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The downfall of Helen Thomas

On May 27, Rabbi David Nesenoff held a Flip camera up to Hearst columnist Helen Thomas and asked a straightforward question: "Any comments on Israel?"

"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," said Thomas.

She had more to say about where Israelis should move to, exactly, and the video of her saying it was uploaded on June 3. Matt Drudge linked to that, and the deluge began. As of Monday, Thomas's speaking bureau has dropped her, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has called for her to be fired, and Time magazine's Joe Klein has called for her to lose her special seat in the White House briefing room.

The important thing to remember here is that Thomas, who has covered the White House for 50 years, does not have a reservoir of goodwill with anyone outside of the White House Press Corps. For decades, conservatives have accused Thomas of bias. (Jonah Goldberg's take on the scandal explains it all.) For the past few years, they have honed in on her opinion of Israel as a main source of bias. In 2005, Ann Coulter sneeringly referred to Thomas (whose family is Lebanese) as an "old Arab." The usual suspects demanded an apology from Coulter, but she was saying what a lot of conservatives thought -- that Thomas was biased against Israel and American foreign policy, and only her status as a "legend" allowed her to ask questions of the president.

For those of us who don't cover the White House, Thomas's current status and access is something of a mystery. She writes a column, but she doesn't break news. She is allowed to ask questions at practically every presidential Q&A, and usually asks questions about the Middle East that no other reporter would. Her first question to Obama in 2009, for example, was whether he "knew of" any Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons -- an attempt to get him to name Israel. At 89 years old, she had become an institution, someone whom it was rude to criticize even if she said something strange.

No longer. I don't know how her reputation survives this scandal. Conservatives who have attacked her credibility for years finally have the proof they need to end her special status.

By David Weigel  |  June 7, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Media  
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