THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Will Beck and Limbaugh be next?

Helen Thomas, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Those in the opinion business should feel a little queasy in the aftermath of her ouster. Helen Thomas, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Those in the opinion business should feel a little queasy in the aftermath of her ouster.
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 10, 2010

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FIRST, THEY CAME for Helen Thomas. Who will be next — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and all the other purveyors of shocking statements, on the right and left?

The statements Thomas made — that the Jews of Israel should go back to Poland and Germany — were rightly denounced. Still, there was something perverse about the delight in her demise that was taken, especially by conservative commentators.

Their acts are routinely denounced as outrageous, sometimes racist and occasionally anti-Semitic.

But from local talk show host Howie Carr to the big guns at Fox News — Limbaugh married last weekend for the fourth time and was off the air — there was scant recognition of the underlying free speech issue that could threaten their own livelihoods.

The end of a career was viewed through the usual prism: conservative versus liberal politics. It was thrilling for conservatives that a self-proclaimed liberal who badgered George W. Bush during his presidency got the boot.

The forced retirement of the 89-year-old White House correspondent was also a chance for the guys to chortle over an ancient and unattractive crone. In a new media world that worships youth and cleavage, staying too long at the dance might have been Thomas’s biggest sin.

But the official reason for her departure is anti-Semitism.

Asked if she had a message for Israel, Thomas said, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.’’ If she had stopped there and not said Jews should “go home’’ to Poland and Germany, would that have been enough to incite the controversy that followed?

Ironically, in discussing it, Beck might be accused of similar insensitivity. Before her retirement was announced, he questioned why Thomas was still employed with this observation: “You know, may I tell you this Jewish-run media, really, they’re really bad at running the media, if they are indeed Jewish. You know what I mean? The Zionist masters really suck at being Zionist masters.’’ Sarcasm or anti-Semitism? Call the PC police.

What Thomas said about Jews going back to Poland and Germany was wrong and anti-Semitic. But the larger frame of reference is getting lost in that easy calculation.

The trigger for the controversy was the recent boarding by Israeli commandos of a ship attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine people were shot to death.

It should be possible to question the appropriateness of the Israeli action for reasons other than anti-Semitism. But the inappropriate way that Thomas framed it shifted attention away from a legitimate policy concern. As Huffington Post blogger John McQuaid wrote, “Somehow, the debate shifted from Israel behaving badly to Helen Thomas behaving badly.’’

Conservatives have turned fealty to Israel, no matter what policy its government embraces, into another litmus test. Pouncing on Thomas was also a way to pounce on President Obama.

That’s why, after Thomas made those ugly comments, conservative bloggers showcased a photo of Obama bringing her cupcakes on her birthday. Discrediting her was a way to discredit him, too. Realizing that, the White House sealed her fate, by denouncing her comments as reprehensible. It was also a convenient way to get rid of an inquisitor who was starting to hassle Obama the same way she hassled Bush. With the oily mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the last thing Obama needs is a major diplomatic rift with Israel, not to mention questions from the press about Afghanistan.

All those political concerns stirred the pot, and cooked Thomas’s goose.

No one has a lifetime lease on any job. There was plenty of reason to believe it was more than time for Thomas to give up that front row seat. Her style of questioning long ago crossed from skeptical to unprofessional.

But those in the opinion business should still feel a little queasy in the aftermath of her ouster. What’s the line that cannot be crossed? Is it anti-Semitism? Is it saying something that is perceived to be anti-Israel?

It’s not just about right versus left. It’s about all of us, living and working in America.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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