Defenders of Helen Thomas suggest that the anti-Semitic comments she made recently should not erase the legacy of her 67-year career as a Washington reporter and feminist pioneer. For example, they object to a decision by her alma mater, Wayne State University, to shelve its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award in the wake of her comments. Writes retired editor and publisher Lloyd Weston, “[T]he same First Amendment that protects my right to be a Jew and a Zionist in America protects Helen Thomas’s right to express her opinion of Jews and Zionists, no matter what that opinion may be.”
That is true, but the Constitution does not shield us from the private consequences of our own poor judgment or questionable behavior. No one is challenging Thomas’s right to free speech; rather, Wayne State and the Society of Professional Journalists, which is also considering dropping her name from a lifetime achievement award, are questioning whether they want their institutions to be associated with someone whose views are antithetical (presumably) to their own. Institutions also have a right to protect their own reputations, and the integrity of the honors they bestow.
Thomas’s fall began with her off-the-cuff comments to an amateur videographer last June, when she said that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany, and the United States. Her stated regret over those comments rang hollow after she told an Arab-American group last month that government, the media, and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.” Again, she is entitled to hold such opinions. But even controlling for her advanced age, they represent a level of animus that undermines any award that would be given in her honor.
It is only fair to judge Helen Thomas, like all people of accomplishment, in the context of her entire career. But her bigoted remarks are now also part of that career and undercut her ability to serve as a role model for journalists and champions of diversity.