Don’t touch the third rail

Helen Thomas made a mistake. The 89-year old journalist with a 60-year career of fearless Washington reporting blurted out that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Israel.” She was not reporting, she was responding to an impromptu question. But the remarks were captured on video and widely circulated around the web. A firestorm erupted, she was widely criticized, and nobody of influence stepped forward to defend her, despite her swift apology (not even President Obama, who a few months earlier had serenaded her and brought her cupcakes). Within a few days, her illustrious career was snuffed out when she abruptly retired from Hearst news agency before they could fire her. Just like that.

Thomas certainly deserves censure for her remarks, which were clearly insensitive and crass. But if crass, insensitive, even outrageous remarks were justification for journalistic termination, we’d see a much higher turnover in the talking heads department. The question that has been rolling around in my head these past weeks since Thomas’ retirement is whether the sharks turned on her because of what she did wrong—or whether her remarks gave people in power an excuse to get rid of her because of what she did right.

Thomas’ long career with the Washington Press Corps had earned her a seat at the front of the White House briefing, where she relentlessly questioned press secretaries about war policy and strategy—regardless of the administration. In recent years, she had moved from reporter to opinion columnist, and in that role her anti-war views had become quite clear. She has been one of the few remaining journalists to continue to play the role of the “fourth estate” that became the reigning journalistic ethic in the wake of Edward R. Murrow’s skewering of McCarthy politics. In recent decades, fewer and fewer journalists have had the desire or courage to follow in Murrow’s and Thomas’ fooststeps, especially when fame and money flow to those who spew lies and offensive comments in a 24-hour stream of invective to keep tempers inflamed and thoughtful analysis at bay. How much more so now that someone with such a long and respected career as Thomas could be dropped like a hot potato?

First Bush speechwriter David Frum, pushed to resign after critiquing the GOP’s radical right swing, now Thomas—who on Earth would be willing to raise the tough questions now?

If Thomas deserves to be fired, fine. But then why not fire Pat Buchanan, another opinion columnist who referred to Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the “most divisive men in contemporary American politics?” Or how about Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who loves to compare everything from the health-care bill to climate change policy advocates to Hitler’s “final solution?” Or maybe the irrepressible Rush, who once asked, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”

Huffington Post blogger John McQuaid noticed that the Helen Thomas flap conveniently directed the media’s attention away from Israel’s deadly attack on the flotilla of protesters and aid workers attempting to break through the Gaza blockade, thereby allowing all of us to sidestep precisely the kinds of questions that Thomas was fond of raising about our Israel policies: What are the moral grounds for our continued support of Israel? Should there be limits to that support, and if so, under what circumstances? What are the costs, to us and to global stability, of that support? Those and a zillion other questions ought to be part of our public debate but are suppressed because U.S.-Israel policy is so politically hot. Some even call it the “third rail of American politics.”