called Thomas' comments "courageous, bold, honest and free opinion." Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas stated that "Thomas Helen has told the truth that everybody in the world knows..."
In August 2010, a group of Holocaust survivors and relatives criticized the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan for its plans to place a statue of Helen Thomas in its museum, saying that it would be immoral to honor her and that "American values are at stake."[dead link]
In October 2010, Thomas said in a radio interview with Scott Spears of WMRN (AM) that she realized soon after making the comments that she would be fired, stating, "I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive." She added that she issued an apology because people were upset, but that ultimately, she still "had the same feelings about Israel's aggression and brutality."
In January 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement stating that it staunchly defends the right to free speech, but that "the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists." "...No individual worthy of such honor should have to face this controversy. No honoree should have to decide if the possible backlash is worth being recognized for his or her contribution to journalism." "SPJ will simply not give a lifetime achievement award (anymore)" said Scott Leadingham, spokesman for SPJ.
Later career 
2010 speech on Arab Americans 
On December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech for the eighth annual "Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans" conference at the Byblos Banquet Center on Chase, Thomas told reporters that she still stood by the comments she had made to Nesenoff. Referring to her resignation, she said "I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth." During the speech, Thomas said: "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion." Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, "I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country."
The next day, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had "clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite" in the speech. Hours later, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her antisemitic remarks. The school issued a statement saying: "As a public university, Wayne State encourages free speech and open dialogue, and respects diverse viewpoints. However, the university strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas...". Speaking for the school, Matthew Seeger said: "The controversy has brought a negative light to the award, which was never the intent of the award." Thomas herself reacted with scolding remarks saying that "the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press." She also stated that "the university also has betrayed academic freedom—a sad day for its students." The university's Arab American Student Union held a protest on campus December 10. In a news release the Palestine Cultural Office of Michigan made a call for concerned individuals to contact the university. Also, members of the Congress of Arab American Organizations held a meeting with university officials on December 7 in an attempt to make them repeal their decision, but a later response from the university said it would not reverse its position. Asked by the Detroit Free Press how she'd respond to people who say she's anti-Semitic, Thomas responded: 'I'd say I'm a Semite. What are you talking about?'".
2011 Playboy interview 
In March 2011, Thomas did an interview with David Hochman, a reporter for Playboy magazine. Asked by Hochman to explain her controversial remarks about Israel and Jews in particular, made in May 2010, she said, "Well, there's no understanding [on the part of the Israelis] of the Palestinians at all. I mean, they're living there and [the Israelis] want to come and take their homes and land and water and kill their children and kill them." When asked what she had meant when she commented that "they" should go back to Germany, Poland and America, Thomas replied that the millions of German, Polish, American and Russian Jews who have come to Israel in recent years should have stayed where they were as they have not been persecuted since World War II. Upon being asked if she recognizes that Palestinian hijacking and suicide bombing is wrong, Thomas answered, "Of course I don't condone any violence against anyone. But who wouldn't fight for their country?...The suicide bombers act out of despair and desperation." Thomas insisted she does not feel antisemitism toward Jews at all: "I think they're wonderful people. They had to have the most depth. They were leaders in civil rights."
Later in the interview, when asked by Hochman if she stood by her December 2010 accusations that Zionists own the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street, Thomas answered that she did stand by those remarks. When confronted with the fact that Jews constitute a small percentage of the total population, Thomas told Hochman: "I know where you're leading with this. You know damn well the power [Jews] have...It's real power when you own the White House, when you own these other places in terms of your political persuasion. Of course they have power. You don't deny that. You're Jewish, aren't you?" Hochman said that he was Jewish.
Thomas accused Israel of treating the Palestinians as the Nazis had treated the Jews of Germany and Poland and Hungary: "They can't just come in and say, 'This is my home,' knock on the door at three in the morning and have the Israeli military take them out. That's what happens. And that's what happened to the Jews [during the Holocaust]. Why do [the Israelis] inflict that same pain on people who did nothing to them?"
Subsequent Employment 
Thomas was employed as a weekly columnist by the Falls Church News-Press in January 2011. Owner-Editor Nicholas Benton repeatedly defended the decision to hire her despite her controversial comments. He noted in 2011 that he was "outraged" when the Society of Professional Journalists voted on retiring a scholarship award named for Thomas. Benton says that Thomas "is herself a Semite" and was "expressing a political point of view [in the interview with Nesenoff above], and not a bigoted racial sentiment." Her contributions to the paper have been sporadic, though she remains listed as a contributor.
In 1986 she received the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas. Thomas received an Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum in 1991. The White House Correspondent's Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the "Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award". In 2000, her alma mater, Wayne State University, established an award for journalists in her honor, the "Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award". In December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State which cited her renewed remarks similar to those in May 2010. Speaking for Wayne State, Matthew Seeger, its interim dean said, that the award is given to promote the importance of diversity in the media and that this award "is no longer helping us achieve our goals." In 2007, Thomas received a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families.
In April 2012, Thomas received an award from the Palestine Liberation Organization's General Mission to the United States. The award was presented by PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi to "recognize Thomas’ long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way."
- Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. (with co-author Craig Crawford) (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2009) ISBN 1-4391-4815-5
- The Great White House Breakout. (with co-author and illustrator Chip Bok) (Penguin Group, 2008) ISBN 978-0-8037-3300-8 (children's book)
- Watchdogs of Democracy? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006) ISBN 0-7432-6781-8
- Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003) ISBN 0-7432-0226-0
- Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times (Scribner, 2000) ISBN 0-684-86809-1
- Dateline: White House (Macmillan, 1975) ISBN 0-02-617620-3
See also 
- White House press corps
- Women in journalism and media professions
- Media bias
- Criticism of the Israeli government
- Media coverage of the Arab–Israeli conflict
- Jeremy W. Peters (June 7, 2010). "Reporter Retires After Words About Israel". New York Times. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
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- , Rabbi David Nesenoff; Helen Thomas (posted June 7, 2010, recorded May 27, 2010). Helen Thomas, Complete Version, (2 minutes) (video). Washington D.C.: RabbiLive.com. http://www.rabbilive.com/RabbiLIVE/Helen.html. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
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- Thomas:"Jews do not belong in Israel", Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades statement, June 6, 2010.
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- David Ng (August 6, 2010). "Journalist Helen Thomas still making waves". Art (Los Angeles Times). Retrieved August 7, 2010.
- "Helen Thomas on being anti-Semitic: 'Baloney!'". Associated Press. 12 October 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010.[dead link]
- Steele, Micki (January 14, 2011). "Journalism group shelves Helen Thomas award". The Detroit News. Retrieved January 19, 2011.
- Journalism group shelves Helen Thomas award, Detroit News January 14, 2011
- Wayne State ends Helen Thomas Award, UPI 04-12-2010
- "Helen Thomas stands by remarks about Israelis". The Detroit News. 2 December 2010. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
- Helen Thomas: Thrown to the wolves, Danny Schechter, Aljazeera, December 28, 2010
- Warikoo, Niraj (December 9, 2010). "Helen Thomas says Anti-Defamation League is intimidating her". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
- Helen Thomas: 'Congress, White House owned by the Zionists', Jerusalem Post 05-12-2010
- Warikoo, Niraj (December 7, 2010). "Helen Thomas blasts Wayne State University for ending award in her honor". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved December 30, 2010.
- Dado, Natasha (December 30, 2010). "Arab Americans still fighting to reinstate Helen Thomas award at Wayne State". The Arab American News.
- Detroit Free Press[dead link]
- Hochman, David (April 2011). "Playboy Interview: Helen Thomas". Playboy. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
- Thomas. "Veteran Journalist Thomas Resumes Column in News-Press". Retrieved 14 July 2012.
- "Editorial: Helen Thomas' Moral Victory". Retrieved 14 July 2012.
- 25 Most Influential Women . World Almanac.
- AP reporter (June 9, 2010). "Wayne State to keep award named for Helen Thomas". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. Retrieved June 9, 2010.[dead link]
- Lori Higgins (December 3, 2010). "Wayne State pulls diversity award named after Helen Thomas". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved December 3, 2010.
- "Defining Our Faith, Defending Our Rights". Council on American-Islamic Relations. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
- Bridget Johnson (18 September 2010). "Helen Thomas receiving lifetime achievement award from CAIR". The Hill. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
- Ravid, Barak (2 April 2012). "Former White House reporter Helen Thomas honored by Abbas". Haaretz. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Helen Thomas|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Helen Thomas|
- Helen Thomas at the Internet Movie Database
- Helen Thomas collected news and commentary at The New York Times
- Works by or about Helen Thomas in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Magda Abu-Fadil (August 4, 2010). "Happy Birthday Helen!". Huffington Post.
- Michael Sneed (August 3, 2010). "Where is Helen Thomas?". Chicago Sun-Times.[dead link]
- "RadioLIVE New Zealand interview with Helen Thomas" (Audio). RadioLIVE New Zealand. Posted June 15, 2010.
- "Elders Part 4 - Helen Thomas" (Transcript of Andrew Denton interview with Helen Thomas). July 7, 2008.
- David Chambers (March–April 2006). Calling Helen Thomas 57 (2). Saudi Aramco World. discusses Thomas impact on younger Arab-American journalists.
- "Truth, Fear and War", speech by Thomas, September 13, 2003.
- Oral History Interview with Helen Thomas, from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
- Oct. 2010 Interview of Helen Thomas by Scott Spears (WMRN)