Archive for July, 2010

The Helen Thomas decision

Few moments in a journalist’s career are more challenging than the times when cherished professional principles are called into question. The exception may be when our journalistic principles run headlong into our personal ones and tug at our moral fabric.

Such was the case over the weekend when the executive board of the Society of Professional Journalists met at it annual summer gathering and faced down an agenda item listed under new business as item “e. The Helen Thomas Award.”

The issue before us was whether we should retain Thomas’ name on our lifetime achievement award in light of her ridiculous and offensive remarks regarding Jews, saying they need to leave Israel and return to homelands of Germany, Poland and the United States. Those remarks cost her a job and disenfranchised her from a number of people and organizations with whom she was associated. Those remarks came in late spring. What SPJ would do wouldn’t be decided until late July in New Orleans.

From the day she uttered her now-famous words, the press wanted to know SPJ’s stance. Let me correct that. Some wanted to know. Most wanted to tell us. Because I felt this organization needed to carefully and judiciously consider this issue, I said from Day One we’d not rush to judgment. But the public did and so did some of our members.  A number of you weighed in on the issue in the weeks leading up to the board meeting and your voices were compiled and available to the board before the meeting.

Most of you provided thoughtful comments. Some made threats to leave the organization if we moved to change the award. Some chastised us for thinking someone so caustic and bigoted should have her named aligned with such an honorable journalism group.

Initially, a motion was made not to change the name and it received a second. What I’d call and very respectful and professional discussion ensued. Everyone had something to contribute. The executive board considered sending the matter to a vote of the full board. There was talk about a resolution before the October convention where sitting delegates could cast the deciding vote. After sharing views for nearly an hour and reflecting on it more personally over lunch, the board decided to take no action, and as such, the award is unchanged. But, as I see it, no action denies Thomas any votes of support from SPJ exec board members.

Personally, this was a tough call.  When I initially considered her remarks, I immediately fell into my First Amendment defense posture. SPJ has spent more than 100 years defending free press and free speech issues. How, after a long-established commitment, even in support of gravely offensive language, could we turn our backs on our principles to punish Thomas for her insensitive comments?

But, the more I thought about it, the more I opened up to other perspectives. As president elect Hagit Limor (an Israeli-born Jew whose father escaped from Germany and survived the Holocaust) said “this isn’t just about free speech rights. It’s about rewarding this kind of language and behavior.” In short, she can say what she wants and be defended, but she doesn’t have to be rewarded with such an important award.

Had Thomas said all black people should go back to Africa, there’s a very good chance this decision would have been made a lot sooner and with a different outcome. I feel confident in saying that.

Many who defended her name on the award made convincing arguments that our award speaks to her work as a journalist, not her personal views, and it’s unfair to throw out five decades of stellar professional journalism over this one incident. The award bears her name and lifetime achievement because it reflects the body of her long and illustrious career. And, quite honestly, that’s a valid argument and I respect it.

In the end, the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award was moved to “old business.” But dealing with bigotry needs to reflect a “new business” mentality. SPJ has three foundational missions – free press, ethics and diversity. If we are to live up to our mission of promoting diversity, it seems counterproductive to allow these very types of words and thoughts to be associated with our organization and, in part, define us. Regardless of her lifetime of achievements, Thomas needs to be mindful that her remarks have no place among people and her brethren whose obligations are to truth and fairness.

A push for the free flow of information

I’m a firm believer that if you leave things to chance, chances are you won’t like the outcome.

That is why as this portion of the 111th session of Congress winds down to the August recess, SPJ needs to make an all-out push to get SB 448, The Free Flow of Information Act, passed. We can’t leave this to chance. Not any more.

If it were up to me and most of our 8.000 members, we’d have one. But, it’s far from my control and that is why a last-minute push is so vital. And, as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, your voice needs to be heard in the next two weeks.

Last week I visited Capitol Hill and left personal letters on the desks of 22 U.S. senators asking for their support of SB 448. Some of the senators who got my letter are already backers, some aren’t so sure. Key members on both sides of the aisle have letters from me.

We are closer now than we’ve ever been. Our push this time is to get floor time and a full senate vote. Our belief is we have the votes to pass the measure, we just need to convince key members that this is worthy of being introduced.

This week, I will be writing a guest op-ed piece that headquarters will make available to the media by week’s end. My hope, ambitious as it may sound, is to see it in print, the web or delivered on air in all 50 states. My goal is 100 media outlets. If you work for a media outlet and are a member of SPJ, you can do us a great service by working to get this printed or aired at your paper or station. Or get it on your site and bolster it with blog posts. However we do it, we need to get our voice out there to these senators before they go to recess.

I would also encourage journalists to consider this a prime story. I, and other SPJ officers and legal counsel, can make ourselves available for interviews in the coming weeks to get the story more play.

SPJ isn’t the only journalism organization in the coalition supporting this law and I don’t know what other leaders are telling their members, but I can tell you that 8,000 journalists hitting pressure points in the next two weeks will be hard to ignore. SPJ will be acting and doing so decisively.

There is no room for chance, so please do your part.

A champion for press rights

Across West Virginia many of our state’s 1.8 million people are mourning the loss of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

To many, Byrd was the state’s saving grace when it came to appropriations. Yes, many outsiders referred to him as the “King of Pork,” a badge he wore with honor. I understood years ago that Byrd’s lasting gift to the state was all of the projects federal dollars could buy. Without Byrd’s clout West Virginia would be hard pressed to have the highway system is does. The same can be said for its medical centers and health care, schools, airports, buildings, bridges and the vast number of businesses.

But, this isn’t about Bob Byrd the appropriator. It’s about Bob Byrd, the defender of the Constitution and the best friend the First Amendment could ever want. I’m proud to say, as the president of SPJ, that my U.S. senator was a stalwart for press rights.

The past two years I had paid visits to his office on Capitol Hill to seek his support for the federal shield law to protect reporters’ sources. In frail health even then, I met with his legal aide who assured me that the senator was 100 percent behind our efforts to protect sources coming forth and reporting government misdeeds. He once told me in an interview back in 1992 that he admired the press and saw us as freedom fighters who served as the watchdogs on government. To his dying day, Bob Byrd held the Constitution sacred. Pity the person, special interest group or lobbyist who dared play fast and loose with our Founding Fathers’ governmental framework. Pity anyone who tried to undermine the press.

To me and many West Virginians, Byrd was larger than life. Yes, it became somewhat embarrassing to have his name on so many buildings and highways, but consider this: In the 147-year history of our state, no one is more associated with West Virginia than Robert C. Byrd. Maybe no one ever will. His legacy in the senate is second to no one.

The sum of his work will endure for decades in our state. But bridges and roads will give way, building will be replaced and jobs will come and go. Someone, certainly not of Byrd’s stature, will be asked to step in and help West Virginia gain its share of the federal appropriations. I’m not so worried about that.

Replacing Senator Byrd as a fervorous defender of the Constitution and champion for First Amendment rights will be more difficult. Today, there seems to be more of an inclination to skirt constitutional rights than to embrace them. For that reason, the whole nation needs to mourn his loss.

We will miss United States Sen. Robert C. Byrd, but more importantly, we need to replace him. For our Constitution’s sake.


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