“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.