Why Helen Thomas No Longer Has a Lifetime Achievement Award Named after Her: Reporting the News Doesn't Mean Becoming the News

By Wolper, Allan | Editor & Publisher, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Helen Thomas No Longer Has a Lifetime Achievement Award Named after Her: Reporting the News Doesn't Mean Becoming the News


Wolper, Allan, Editor & Publisher


THIS IS A COLUMN ABOUT POLITICIZING JOURNALISM, alleged anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute, the Holocaust, freedom of speech, hate speech, the power of the Israeli lobby in Washington, D.C., the future of the Society of Professional Journalists' Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the legacy of Helen Thomas herself.

It is about what is ethical and what is fair, and whether journalists have the right to spout off incendiary, factually flawed opinions without paying a price for it.

It pits the leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists--the keeper of a Code of Ethics that is a template for journalism behavior--against SPJ supporters of Helen Thomas, a 90-year-old icon of the profession. To the non-journalistic world, it would seem like an inside baseball food fight.

The SPJ executive committee and its national board of governors voted earlier this year to "retire" its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement because of allegedly anti-Semitic remarks attributed to her.

That decision, and the way it was handled, infuriated Christine Tatum, a former president of SPJ, and Ray Hanania, a Chicago columnist and coordinator of the National Arab American Journalists Association. Hanania sees the decision as an example of SPJ's alleged bias against Arab journalists, a charge SPJ fiercely denies.

The Thomas supporters within the SPJ are planning to ask the delegates to the organization's national convention in September to reinstate the award and keep her name on it.

The controversy started innocently enough last May 27 during American Heritage Month on the White House lawn. David F. Nesenoff--a Stony Brook, N.Y. rabbi, independent filmmaker, and blogger with the popular website RabbiLive.com--approached Thomas. Nesenoff was with his teenage son, and a friend of his son, all of whom wore press credentials around their necks. The boys were covering the event for their Jewish teen website, ShmoozePOINT.com. Nesenoff told Thomas the boys were thinking of becoming journalists. What did she think of the idea?

"Go for it," Thomas said, smiling into Nesenoff's video camera. "You'll never be unhappy. You'll always keep people informed, and you'll always keep learning. That's the greatest thing about the profession, you'll always keep learning."

That interview was a lesson that Thomas, a Lebanese American, will never forget. Nesenoff kept asking questions. Did Thomas have any thoughts about Israel?

"They should get the hell out of Palestine; she replied. "They're living on occupied land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland."

"Where should they go?" Nesenoff asked. "what should they do?"

"Go home," Thomas answered.

"Where's home?" Nesenoff persisted.

"Poland, Germany," Thomas replied.

Next came the question that led to Thomas' downfall: "So you're saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?" Nesenoff asked.

"And America and everywhere else," Thomas replied.

One week later, on June 3, Nesenoff posted a one-minute, edited YouTube video that focused only on Thomas' remarks on Israel. It concluded with a video blackboard full of comments that challenged her journalistic integrity:

"Six million Jews were killed at home in Germany and Poland. Does Helen know that Jews lived in Israel way before the Holocaust? How can Helen possibly report unbiased?" It went viral. As of March 3, 2011, it had recorded 1,727,607 hits.

To critics in SPJ'S leadership, the mainline media, and various Jewish Organizations, this was proof of Thomas' anti-Semitic feelings.

To her supporters, the interview was an ambush by a partisan, Jewish blogger, who sandbagged her by inserting the word "Jews" in his question when she was referring to Israel, the country. "What happened to free speech?" they asked. "What's wrong with giving her opinion? It's what she does for a living.

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