Ethics Lessons From the Helen Thomas Meltdown

“The leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press,” said 90-year-old ex-journalist Helen Thomas, when told that her alma mater, Wayne State, was ending the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award in response to her most recent anti-Semitic remarks. “The university also has betrayed academic freedom — a sad day for its students.”

A few lessons with ethical overtones can be gleaned from this latest development in the sad coda to Thomas’s long career:

  • It isn’t only amateur Tea Party Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell who don’t know their Constitution: famous journalists given a place of honor at Presidential press conferences can be equally, and equally unforgivably, ignorant. What provision of the First Amendment requires a college to honor with a diversity award an alumna who has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is a virulent bigot? Even Christine could answer this one: NONE.  A better question is: why was the journalistic establishment, for decades, praising the professionalism of a reporter who never learned what the First Amendment guarantees? This is a woman who interrupted Presidents and made policy pronouncements when she was supposed to be asking questions, yet she was inexcusably ignorant, and secretly biased. Thomas’s long career proves that unqualified but excessively revered reporters are not a new phenomenon.
  • When an individual’s age, longevity and gender are allowed to become more important in judging her performance than what she actually does and says, no good can come of it. Just because Thomas was a gender groundbreaker in the White House press corps doesn’t mean she was outstanding in any other way. It does, however, help one understand why she seemed a natural choice to name a diversity award after, for her primary professional virtue was her membership in underrepresented groups.
  • When an individual, deservedly or not, reaches iconic status and the stage in her career where institutions are naming awards after her, basic respect, prudence and fairness requires that individual to take care not to embarrass those who trustingly attach their good name to hers. It takes epic arrogance and disregard for such a person to say in public, as Thomas did,

“Congress, the White House, and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is…We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way.”

If she wants to make such classic anti-Jewish comments in her personal capacity and people want to listen to her, that is her right. Pulling those who have honored her down into the mud too, however, is reckless and ungrateful.

  • When Thomas lost her job after telling the Jews to get out of Israel and “go home”, she apologized by saying that her remarks did not accurately reflect her views, and that she regretted them. I wrote at the time that such apologies were almost always lies, as people who are not bigots do not spontaneously start talking like one. Thanks, Helen, for proving my point.


7 thoughts on “Ethics Lessons From the Helen Thomas Meltdown

  1. Nicely said. And another point about the First Amendment and “censorship” is that the Amendment only applies to the legislative branch of the federal government. It begins with the words “Congress shall make no law…” So, unless you happen to be Congress, and you happen to be in the process of making a law, the First Amendment has no application to your actions (I know, the Supreme Court has applied the First Amendment to other governmental entities through the 14th Amendment, but that is a discussion for another day).

    It tickles me when I hear cries of “censorship” or “First Amendment violations” when the objects of these criticisms are private businesses or other institutions not connected to the federal (or any other) government. A good example is the recent statement by Amazon that taking a book off of their digital “shelves” would be censorship. No it wouldn’t. My understanding of censorship, at least from a Constitutional perspective, is when the government, not a business, restricts free speech – as Jack eloquently points out in his post

    Nuff said…

    Sheriff Ray

  2. 1) Helen Thomas was only ever a force because she was a woman in a then-field of men.

    2) Correct me if I’m wrong, but her job (throughout the decades) was to ask questions, not posit her personal philosophy.

    3) She isn’t the first “reporter” to express personal beliefs and then be “found out” (i.e., “I just report the news! I don’t make it or color it in any way.”). Hah! She just managed to hang so far past her time until her ego overtook her public persona and now her reputation, for whatever it was worth, is blown.

    She deserves it.

  3. I’ll echo Sheriff Ray’s observations. The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of free speech and dissemination of information in order to allow the functioning of a free electorate in public affairs. A commentator’s job is to analyze this professionally. A reporter’s job is to assemble the facts and report them. Increasingly, the division between the two has become blurred! But none of these jobs is mandated by the Constitution except under the general heading of “freedom of the press”. Nor is there any mandate that people must listen or give any sector of the press credence. NOR is there anything that states that the “gentlemen of the press” have privileges above and beyond other citizens. I must further point out that the First Amendment does not force any private firm to present anything to the public that does not meet with their standards… or that communities lack the power to ban or oppose non-political speech or images that doesn’t meet with their’s. The nature of the First Amendment has become so twisted over time (largely by judicial fiat and dissolute market forces) that its scarcely recognizable.

  4. There are some cases going back as far as 1931 (Stromberg v. California) that talk about “symbolic speech” as acts (rather than speech or writing) that are protected as “freedom of expression.” During the 1960s, this has been expanded to cover all sorts of “symbolic speech” including flag burning, pornography, etc.

    I think a study of history will show that the Founders were concerned about censorship of ideas expressed verbally (speech) or in print (press), not protection of all sorts of actions that should be subject to governmental regulation in some cases. In the same way, the Court has interpreted the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures to grant a new right called “expectation of privacy,” another term you won’t find in the Constitution…

    Sheriff Ray

    • Of course, writing and verbal speech were the main outlets for expression back then. Would the FF’s have backed protection of art? I think so, don’t you? After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” (though Madison would have not heard that maxim, which was a fake “Chinese proverb” made up by a US ad exec in 1927). Once you let art in, it sure is difficult to draw the lines between an op-ed, satire, an op-ed cartoon, The Simpsons, the Harvard Strike T-Shirt, burning a draft card, burning a bra, and burning the flag.

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.