CNN anchor Don Lemon repeatedly defended rabidly anti-Israel columnist Helen Thomas as he interviewed Ari Fleischer late in the 7 pm Eastern hour of Sunday's Newsroom. After playing Thomas's remarks, Lemon lauded her in his first question to Fleischer: "Helen Thomas has broken down many barriers for women....She has a lifelong achievement...in journalism. Should that count for anything?" [audio clips available here]
The former press secretary strongly condemned Thomas's comments and proposed that "if somebody said that all blacks need to leave America and go home to Africa, they would have already lost their jobs," while stating that two of them "always ideologically disagreed, but I liked her." Lemon followed through on this point: "Yeah, that was my next point. It's- I know that people disagree ideologically- but you can still be friends or still be co-workers. Have you reached out to her at all? Have you tried to talk to her about why she said this?"
Later in the segment, Lemon played a clip from 2001 where the Hearst columnist berated Fleischer for not giving an answer to her liking and accusing the Bush administration of being one-sided towards Israel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER (from 2001 White House press conference): ...President [Bush] to meet with [Yasser] Arafat?
FLEISCHER: John, as soon as we have anything to announce, if we do, we will let you know.
THOMAS: That's not an answer. This has been a very one-sided dialogue, and not talking to- any president not talking to any Palestinian leader face to face, and we want to know why?
FLEISCHER: Helen, the President has met with many-
THOMAS: There's two sides to this conflict, you know.
FLEISCHER: The President has met with many Arab leaders who have come here and met with him in the Oval Office.
THOMAS: They're not Palestinians-
FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell, as you know, will be meeting with the Palestinian Authority tonight, tomorrow and the next several days.
The anchor replied, "You have to appreciate her tenacity, as a journalist, to do something like that. But did you sense any bias when you worked together with her?"
Lemon then read from Thomas's "apology" statement: "I want to say that she did apologize, and here's what she says. She says, 'I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.' Apparently, you're not satisfied with that, and apparently, her agent and the co-author of her book are not satisfied, as well, with that." Speaking of apparently, Thomas realized that the statement wasn't satisfactory either, as Hearst Publishing announced her immediate retirement on Monday.
The CNN anchor concluded the interview by asking Fleischer if he was concerned about any backlash for being so forceful about Thomas's remarks: "Are you concerned about any- I don't know- alienation from people who may not agree with you on this issue?"
Almost two months earlier, during an April 11 interview with former Republican congressman J.C. Watts, Lemon insisted that hate speech was much more prevalent on the conservative side of politics: "We have seen it on the Republican and the conservative side much, much more than on the Democratic side. The name calling in groups, with signs, calling people, you know, epithets, comparing them to Hitler. We've seen it much more from the conservatives, from the tea party movement."