Friday, June 11, 2010


You can’t do that on stage any more

To every president since John F. Kennedy, [White House correspondent Helen] Thomas, 89, was known for posing questions in the kind of tough and provocative manner that could make press secretaries gasp and her colleagues cringe.

And it appears that her tart tongue may have finally ended her career. Ms. Thomas said on Monday that she was retiring, effective immediately, after an uproar over her recent remarks that Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.

So reports the New York Times, and so ends Ms Thomas’s long career. One can say that it was time for it to end anyway, one can agree with her or dis-, and one can suggest that however much she wanted to make that point, she could have — and should have — found a more politic way to say it.

One can say all that, yet one has to come back to the point that she’s entitled to her opinion, and it bothers me that voicing her opinion has cost her job.

But wait, you say. What she said was vile and offensive, you say. Also, you add, this contradicts what you wrote in these very pages when Don Imus said some offensive stuff on the air. How can you type out of both sides of your fingers?

The latter point first: this is not the same as the Imus flap. Mr Imus said what he said on the air, while he was working, as a representative of his employer. His employer (temporarily) sacked him for it. There should be no surprise there, and it’s not what happened with Ms Thomas.

Helen Thomas made her comments outside of work. She said what she said as an individual, not representing her employer, and clearly not reflecting her employers’ viewpoints.

It’s also different to what recently happened with President Horst Köhler of Germany, who resigned after saying things about Afghanistan that were interpreted in a way that was embarrassing to Germany. In his role as an official German statesman, Herr Köhler was always on the job. Everything he said was representing his employer — his country. It would be silly to say that something similar is true for Helen Thomas, or for any other private citizen.

On the former point, I don’t care, for this purpose, how vile and offensive anyone thinks her view is. If she wants to say it, she can say it. You and I don’t have to like it, nor do we have to like Ms Thomas. But we have to accept that a cost of our freedom to speak our minds is her freedom to speak hers.

Consider these pages: I say things here that I stand behind, but that many people disagree with. Strongly. I’ve talked, over time, about prosecuting and imprisoning the President of the United States[1], about God as a delusional fantasy, about support for same-sex marriage and women’s right to choose abortion, and about defenestrating screaming children from airplanes.[2]

If my employer should disagree with my views on some of these things, should my job be at risk? I’m not attributing any of this to my employer, and I’m not writing this as part of my job. I have a right to voice these views, even if some folks out there find them vile and offensive — and, yes, I know that some do.

It should be no different for Helen Thomas, and her forced retirement is a bad precedent.

[1] The previous one, of course. But you know that.

[2] Yes, I’m exaggerating. I really only want to drug them.


WM Irwin said...

"defenestrating screaming children from airplanes"

I derive a very perverse pleasure when children loudly act up in public and I then observe how it makes others squirm. Sorry, Barry, but "scream, kid, scream!"

HRH said...

<<defenestrating screaming children from airplanes"

At the moment, I am waiting to board a plane to China, and there are at least 2 screaming kids, that are going ruin my peace for the next 8 hours. Defenestrating!! hmmmm.... NOT a bad idea :-)

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Drugging children seems like the kind of compromise -- between defenstration and total indulgence -- that could create ground between parents and non-parents.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Uh, that should be "create common ground".... Sorry....