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Helen Thomas, Old Journalism Ambushed by the New One

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A few years ago, Helen Thomas spoke at Brigham Young University, the Mormon school in Provo, Utah, where she was being honored for her long career. In her speech to the student body, her liberal views caused a big controversy on this mostly conservative campus.

When this latest controversy erupted concerning her remarks about Jews in Palestine, I knew she was finished because what I heard was wrong and hurtful. But we never had the opportunity to know what Helen Thomas meant by those remarks--no one gave her an opportunity to elaborate or clarify her remarks. For the mind that views the Israel-Palestine conflict as black and white, her statements are clearly wrong and hurtful. But what she actually meant will remain in her mind, and only in her mind, as I do not think anyone cares to ask her to explain her remarks. What she said can be interpreted in many ways depending on one's own filters, beliefs and lexicon.

"Israel should get the hell out of Palestine" and "the Jews in occupied Palestine should go back to Germany, Poland, America, and everywhere else" has one predominant interpretation of mass expulsion. Referencing the settlers of the West Bank is not just within the realm of possibility, but also a very plausible interpretation of her statements. You simply cannot ignore this. Nobody asked her to clarify. For all we know, Helen Thomas may be a die-hard two-state solution advocate, who recognizes Israel as Israel and Palestine as the West Bank and that is where her impromptu semantics are rooted. She could be speaking of thousands of illegal settlers that terrorize Palestinians on a daily basis by cutting their water supplies and uprooting their trees.

A legendary journalist for 57 years, and I don't think anybody has ever heard her whisper anything anti-Semitic or in favor of ethnic or religious cleansing. To suddenly argue that she holds heinous, indefensible views because of ambiguous remarks she made is laughable. For years now, I have heard Helen speak the truth and dazzle her audience that she never disappoints.

This is clearly a case of "gotcha journalism," where the Rabbi shoved a hand-held camera in the face of Helen, and asked her a provocative question, cornering her. The moment he got his sound bite, he was off and running. But this technique is not new; sting journalism is common. Feeding them the answers you want to hear is the fashion mockumentary makers use all the time. Get the answer you want and then move on, not giving the interviewee an opportunity to clarify their statements.

Pleased with his catch, this person uploads the video on YouTube and the blogs and social media run with it. All of a sudden, you have a news story that is making waves. In the old days, Helen might get a phone call to clarify those remarks, but nowadays with user-generated content, it is hard to edit or fight back to protect your good name. I once heard Helen say, "Thanks to the internet, everybody has an opinion and a way to deliver it." I just did not imagine that the internet would also bring her career to an end.

The irony here is that most people are now attacking her for saying the dumbest thing of her entire career, but they are the same people who never paid attention to the smart and courageous remarks she had to say over the years about the war. They just dismiss her as "that old lady" and at times call her "senile," "old bat,""a witch,"etc. and now all of the sudden they want to hold her accountable for hurtful yet ambiguous remarks. Take for example former governor Huckabee unloaded on Helen Thomas to apologize, even though he has in the past demanded Palestinians leave. She should have known better, but it seemed like an off-the-cuff remark during an informal conversation. Not everyone can be a perfect spokesperson.

Had she been talking about the militaristic Israeli occupation then her remarks would make a lot more sense. But her untactful remarks have so many plausible meanings that it troubles me a journalist who has a gift of words would make such an ambiguous statement. Compared to other figures caught in such unfortunate remarks, Helen Thomas showed a lot of class by apologizing for her remarks as she saw how they can be hurtful for some. She did not, and maybe was not allowed to, clarify her remarks to that hand-held camera guy who ambushed her and from his voice seemed like a nice guy with wicked intentions. The Rabbi with the hand-held camera had his own trouble with stereotypes of Mexicans.

As the Arabic proverb goes, "When the camel falls, the knives are many." Ultimately, none of us know because nobody (including the interviewer) asked her what she meant, and instead people and the corporate media rushed to judge and to mount a campaign against her. Even the White House, which was missing in action when an American citizen was killed at sea by the Israelis, found time to condemn the unfortunate remarks.

Helen Thomas will remain the legend she is, a trailblazer for journalists and especially women journalists; she is also an icon for senior citizens when she celebrates her 90th birthday this August and is still on top of her game. A moment of ambiguity cannot and should not erase a legacy of a lifetime.