Well, yes I do like to live in the dark here in Canada, and not just during Earth Hour. Or it seems that I do since I was the only one who didn’t know who Helen Thomas was at the Women, Action and the Media! conference in Boston this past weekend. All kerfuffled from a delayed flight and Boston rain, I arrived just early enough to read her bio in the conference program before entering the large lit-up auditorium. Helen Thomas was a big deal to all the excited, chattering women there. She is known as the First lady of the Press and is part of the White House Press Corps. Before she even spoke, the crowd gave her an almost unanimous standing ovation. (Yes, almost. More on that later.)
What a woman. She’s been in journalism since the 1940s, and has been harangued 9 presidents so far with tough questions, like pressing Bush on “Why did you REALLY go to war?” He ignored her, where she sat in the front row of the press, for 3 years. She said that “too much is at stake to throw the president a soft ball.”
I loved some of Helen’s deadpan one-liners quoting others, earmarking her fame, like:
If God had created the world in six days, he couldn’t have rested on the seventh, because he would have had to explain it to Helen Thomas.
- Gerald Ford
Fidel Castro on the difference between Cuban democracy and American democracy: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”
I think the audience was enraptured with her fame. And she was probably enraptured with their eager, feminist journalist faces - when Helen Thomas started in journalism, she and other women had to fight just to be allowed in the door to the press conferences. She thinks we’ve come a long way.
But maybe not that far.
The major topic of debate at the whole conference was Hillary vs. Obama fever and Helen jumped right in. Now I haven’t been following the U.S. election media circus that closely, but I have my doubts about Helen’s claim that Hillary is being “pilloried” by the press while Obama “walks on water” (her words there). She also said that racism is more verboten of a topic than being anti-woman in the USA, which I think needs a bit more context - of course it’s totally unreasonable for someone like Michael Richards to say anything racist, but not for George Bush to completely ignore New Orleans after that damn racist hurricane swept in.
My whole issue with the way the Hillary vs. Obama debate is going down it that it makes it seems like race has nothing to do with gender, and gender nothing with race. This is the kind of talk that makes it seem like women of colour don’t exist in this world. A friend in Boston told me that not one woman of colour has been consulted on the mainstream media on the whole Obama vs. Hillary question. Unbelievable.
With this in mind, I’m sure, in the Q&A session following, one woman asked Thomas if the fact that Hillary was a woman was enough of a reason to vote for her.
It’s that media breakdown of gender vs. race that makes it possible for Helen Thomas to answer yes to that question. (I could hardly believe she said yes. I had Margaret Thatcher dancing in front of me for an unglorious moment.)
And her comments on the “Blacks in this country” weren’t hateful or anything, but the slightest of pauses before those words, and the uncomfortable way she said them, were signal enough to me that Helen Thomas likely isn’t too comfortable, or well-spoken, on the issue of racism.
I’ve always hated standing ovations - it feels like the worst time to show your dissent or displeasure. But even though Helen asked us for some “tough questions”, none were asked. I think it was difficult to speak up when there was so much giddy admiration going on, especially by white feminists in the room.
Were you there? What did you think of Helen’s talk? Did you also find her treatment of race quite glib? Why would she talk as if there were no women of colour in the room?