Howard Kurtz on Helen Thomas, Al and Tipper Gore, Newsweek bids, more

Jun 07, 2010

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz takes take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Today's column: Howard Kurtz on Newsweek bidders, Helen Thomas gaffe, Gore breakup coverage

The 'observations' of Helen Thomas (on where Israelis should go) have gone unreported in the mainstream media. Is the press protecting one of their own? Is Helen Thomas a reporter or a commentator?

  Unreported? Let's see, it's in my column today. I was interviewed about it this morning on CNN. I saw Fox News doing a segment. The blogosphere is ablaze over it. Some outlets may have been slow because the story broke over the weekend, but it hasn't exactly been unreported.

Was Helen Thomas's remark really not newsworthy? You're just covering the reaction, as did CNN. The NYT and LAT have not said one word about any of it. WTOP today is reporting the cancellation of her local speech over a controversy that it too never mentioned. It's hard not to see this as the press giving a colleague a break that it wouldn't have given to a non-journalist public figure who made those remarks.

  I don't see where she's getting a break. And when you say "just covering the reaction," that means we are a) covering what she said; b) reporting on why people thought it was outrageous (I quoted Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis); and c) reporting her apology. That's the way journalism works.

The first I heard about this was watching Morning Joe today. Was it that underreported over the weekend, or did I simply miss it? They had two takes on it, either of which calls for her to retire (and a graceful retirement would be a major face saver for her). The first was the prevailing call for her to be fired because her anti-Semitic remarks are over the line and have no place in the White House press room. The other implied that she's become senile. Not the impression she typically gives off, but I guess it's not uncommon for someone in that condition to spout off without thinking clearly. Any thought to that?

  Helen Thomas is in full control of her faculties, she is a longtime critic of Israel, and she knew she was looking into a camera when she made those remarks.  She is, of course, 89 years old, and perhaps failed to filter her remarks, but that hardly lets off her off the hook for what she said.

Is there any doubt that you would lose your job at the Post for saying something equivalent to Helen Thomass's gaffe? So why is her continued employment by any reputable news agency even up for debate?

  That's a question for Hearst Newspapers, which for now has expressed its deep regret over Helen Thomas' remarks but has made no comment about her future employment.

Before you get mired down in the Thomas statement--whatever happened to free speech? -- I wish someone would have commented/praised the coverage of the oil spill by Rachel Maddow. She actually got out into the marshes and talked with the experts. It was straight reporting with no liberal bias. .

  This is not a question of free speech. Helen Thomas is entitled to say whatever she wants, regardless of how repugnant others may find it. But she has no automatic right to a newspaper column or a seat in the White House briefing room. If her comments are considered reprehensible, she may lose those things. She can keep speaking out on her own, but no media organization is required to give her a platform.

As a former subscriber to Newsweek, it was surprising to read in your column that Jon Meachem realizes he made a mistake by taking Newsweek into a liberal-leaning magazine? Isn't it more of an example of why conservatives/Republicans have subscribed to Human Events, Newsmax, Townhall and other news sources? Do you also think Time magazine is suffering in loss of subscribers more because their reporters are too focused on "opinion journalism" rather than reporting straight news about events of the week?

  I didn't say that Meacham recognizes he made a mistake, I said that some at Newsweek believe he took the magazine down the wrong path. But whether he was wrong or right - and I've frequently noted Newsweek's move to the left - the magazine's problems are much bigger than that and bigger than Meacham. Newsweek has lost more than $40 million since 2007.  Time has also moved toward analysis and opinion, but has done it in a more successful way, and with the backing of the much larger Time Warner.

Aside from her longevity, what do you think Helen Thomas contributed to the history of the White House Press Corps? Did she ever uncover any important news in her career with the Corps? Is longevity a reason to get the reverence she received?

  Her longevity is now over. Helen Thomas just announced that she is retiring.

Why isn't Al Gore being pressed for an explanation of his split up? Could it be that he's a former reporter, source and friend to many in the MSM? I seem to recall some bitter stories when Newt Gingrich split from his wife and remarried.

  First, why does he owe the world an explanation? He's no longer a public official.  Plus, since he's not exactly holding news conferences these days, I don't believe any reporter has had a chance to question Gore, on this or anything else, since the couple's announcement.

Just curious: Are you getting more questions today about Newsweek or about Helen Thomas?

 Not even close.

Unless I missed it the print edition of the Post has so far failed to report on the remarks about Israel made recently by Helen Thomas; the same goes for my home-town paper the LATimes. If a conservative columnist had made equally repugnant and loathsome comments, I suspect it would have quickly made it into the print pages; why is the Post and many in the print media protecting Helen Thomas?

 Yup, you missed it.

Howard: You said in your column this morning that Jon Meacham had made Newsweek a "left leaning" publication. I don't honestly see where a publication that features Robert Samuelson and Evan Thomas can be described as "left leaning." And PBS has been soundly jeered in liberal circles for replacing Bill Moyers program with Meacham's resolutely centrist/sliding right talk show.

  I don't think it's a close call. This or that journalist may not be left-leaning, but look at the columnists: Jonathan Alter, Jake Weisberg. The only conservative columnist is George Will. The way the magazine has covered Obama is a case study in leaning left. The cover story bashing Rush Limbaugh. There are many fine and fair-minded journalists at Newsweek, but even Meacham doesn't argue very hard when I tell him the magazine has moved left.

I thought that the coverage of the Gore separation was pretty tame because there seems to be no smoking gun other than two people who decided to move on for reasons not readily fathomable. As yet, there seems to be no Appalchian Trail to feed the gossip beast.

 Precisely. We are so accustomed in journalism to thinking there must be a bimbo eruption or soul mate somewhere. Sometimes people in marriages really do just drift apart, whether they are ordinary folks or a former vice president/Nobel laureate and his wife.

Fox News reporters say something reprehensible almost every week and they still have a seat at the WH briefings.

  Fox's top White House correspondent is Major Garrett, and even the Obama team regards him as fair.

Howard: Simple question: Since when did "reprehensible" views become grounds for keeping someone out of the WH press corps? Who sets those standards?

 It's up to the White House Correspondents Association, which provides the credentials. The president and his press secretary can choose not to take questions from someone whose views they strongly disapprove of, but they don't have the right to exclude that person, nor should they.

Who are these people who say the MSM isn't reporting on Helen Thomas foul remarks? That's all I've heard since yesterday. Even on NPR and Liberal Talk on satellite radio. If one was paranoid one would think it was a group trying to punch up the story even more.

  It's everywhere. I was working on it over the weekend, talking to Helen, Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis.

I understand reporters are human and have their own opinions, but why can't they just ask objective questions? They need to keep their opinions to themselves, and when they do ask questions, they should be objective questions -- not slanted either to the right or left. My advice to reporters? Shut up and report!

  First, reporters aren't stenographers. And second, after decades as a reporter, Helen Thomas became a columnist a decade ago, meaning she was paid for her opinions. But while she has clearly been anti-Israel, she has never before publicly expressed the view that the Jews should abandon Israel.

Good day Mr. Kurtz: Helen Thomas has been making hostile comments for years about Jews and Israel. I don't know why her latest disgraceful insults have come as such a surprise. Where was Walt Whitman HS's due diligence before they issued the invitation in the first place?

  I don't know how closely the Bethesda high school examined her career. But I must say, having seen Helen Thomas ask antagnostic questions about Israel and the Middle East for years, I've never heard her say anything remotely close to her "go back where they came from" remarks.

I think Helen Thomas was set up. She never hid her position over the Middle East and as a daughter of Lebanese immigrants was decidely opposed to the establishment of Israel. So a rabbi put a cell phone in her face and asked her what she thought of the Midlde East policies, and she responded. So what. There's a growing population in this country of Middle Eastern immigrants who agree with her. Why should we have only one view of the Middle East?

 She was absolutely not set up. The rabbi didn't even ask her a sharply worded question, just asked for her views on Israel. We certainly have many views of Israel and Israeli policies in this country, as the recent uproar over the combat on the Turkish flotilla made clear. Again, Helen Thomas has a right to her views, but not necessarily a right to a newspaper column, which, in this face of this firestorm, she has now given up.

Anti-semitism on the political left has been among the most underreported political stories of the last 20 years. There's no shortage of material to draw from here, from Thomas, to McKinney, to the many official declarations that have emanated from mainline liberal religious denominations. Why exactly has more attention not been paid to this? Is it really because most press folks aren't aware of it enough to realize that it deserves to be covered as a larger narrative kind of story rather than a series of isolated and unrelated episodes?

  I think we need to be careful about not equating strong criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Sometimes it is motivated by anti-Semitism, but even many American Jews disagree with some Israeli government policies--on settlements, treatment of Palestinians, the flotilla raid, etc. But to say that Israel's Jews should go back to Germany (and Poland and America) is way, way outside the mainstream.

Mr. Kurtz: You are probably the only one on the planet who has not opined or prognosticated on what Steve Jobs is going to announce at his keynote set to begin in 20 mins. Here is your chance. Is the rampant speculation justified?

 My heart has not been aflutter over this. I still haven't recovered from the iPad hype.

Did her non-apology, which sounded more like she regretted saying these things on tape, finally doom her chances of staying on as part fo the WH Press corps?

  It may have contributed. I spoke to Helen Thomas on Friday night. She said she was sorry for what she said, but it was a narrow apology that didn't address the substance of her remarks. She didn't want to stay on the phone. I got the impression that she just wanted to say something that would make the whole thing go away.

Thomas also was quite critical of GWB when the rest of the press corps was afraid to ask any tough questions because we were about to go to war. The world should have been outraged that she was the only WH reporter being tough on the WH, not outraged over a comment about Israel. Priorities.

 I'm sorry, she was not the only journalist was was "tough" on Bush, and her questions often presumed that the administration did not care about the deaths of Iraqi civilians. She was against the war and made it clear. And this is not just "some comment about Israel"; she didn't just criticize the way Israel deals with Gaza or treats the Palestinians; she said the Jews had no right to be there and should abandon the country.

I think what Helen said was horrible and offensive. I have lost much respect for her and will probably not read her columns again. Isn't she now considered an opinion writer? Isn't that the excuse we get when Pat Buchanan or Rush Limbaugh say something just as, or more offensive without losing their jobs? It seems to me there's a double standard at work here.

  She is -- or was -- an opinion writer, but no one's offering that as an "excuse." What she said was so offensive that it almost doesn't matter what her job description was. And no, you won't be reading her column again now that she's in effect been forced to retire.

What do you think of the criticism from mostly the media of the president not being "angry enough"? It seems they are trying to create some conflict where there really is none because they can't quite come up with anything else the president should be doing that he's not doing other than yell and scream or something. They admit that it's unfair yet keep talking about it. Shouldn't they stick to reporting what is being done and let the readers decide if the president is angry enough?

  It's mostly pundits who are indicting the president for insufficient anger, and I would agree that he can seem awfully calm, even passive, in the face of a national calamity such as the oil spill. Connecting with the public is part of a president's job. But it's also true that the commentators are dealing with theater criticism because no one, including them, knows what to do about this spill. The White House has been greatly frustrated by the coverage of Obama's role in the BP debacle.

There seems to be an assumption in your responses to Helen Thomas queries that you believe Israel has a "right" to be there. So what is this "right" and how does it trump the right of Palestinians who were living there before they came?

  It's not an assumption. Israel was created as a sovereign country in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. That doesn't make Israel "right" in everything it does in terms of dealing with its Arab population and its neighbors, but there is an international consensus that it has a right to exist.

Her parents are from Lebanon. She may have some Lebanese or Palestinian family members who have been directly impacted by Israel. My husband is a Lebanese Christian and he and his entire family question Israel's right to be where it is based on how they treat the Arabs both in and out of the country. Why is it not okay for her to share the Arab perspective on Israel? It's not like she's advocating terrorism.

  Helen Thomas is indeed the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and she is indeed entitled to her views. But saying the Jews should just "go home" goes well beyond the "Arab perspective"; such countries as Egypt have accepted Israel's right to exist, even if Hamas and Hezbollah have not.

I am deeply saddened to see a journalistic career go down in flames like this. Helen did so much for the profession and to help women advance, but she was way over the line with these comments.

  I share that feeling. She had an amazing career, beginning when women simply didn't have jobs like covering the White House, unless it was to write soft features on the first lady. But she may have stayed far too long, and it is sad to see her professionally self-destruct like this on the eve of her 90th birthday.

  Thanks for the chat, folks.

In This Chat
Howard Kurtz
Kurtz has been the Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk.
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