By the courageous efforts of many delegates to the annual convention of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in New Orleans last week, a resolution came to a floor vote challenging the decision by the SPJ board of directors a year earlier to retire a scholarship award named for legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
Thomas, at age 91 now a weekly columnist for the News-Press, was assailed and accused of “anti-Semitism” for comments she made about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in the summer of 2010.
Many in the SPJ, however, were outraged at the way in which the SPJ board and other groups fell into line behind those making the loudest and most extreme claims against Thomas.
Many of her detractors still are not willing to consider that Thomas, herself a Semite of Lebanese origin, was expressing a political point of view, and not a bigoted racial sentiment. There is no question that she is an outspoken critic of on-going Israeli expansionism, and that she supports the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations.
But, as this newspaper recognized when hiring her, that political point of view, whether right or wrong, does not disqualify her legitimate standing in the community of professional journalists.
We were honored by the opportunity to retain Ms. Thomas’ services. Her achievements as a White House correspondent dating back to Eisenhower are stunning, an early pioneer in the cause of women in the professions as well as for the cause of journalistic integrity.
It is the matter of journalistic integrity, in fact, that is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Ms. Thomas in the last year. It goes deeper than her right to free speech, which of course she, as anyone in this country, enjoys. It goes to her role as a professional journalist, that her political assessments shall not disqualify her from the esteem she has earned because of outside pressure.
The same goes for any journalist, much less one of Ms. Thomas’ achievements. There is a firewall in journalism that stands between the function of the journalist who is duty-bound to be a truth-teller, who calls it as she or he sees it, and any political pressures brought to bear against that.
Journalists are supposed to know this. The idea that a political lobby does not like what a journalist might write, and tries to destroy that journalist as a result, is anathema to the journalistic profession. Yet, this is what happened to Ms. Thomas, and almost no one among her colleagues in the profession came to her defense.
Not until last week’s SPJ convention, that is. There, the matter came to a floor vote after considerable debate. Although the vote was 85-71 to uphold the SPJ board’s decision to retire the Thomas award, but it was close enough to call the decision into serious question. It marked a significant push-back and not a rubber stamp.