The XX Factor

Helen Thomas’ Last Words

Irin Carmon is disappointed in Helen Thomas, but I’m much more disappointed in the journalists who took her down. It’s a despair-inducing kind of ironic that Thomas’ storied journalism career has been destroyed by the worst impulses of new media: Shove a camera in someone’s face, quote the most inflammatory few words they say, and cue the outrage.

If you’d just read the responses to Thomas’ comments, you would have thought she’d called on the international community to fire up the crematoriums. In reality, she was arguing that Israel’s Jews ought to return to the homes of their grandparents-in “Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else.” It’s odd, isn’t it, that “America, and everywhere else” was left out of story after story ? I disagree with Thomas’ premise, but it was still infuriating to see her call for a return to the pre-Holocaust diaspora be twisted into a call for a return to Auschwitz . “Jews Get of Israel, Go Back to Poland!” the headlines screamed . The next thing you knew, Helen Thomas is a raging anti-Semite who ought to be kicked to the back of the briefing room-no, fired ! Well, congratulations. You got what you wanted. Suddenly, Ari Fleischer is saying that the whole situation is “tragic and sad.” I might find it easier to believe him if he hadn’t spent the weekend accusing Thomas of “hatred,” “bigotry,” and “prejudice.” Helen Thomas’ head is on a platter because Fleischer and his gang of right-wing commentators were howling for it.

As a former intern (and current freelancer) for Hearst in Washington, I had the privilege of working near Thomas, close enough to her cubicle that I could hear her telling callers exactly what she thought of presidents past (Bush: “despicable”) and present (Obama: “disappointing”). Like many an intern before me, I had the happy task of fetching her water and coffee because she was too weak to get it herself, and she was forever gracious in her requests. “You always say ‘yes,’ ” she told me once. “You don’t have to say yes. If you are in the middle of something, you tell me to get my own damn coffee.’ ”

I didn’t know much about Helen’s journalism; she was already on her seventh president when I was born, and she would write about another three administrations before I started paying any attention to politics. But as a symbol of what can be achieved (and how much the world can change) in a lifetime, she was precious to me and many other young female journalists I know. It’s been sickening to watch that symbol defaced by a bunch of giddy bloggers. Matt Drudge is dancing a little jig while Fox News and Bloomberg fight a “death match ” over Thomas’ seat in the briefing room.

I’d like to think that in the long run this won’t matter very much, that Thomas will be defined by the sum total of her career and not by the last seven public words she spoke. But I know better, and so does she. “In my career,” she used to be fond of saying, “you’re only as good as your last story.” But if I had it my way, she’d be remembered for the words that she wrote on another intern’s copy of Front Row at the White House : “Let’s hope for peace and prosperity in the 21 st century.”