By Christine Tatum
On some levels, it has been a great deal of fun to watch the Society of Professional Journalists, one of the nation’s oldest and largest journalism advocacy organizations, wrestle over the fate of a lifetime achievement award it has given for more than a decade in legendary White House Correspondent Helen Thomas’ name.
Earlier this week, SPJ members voted by a slim margin, 85-71, to uphold a national board decision that euphemistically “retired” the award.
Oh, the hand wringing leading to that decision. Let’s just say that if the Anti-Defamation League launches another campaign calling for an SPJ member’s head — as it did for Thomas’ last year
— the organization’s national office will be prepared. The staff received training in crisis communication a few months ago. And there’s now a prevailing sentiment among some of these “professional journalists” that it’s not smart to name awards after living people because you never know when they’re going to exercise their right to free speech in ways that make some folks plain, old mad enough not to attend award dinners. And if a prominent journalist refuses the award itself? Oh. The. Horror!
On other levels, watching a bunch of journalists — many of whom shape the nation’s news and opinion — debate Thomas’ speech has been anything but amusing. Thoroughly disturbing is more like it. Take a look at how far too many SPJ members simplistically processed her remarks, and it’s no wonder that Americans have – and have had for quite some time – a lopsided view of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Consider, for example, that not one person on behalf of this esteemed association ever contacted Thomas to ask questions that would help ensure her views were debated in a full and accurate context. Instead, SPJ members read to each other passages from published reports and characterized Thomas’ comments from those. Frankly, they did no research of their own. So much for the Society’s ethics code, which instructs journalists to “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm” and “act independently.”
The Israel lobby’s influence and wrath are very old news to just about every American editor.
Then there were the journalists who skipped straight to charges of anti-Semitism. Never mind that Thomas has said repeatedly she is a critic not of Jewish people, but of Israel’s government and of Zionist politics, which are supported by millions of people who aren’t Jewish. It is entirely possible to criticize Israel’s government without harboring a trace of anti-Semitism – as Israelis demonstrate every day. But that critical distinction is lost – often intentionally — on a lot of people in the United States.
Thomas’ criticism of the Israel lobby’s influence on American policy and commerce surely ticked off some SPJ members, but what really steamed them was her criticism of the lobby’s influence on American media. Thomas has never said that influence has no place in our country; she simply wants people to be aware of it and how it potentially affects the news and opinion that shape our country’s views of the Middle East. When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas received a standing ovation in the United Nations General Assembly last week, know that many of the world leaders who jumped to their feet were reacting in part to news coverage and editorial opinions about Israel’s behavior that we don’t see often in the United States.
The Israel lobby’s influence and wrath are very old news to just about every American editor who has handled opinion pages or dealt with the public. However, only those with backbones of steel will say so outside circles of trusted colleagues.
“… To discourage unfavorable reporting on Israel, groups in the lobby organize letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts against news outlets whose content they consider anti-Israel,” wrote John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
The book also notes that Menachem Shalev, a former spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York, once put it another way: “Of course a lot of self-censorship goes on. Journalists, editors and politicians are going to think twice about criticizing Israel if they know they are going to get thousands of angry calls in a matter of hours. The Jewish lobby is good at orchestrating pressure.”
It is a pressure 91-year-old Helen Thomas has observed for decades – and one that was applied to her when she dared to complain about it and Israel’s treatment of Palestine. One would think a journalism-advocacy group would ardently defend her right to free speech and be smart enough to make many of the same distinctions between politics and people that she does. You’d think an organization like SPJ would celebrate that this pioneer in journalism has, in many respects, prompted more Americans to scrutinize one of the world’s most complex and pressing problems – and our nation’s role in it.
Perhaps a journalism organization will be courageous and principled enough to give Helen Thomas the praise she deserves. Clearly, it’s not this one. SPJ has sensitive members to soothe and polite, professional dinners to host.
Christine Tatum served as 2006-07 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.