Helen Thomas, Ripped in Pieces

A statement on Helen Thomas from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, written by Ben Pollock as its vice president, edited by informal committee:

For decades, Helen Thomas has been a paragon for younger journalists and her closing her career as a bad role model provides lessons as well, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists finds.

Thomas, who turns 90 in August, has been since the 1940s a fixture in Washington as a wire service reporter, becoming a columnist only 10 years ago. Thomas has been a justly honored correspondent, also noted for breaking gender barriers in the profession. In May, informally but into a loaded camcorder, Thomas harshly criticized Israel’s Palestinian policies and said its Jewish citizens should leave the country. Thomas apologized, but her speakers bureau dropped her and she resigned from Hearst News Service.

Thomas never has been an NSNC member and is not subject to its rules. The society’s Code of Conduct is worth considering, regardless. The code advises journalistic ethics of accuracy and fairness while advocating the license needed for columns of opinion and humor.

Thomas was not writing but being interviewed, making most of the NSNC code inapplicable. This was not even a case of using one’s position for personal gain.

Its last sentence is noteworthy. “I will always remember that my job is a privilege and honor because being a columnist represents the basic American rights of free speech and open discussion.”

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists believes a commentator can communicate any damn fool thing, but that doesn’t guarantee security from her employer or respect from her peers — or her audience.

The NSNC regrets seeing a career end this way and hopes in the coming months this incident will lead to a greater good.

* * *

The above is a news release I crafted and though revisions have been made after suggestions by society board members, this comprises my thoughts.

It might look soft but I’d maintain that opinions don’t need a “Give me liberty or give me death” finality for validity.

I’ve been stewing about Helen Thomas all week. The incident is easy to find on the Internet; I’d link to the man who posted his interview with Thomas, which started the ruckus, but his website indicates he can promote himself and his causes without my assistance. He may well be more of a “David the rabbi” along the lines of “Joe the plumber.”

It’s been days, and I don’t think anyone honestly can say if the remarks Thomas made on video to “David the rabbi” came from a lifetime of prejudice or if this was just a bad day for an elderly woman. Thomas urged Jews in Israel to go back to Germany or Poland or America. She’s been accused of wanting to send Jews back to the ovens. But it’s just as likely, from the video, that she was simply recalling the post-World War II years and the tremendous problem of resettling all those European refugees. Thomas was 28 in 1948, after all, covering “women’s news” in Washington for United Press. [Saturday Night Live in its early years had a film short that proposed switching Israel with Georgia, and winningly Michael Chabon novelized an Alaskan Jewish homeland.]

I’m a third-generation Arkie, and I have seen from early on that bigotry is one wiggly earthworm. And I’m a 100th-generation Jew with a wide civil libertarian streak. Between those, and a passion for journalism ethics as well as admiration for creative opinions, I do think columnists should be able to be pro-Palestinian or just pro-two-state (Israel and Palestine) without suffering the pathetic, vicious bloodbath visited on Helen Thomas. Drumming a Helen Thomas out of her front-row seat in the White House briefing room creates a weird echo of, say, defending Danish cartoonists.

It must have been time for Helen Thomas to retire. She did. Our work here is done.

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