When I first started work in the Observer newsroom in 1996, I remember expressing my view in an editorial meeting that a certain story demanded a degree of nuance. I don’t remember the story but I do remember the reaction of a senior colleague, an experienced foreign reporter. “Nuance”, he spat at me. “There are the good guys and the bad guys. We are against the bad guys. That’s all you need to know.”
It was a rather less poetic version of the classic adage from the American humorist, Finley Peter Dunne, that a newspaper “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I thought about this when I heard about the death this week of veteran Washington reporter Helen Thomas at the age of 92.
Thomas’s achievements as a pioneering woman reporter were immense — she held 10 presidents to account through five decades as a White House correspondent.
It was her great tragedy that a distinguished career ended in disgrace when she was asked by David Nesenoff, a rabbi and film maker, for her advice to Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine”, she said. She compounded this by saying that Jews in Palestine should “go home” to Poland, Germany and America.
In a world without nuance, there must always be bad guys and good guys. And, for Helen Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, the Israelis were always likely to be the bad guys.
For some, Helen Thomas is a hero of liberal journalism. But she is also emblematic of the casual antisemitism so common among hacks who seek out cartoon villains.
It is worth revisiting that quote from Finley Peter Dunne. It is often quoted out of context. The full quote, put in the mouth of Dunne’s bar-room philosopher, Mr Dooley, betrays a more sinister vision of the newsman’s trade: “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptises the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”
The phrase, so often used as defence of journalism, was part of a speech cautioning against the abuse of its power.
On Twitter this week, campaigning film maker Michael Moore paid tribute to Helen Thomas: “While a compliant press did nothing, one WH correspondent refused to be a tool.” Meanwhile, Philip Klein of the conservative Washington Examiner wrote: “The thing I'll always remember most about Helen Thomas is that she hated Jews.” To adapt yet another journalistic cliché: the nuanced truth probably lies somewhere in between.