The Ethics of Helen Thomas Awards

When does an honor start honoring the wrong values? This tricky ethical problem is now in the spotlight thanks to the sudden self-destruction of Helen Thomas, who blurted anti-Semitic sentiments to a Rabbi, on camera, in an impromptu interview.

There are journalism awards named after Thomas, including The Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement given by the Society for Professional Journalism. Now that Thomas has included among her life time achievements a demand that the Jews “get the hell out of Israel” and go back to Germany and Poland—you know: “where they belong,” what does her name on the award mean to future recipients? Is accepting it a tacit endorsement of her views? Or should individuals be assessed on the totality of their careers, and not solely identified with their inevitable missteps. no matter how reprehensible? The latter was a common theme of eulogizers at President Richard Nixon’s funeral.

There is a lot of fairness in the Nixon mourners’ argument, but it misses an obvious truth. A famous person’s image depends on what history and the public remembers, not some objective equation. Clarence Darrow, the great trail lawyer, once bribed a jury. Almost nobody remembers that today, however; what they remember are his ringing defenses of civil rights and free thought, his opposition to the death penalty, and his unparalleled courtroom oratory. Lawyers today proudly accept a number of honors named after Darrow, and it is those achievements, the good and honorable ones, that make the award meaningful. Yet although J.Edgar Hoover built the F.B.I. and had many law enforcement triumphs, his public image is stained by revelations of his extortion of high officials, and his persecution of Martin Luther King, among others. Nobody wants to give or receive a J. Edgar Hoover Lifetime Achievement Award…or an O. J. Simpson Award, though O.J. was one of the greatest running backs of all time; or a Roger Clemens Sportsmanship Award, or awards named after George Armstrong Custer, Dan Rather, John DeLorean, James Watson, or Tiger Woods. Of this group, only Woods has a chance at redemption, because like Darrow, the reprehensible conduct that ruined his reputation may have occurred mid-career, rather than at the end of it.

One symbolizes the values people remember. Nixon opened China and was in many ways a skilled and innovative Chief Executive, but his image in our culture is defined by the sordid Watergate cover-up. Dan Rather had as distinguished career as any broadcast journalist, but it ended with him defending the use of a forged document to support a news story. James Watson is the father of modern genetics, but he left public life after declaring that blacks were inherently inferior. Human beings remember endings better than what preceded them. It may not be fair, but it is our nature. Unfortunately for Thomas, her shame came at the end. This is not a matter of forgiveness; we can forgive Helen Thomas if we choose to. I doubt that we can forget.

At this moment, Helen Thomas’s name does not convey honor. The recipient of a Helen Thomas award cannot be sure that he or she will be embracing Thomas’s achievements as a trail-blazer for women journalists, or the bigotry, bias, and lack of professionalism that led to her retirement. There is no honor in Thomas’s name now, only contradictions and controversy.

There should be no more Helen Thomas awards, and if there are, no ethical person should accept one.

15 thoughts on “The Ethics of Helen Thomas Awards

  1. The good that men do is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Helen! Except… what good did Helen ever do, besides screech out loaded questions and overt political diatribes at White House press conferences, thus degrading the entire process? Caesar, at least, defended his country. Nixon (as you mentioned) took a major step toward breaking the communist bloc. Other historic figures are still highly regarded, despite dark chapters or failures in their past that are seldom touched upon. Helen Thomas has nothing positive to offer… besides staying alive so long. As they say, the Devil takes care of his own.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Helen Thomas Awards « Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  3. If they just change the name of the award, but maintain the same values, would that be enough? Or would whatever organization gives out these awards have to cease to exist?

  4. Correction, her comments were certainly anti-Israeli, but unless I missed something they were not anti-Sematic in general.

    • If you mean that she was not also Anti-Arab, as the term “anti-Semitic” properly means, that is true, although the term is commonly used to designate an anti-Jewish prejudice. If you mean that her statement in itself does not necessarily prove racism, but rather merely a political opinion that is hostile to the current stance of Israel, that’s a fair point—I guess. I suppose someone who says “blacks should go back to Africa where they belong” could make the same argument, that this isn’t an expression of race hatred but just a policy opinion. I’d say, however, that an opinion that an entire population should uproot itself from its homeland and go away requires such a strong lack of respect and consideration for the human needs and rights of that population that racial hatred can be fairly inferred.

  5. I don’t think saying “blacks should go back to Africa” would be equivilent given historical context. Like it or not Israel, was a forceful settlement or colonization of Palestine. Blacks did not of their own will colonize North America.

    But that is a digression. Helen Thomas’s comments were aimed squarely at the Jews that are occupying Palestine. Or, as we in the US would term them, Israelis. Her comments had nothing to do with Jews in America, Europe or anywhere else. Her comments were most certainly Anti-Israeli, but calling her comments Anti-Semetic would intellectualy dishonest.

    Think about equivilents. If she said the Chinese should “get the hell out of Tibet,” would anyone (outside of China) accuse her of being Anti-Han-Chinese? Obviously not and the same standards should apply.

    • That’s just not a good historical parallel. The Jews are in their original homeland—it is not like Europeans colonizing North America. If the Europeans who colonized North America were expelled centuries before, then came back in the 17th Century and eventually displaced the nomadic peoples who were there all along, that would be a closer analogy. Whose “home” is represented by Palestine/Israel just depends on when you start the clock.

      Given that the position of the Palestinians has never varied from wanting to destroy the Jewish state by violence if necessary, taking a complimentary position like Thomas’s is close enough to pro-genocide for me to conclude it is anti-Jewish, period. Hitler wanted to kick the Jews out of Germany before he decided to kill them. The positions are closely related.

      • You are missing the point. Her comments taken in context were aimed directly at Israelis not Jews in general.

        Whose homeland it is or was and what Hitler did is irrelevant.

  6. I see your point: it’s a distinction without a difference. When people say blacks should go back to Africa, they aren’t talking about the blacks in Europe. So what? It’s the sentiment that’s racist.

    • I agree it is racist against Israelis; it’s just not anti-semetic taken in context. And again, I don’t your African-American example is a very good comparison. Blacks didn’t forcefuly settle or colonize America starting 100 years ago.

  7. This is what puzzles me about this thread, Where racism is concerned, the “justification” is irrelevant. By definition, racism is irrational. And anyway, the Israelis did not “forcibly settle or colonize” Israel. That’s just not a fair or historically accurate characterization of an extremely drawn out, complex and politically-charged process.

  8. I never said it wasn’t racist. I said it wasn’t anti-semetic taken in context. I am not arguing about the justification for her comments.

    A nation was created against the will of the vast majority of people living in the area (and that had been living there for close to 2000 years give or take a crusade or two) through politics, treachery, and force… saying Israel was forcefully settled or colonized is pretty damn close to the mark.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.