National Commentary

The Unsinkable Helen Thomas

bentonmug

As a lifelong journalist myself, I agree fully with remarks by veteran news editor Lloyd H. Weston, assailing decisions by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and Wayne State University to remove veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas’ name from annual awards they present. I am proud that Ms. Thomas is now writing for my newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press.

As a lifelong journalist myself, I agree fully with remarks by veteran news editor Lloyd H. Weston, assailing decisions by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and Wayne State University to remove veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas’ name from annual awards they present. I am proud that Ms. Thomas is now writing for my newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press.

In a statement to the Society, Weston is quoted on the Columbia Journalism Review website saying the following:

“I no more believe that Helen Thomas is an anti-Semite than I believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But the issue before you this week has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It is not about Israel or Zionism. It is not about the Jews, the Palestinians or the Arabs. It is not even about Helen Thomas.

“The only issue on your table today is whether SPJ stands for the unabridged right of any journalist – and American – to speak his or her opinion, on any subject, without fear of punishment or retribution from any government, individual, private or professional organization. To remove Helen Thomas’ name from the SPJ Lifetime Achievement Award, I believe, would constitute such a dire abridgment, punishment and retribution.”

If Mr. Weston is correct, as I believe he is, then the explanation given for the SPJ’s move by its president Hagit Limor is, in fact, self-indicting. It was justified in Limor’s words, because “the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists. To continue offering the reward would reignite the controversy each year and take away from its purpose.”

So, what is the “purpose” of the award, if not to elevate the critical role of journalism, and the platform of free speech on which it stands, in a democratic society?

While the SPJ has withdrawn its award, Wayne State University will continue to give its award without Ms. Thomas’ name included. So, giving such an award with her name stripped from it will henceforth bear with it a silent condemnation of its givers as cowardly hypocrites who retreated in the heat of controversy to allow forces of intimidation to betray free speech values.

It will be the “Wayne State University (Muted Outcry) Spirit of Diversity Media Award.”

Mr. Weston’s colorful dismissal of accusations that Ms. Thomas is anti-Semitic is seconded not only by me, who has known her for decades, but also by many of her White House correspondent colleagues.

It was heartening when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (a former White House correspondent with Thomas) aired a five-minute segment about Thomas this week. The segment was the work of reporter Soledad O’Brien, aided by producer Rose Arce.

The segment not only recalled Thomas’ legendary career as a White House correspondent dating back to President Kennedy, it also noted her pioneering role as a woman in journalism (she personally arm-twisted Kennedy into boycotting the annual White House Correspondents Dinner unless women journalists were allowed to attend for the first time).

In CNN’s segment, the full video of Thomas’ controversial remarks was aired showing they were not calling to return Jews to persecution camps, but just to their original homelands (including America). Her later comments were directed against a political lobby, not Jewish persons. Thomas explicitly denied she is anti-Semitic.
In a part of the interview not included in the CNN segment, she reminded O’Brien that she’s Semitic herself, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants.

She also told O’Brien that she stands staunchly on the side of all the world’s downtrodden and oppressed, wherever they are, and that includes Palestinians, who have been severely abused.

After the interview, which took place in my office at the Falls Church News-Press, Thomas was directed to a plaque on the wall in front of my desk, where Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is quoted: “The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.”

“I love that. Can I have that?” Thomas said, laughing.

Neither Thomas, nor I (nor anyone who says anything in her defense including Mr. Weston, who is Jewish, or Mr. Blitzer, who is Jewish) are anti-Semitic, although that slander is clearly used liberally for purposes of intimidation.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]