Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Veteran reporter Helen Thomas quits over Israel remarks

Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas abruptly retired as a columnist (AP)

Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent who grilled and often exasperated 10 presidents, has quit abruptly in a storm over "reprehensible" remarks about Israel.

Ms Thomas, 89, who made her name as a bulldog for United Press International and was a pioneer for women in journalism, retired as a columnist for Hearst News Service after saying Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine".

The announcement, in a terse statement by Hearst, came after videotaped remarks she made to an independent film-maker spread through the internet.

Ms Thomas apologised, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned her comments as "offensive and reprehensible". And her press corps colleagues with the White House Correspondents Association issued a rare admonishment calling them "indefensible".

Ms Thomas, a daughter of Lebanese immigrants, joined UPI in 1943 and began covering the White House for the wire service in 1960. Fiercely competitive, she became the first female White House bureau chief for a news service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members.

"Helen was just a vacuum cleaner about information," said author Kay Mills, who took dictation from Ms Thomas as a young UPI staffer and wrote A Place In The News: From The Women's Pages To The Front Page. "She made sure she had everything. She may have been covering Jackie Kennedy and a birthday party for one of the children, but I'll tell you, the desk had every bit of information it ever needed."

When the Watergate scandal began consuming Richard Nixon's presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Ms Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband, John, by the president's men. Ms Thomas retained her place on the front row of the White House briefing room after joining Hearst in 2000 and remained persistent to the point of badgering.

She aggressively questioned George Bush junior and his press secretaries about the war in Iraq, which many of his supporters said would make Israel safer by ridding the Middle East of Saddam Hussein. And she gave Barack Obama similar handling about Afghanistan just two weeks ago: "Mr President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here'," she said.

Ms Thomas had been scheduled to speak at the June 14 graduation of Walt Whitman High School in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, but principal Alan Goodwin said she was being replaced. "Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness," Mr Goodwin said in a letter to parents and pupils.

Writing on her website, Ms Thomas said, "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognise the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon."

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