Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

American Journalism May Be In Trouble

Posted in United States by Dan on June 19, 2010

After a lengthy 50-year career that was composed of grilling presidents about war, the economy, and U.S. foreign policy, Washington press-corps member Helen Thomas has decided to call it quits and vacate her first-row seat in the White House briefing room.  But her retirement was not propelled by her old age (she is turning 90 years old this August) or sloppy reporting, as most journalists today use as reasons for resignations.  Nor was her retirement a product of her employer- Hearst Newspapers- whose management probably still viewed the veteran Thomas as a valuable asset in all things political.

Rather, her decision was rooted in some questionable comments that she made about Jews to a reporter during, ironically, a White House sponsored Jewish Heritage event.  When asked by a reporter what she thought about the state of Israel in today’s global environment, she responded by saying “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.  Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.  Go home…Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else.” The comments were not only caught by the reporter’s camera, which was rolling during the entire interview, but were subsequently released to the world through YouTube, with tens of thousands of people responding to the video with a combination of anger and displeasure.

Unfortunately, her “go home” attitude towards the Jews is not exactly accurate, and it lacks a certain context that, if enacted, would quickly lay her argument to rest.  As Richard Cohen of the Washington Post cited in his editorial this past Tuesday, Jews could not necessarily go home after World War II without being the victims of widespread discrimination in European communities.  Even after the horror that was the Holocaust, Jews were still being killed when they attempted to venture home to reclaim their houses and small businesses.  The result most of the time was more violence towards the Jewish community by those in Poland who were accustomed to taking advantage of their absence.  According to Cohen, a total of 1,500 Jews were murdered in this fashion during 1945-1946.

So the Jews did try to “go home,” but were subsequently punished for doing so.  Therein lies the foundation of Israel, an entity that many Jews believed could serve as their own fresh start with the world and a place where Jews could live together in peace and prosperity.  One wonders if Helen Thomas was aware of this, in which case her comments would be even more detested than they already are.

But the real issue at hand here is how a quick 20 second interview could collapse a 50 year old career in political journalism, or how a few tasteless remarks can poison someone’s reputation as a tough and independent-minded interviewer of every president since John F. Kennedy.  Since when did Washington become so uptight and hypersensitive about views that contradicted official U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has largely been built upon America’s “special relationship” with the state of Israel?  The United States is supposed to be a country that cherishes ideas that seep outside the public mainstream, because these are the same ideas that produce more intense debate about topics that have been lingering in conventionality for far too long.

The real question here- and thus the real story- is who squeezed Thomas out of her job.  Was it the work of Israel’s right-wing lobbies, who are consistently adamant about unconditional U.S. support for Israel and who are all too quick to categorize opposing viewpoints as anti-Semitic?  Or was it the White House, who perhaps equated Thomas’ continuation as a press corps journalist with trouble from lobbies like AIPAC?  Or maybe it was a combination of the two, or an entirely different organization.  Or perhaps Helen Thomas truly felt bad about her remarks, and thought that maybe she needed to retire in her old age anyway.

We don’t know, and I’m not sure we ever will.  The answer is negligent to the broader picture; that of the state of journalism.  Because if this is how journalism in the United States is going to be conducted in the future, with pressure from outside sources on what can be said, then I’m afraid that innovation and independent analysis (however distasteful this analysis may be to some) is being destroyed and replaced with ad-hoc reporting.  This is not something we need at a time when age-old conflicts are still unresolved (like the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace process) and new ones continue to surface (Iran’s nuclear program, international and domestic terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs, etc).

One of the key aspects of problem-solving is public debate on controversial issues, even more so when issues are related to a nation’s public policy.  Helen Thomas’ remarks may have been offensive and disparaging, but an overreaction to these remarks may be just as bad in the long-run.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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