Friday, June 11, 2010

Helen Thomas

So this whole Helen Thomas ordeal is getting me pretty down.

Don't know who Helen Thomas is? You should. She's been a thorn in the sides of presidential administrations since the Eisenhower administration. And a complete asshole to every white house press secretary for over 50 years.

She's an amazing inspiration to women in the journalism field, being the first woman to cover the commander in chief and his policies during a time when female reporters were supposed to be content with covering the newest curtains the first lady put up in the White House. She crashed through that glass ceiling with a vengeance, and this is always what I thought her legacy should be.

But it's not just the steps she took for women, it's the type of reporter that she is. I'm fairly young when it comes to the politics game, pretty much coming of age during the Clinton administration. And in respect to the media, when you think Clinton, you think cigars, meanings of "is", and blue dresses. You think pant-suits, sham marriages, and Vince Foster. So I'm used to a certain type of journalism, one that must keep us entertained rather then keeping us informed. I'm used to stupid questions about what type of alcohol our politicians prefer, what is on their Ipod and whether or not they were sufficiently sad or angry at some event. I'm used to major news stories revolving around character and insider speculation rather then policy and investigation; all justified with the notion that sensationalism, and not facts, is what the public really wants (although that rationalization is not holding up as much as the media wishes it were).

Thomas really had no time for this sort of bullshit. She relished in making the press secretaries uncomfortable with her pointed questions (she managed to make president Gerald Ford run, literally run, away from a question regarding Vietnam. Of course, she gave chase). Yes, she had an agenda to her questioning. But it was never one of sucking up to whomever was in power at the time. And in an era of "Joe Biden's wacky water fun world" circle jerking events to sucker the media into providing favorable, fluffy coverage of our political leaders (which they fell hook, line and sinker for), it's important that the agitators have some sort of standing in our mainstream media spectacle, that there's at least one curmudgeon, one cynic, that refuses to put aside the daily briefings in favor of getting ol' Joe with a super-soaker.

Helen Thomas was often cited as having a rocky relationship with our political figures and a major nuisance; unheard of in a day where Sarah Palin is invited on Saturday Night Live despite shunning the news portion of that network, and John McCain is offered cupcakes during an interview about his presidential candidacy. No, the media cannot be hostile towards the politicians it is covering, as it can lead to decreased access to them, but what they seem to forget is that it's not in the best interest of the politicians be hostile to them either, in such a high-information society as ours a shunning by the media can be a death sentence for a candidacy. And somewhere down the line merely demanding accountability became hostile, when it should be the standard of which the media is held by. When the media refuses to do this, and finds that asking, say, the Bush Administration to back up their justifications for war is seen as impolite, even tawdry, well, we know where that gets us, don't we?

In the sea of villagers scrambling for a crumb of appreciation from their office-holding betters , Thomas didn't seem as desperately hungry. She isn't afraid of making enemies, if the cause was just enough to do so. She believes that respect is earned through the quality of the journalism put out, not in how many political figures make it to her birthday party or how many hits she got on her blog. She was always there, pounding away at the facades that the White House blankets themselves in, never offering them shelter from critique through humor or familiarity (those cupcakes never really paid off the way Obama expected them to). All this is why I appreciated Helen Thomas. To put it simply: She is a complete bad-ass. And I see her as the last of a rapidly dying breed in our modern media. In terms of what she brought to the table, she will be missed in that White House press room.

So, my thoughts on Thomas' legacy aside, let's get to the ugly stuff, what will be, in the end, her legacy. Helen Thomas said a bad thing. In a recorded casual interview, when inquired about Israel, she stated that the Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine", and opined that Jewish settlers of Israel should just "go home". To Germany, Poland, even America, they should "go home".

I can't really defend the line. It's crass in it's over-simplicity of the situation. I've always stayed out of discussions about Israel. The history is above my level of understanding, the emotion behind it intimidates me, plus I've never been fond of entering into a debate about a subject I have no solution for. With Israel and Palestine, I have no solution. I don't know what the hell they are supposed to do. But with that said, I get tired of the notion that Palestine lacks a legitimate grievance. To anyone looking at the situation rationally, it's obvious that they do have one.

So it's rather amusing to listen to commentary coming out of the American right about this, being that they so heavily base their platform on nationalistic rhetoric. And it's not just a national pride, we are so fucking prideful that we identify ourselves by state (Minnesota kicks all your asses). So hey, Texas, you now this whole "illegal immigrant" thing we got going on? The whole "citizens by birthright" aspect guaranteed to us by the constitution? A lot of Americans have a problem with children of immigrants being citizens of the United States. How about we carve up Texas and create a settlement of sorts, where these people can go to have some sort of sovereignty and state? Yeah, let's try that, and see what happens. It wouldn't. Yet these are the same people that vilify those that argue against the existence of Israel, which is essentially the same thing - land was taken by the global community and given away without the consent of it's inhabitants. And we really want to claim they don't have a right to be a bit peeved at that idea?

And with that as an opening, I have to say I can't help but be bothered by those rising up in Israel's defense. Yes, it's an asshole thing for Thomas to say, but I've become accustomed to asshole sayings from media figures. And let's be realistic: if Thomas would have switched out her ire and replaced "Israel" with "Palestine", or attacked Islam in an even more explicit manner, she'd be awarded with a prime spot on Fox News (although she's not young and blonde, so maybe not). Or even one of the other networks, I don't recall the full on freak-out when old man Buchanan lamented the fact that Elena Kagan (Obama's recent Supreme Court nominee) nomination means yet another Jewish person on the Supreme Court. He's still a regular on MSNBC because hey, it's Pat Buchanan. He says some fucked up bigoted shit sometimes, but hey, he's just crazy old grandpa Pat, so it's almost endearing, right? (No, no it's not). But it sits funny with me because a lot of this "pro-Israel" argument coming from the American right has it's basis in two factors - one, you have the "end-timers", the ones that believe we need to protect the Holy Land because that is where Armageddon will strike first (is it any wonder they applaud over-excesses against Islamic countries?). Second, and as a majority, you have the "enemy of my enemy" crowd. I assure you that most of these people care fuck all about the rights of Israelis. But by god, they sure as hell hate Muslims. So you'll have to forgive me if I find their cries of anti-Semitism to ring a bit hollow. I just don't believe that tolerance is their underlying goal here.

Maybe I'm American-centric, but it's interesting; the first thing that struck me about Thomas' comment wasn't this over-hyped view that she wants to send Jewish people back to the oven, or anything like that (being that the recording was made for Jewish journalism students, I kind of throw doubt on the whole "Thomas is anti-Semitic" line of argument). It was how nationalist it sounded (Thomas proudly flaunts her Lebanese heritage, and as we know, Israel and Libya have clashed in the past), and it annoyed me much in the same manner that American nationalism annoyed me. I always cringe when the proposed solution to racial profiling of people of Arab decent, or requirements of people of Hispanic origins to carry papers on them at all times are met with this idea: Love it or leave it. If you don't like it, this is America, goddammit, and you can just get the hell out. With Thomas, it was the same feeling, sure Jewish people of Israel, you might have problems, but maybe if you want to be whiny about it you should just get the hell out of Israel. Statements of such, as dickish as they may be, might feel good to get off one's chest. But they yield no worth in the actual issue at hand. They just piss people off. So not only was Thomas' comment offensive and hurtful, it was useless.

That other people do it doesn't make Thomas in the right. I know this. And I realize that some will try to paint this as white-washing her comments, because obviously, I'm favorable to her. But as I admit my bias, understand that this isn't my full intention here, and this is not a mutually exclusive situation. I can, at the same time, condemn Thomas' offensive simplicity while condemning the hypocritical reaction to her. much like I can, at the same time, affirm the right for Israel to exist while condemning some of their policies, and the reaction of the United States to issues related to them. And maybe that's what it is with discussions of this sort, they tend to be so black and white that the response becomes absurd.

And lastly, I can't help but question the timing of this whole debacle. Funny how although this was older footage, captured almost a month ago, it only comes out now, during a major foreign relations snafu courtesy of Israel. It doesn't really matter how pro-Israel one is, it's hard to find the right PR to defend an all-out over-reaction and slaughter of pro-Palestinian activists, who had the audacity to smuggle food and health supplies, along with concrete (concrete!) past state-enforced sanctions. It put the US in a tough position. Everyone knows that this was a large-scale mistake by Israel. But the US has never been allowed to take a stance against acts of the sort, because it's Israel. To their credit, the White House wavered a bit until finally and grudgingly admitting that maybe international investigations are in order. An awkward situation all around. But happily for them, we aren't talking about the attack on the flotilla anymore, are we? And as cynical as I am, I can't shake the feeling that may have been the point.

Sadly, it would only be a reporter like Helen Thomas that would have the gumption to ask if that were so.

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