Helen Thomas Retirement Prompts WH Correspondents Board to Evaluate Seating Rules for Opinion Journalists
June 7, 2010 - 5:35 PMThe fallout from Helen Thomas' controversial comments about Israel and Jews, which led to her immediate retirement on Monday, has prompted journalists covering the White House to re-evaluate the role of an opinion columnist in the White House press corps.
Thomas, 89, the so-called dean of the White House press corps, covered the White House as a news reporter for United Press International (UPI), beginning with the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. In 2000, she left UPI to become an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers. She has a front row seat at the White House press gallery with her name on it.
On Friday, June 4, a video surfaced of Thomas saying (on May 27) that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” and that the Jews should “go home” to “Poland, Germany,” and to “America and everywhere else.” After initially apologizing for the comment, Thomas announced her immediate retirement on Monday.
The White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) board issued a statement on Monday calling Thomas’ remarks “indefensible,” but the WHCA also said the matter raises legitimate questions going forward.
“[T]he incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room,” the statement said. “That is an issue under the jurisdiction of this board.”
The WHCA will meet this week “to decide on the seating issue.”
In a separate statement on Thomas’ retirement, the WHCA board said, “Helen Thomas has had a long and distinguished career in journalism that is unrivaled, covering 10 presidents over the past 50 years.
“Along the way, she shattered many glass ceilings, including serving as the first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. We are saddened by her recent comments, but we commend her for a trailblazing career, and we wish her the best.”
The WHCA decides what news organizations obtain seating in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room. However, it is the White House Media Affairs office that issues credentials to reporters.
Thomas has been a long-time critic of many of Israel’s policies.
She made her most recent and career-ending comments, during the White House Jewish Heritage celebration on May 27, in an interview with Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com.
Thomas first said of Israelis, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied and it is their land. Not Germany’s. Not Poland’s.”
The interviewer asked, “Where should they go? What should they do?”
Thomas said, “Go home.”
The interviewer asked, “Where is home?”
Thomas said, “Poland, Germany.”
The interviewer then followed up, “You’re saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?”
Thomas answered, “And America and everywhere else.”
The video of the interview surfaced last week. On Friday, June 4, Thomas issued a written apology.
“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Thomas said. “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.”
However, Thomas announced she was retiring effective immediately on Monday, June 7.
During Monday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemned Thomas’ remarks.
“I think those remarks were offensive and reprehensible,” Gibbs said. “I think she should and has apologized, because – obviously those remarks do not reflect certainly the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here, and certainly not of the administration.”
Former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, both Jewish, publicly called for Thomas to lose her job with Hearst Newspapers or for the WHCA to take away her front row seat.
The correspondents’ association board issued its first statement shortly after news of Thomas’ retirement.
“Helen Thomas’s comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents Association board firmly dissociates itself from them,” the statement says. “Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat.
“While Helen has not been a member of the WHCA for many years, her special status in the briefing room has helped solidify her as the dean of the White House press corps so we feel the need to speak out strongly on this matter,” the statement continued.
“We want to emphasize that the role of the WHCA is to represent the White House press corps in its dealings with the White House on coverage-related issues. We do not police the speech of our members or colleagues. We are not involved at all in issuing White House credentials, that is the purview of the White House itself,” the board added.
“But the incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room. That is an issue under the jurisdiction of this board,” the statement continued. “We are actively seeking input from our association members on this important matter, and we have scheduled a special meeting of the WHCA board on Thursday to decide on the seating issue.”
(Fred Lucas is an associate member of the White House Correspondents Association, but is not a board member and had no role in the statement reported on in this story.)