January 29, 2011 in Opinion

Journalism that matters

 
Retiring the Helen Thomas award

The following is an excerpt from an item posted at the Society of Professional Journalists’ website (spj.org):

 “SPJ staunchly believes Helen Thomas and all people in the United States have a right to free speech. The Society defends that fundamental legal right as a core organizational mission, even when the speech is unpopular, vile or considered offensive.

 “However, the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists. To continue offering the award would reignite the controversy each year and take away from its purpose: honoring a lifetime of work in journalism. No individual worthy of such honor should have to face this controversy. No honoree should have to decide if the possible backlash is worth being recognized for his or her contribution to journalism.”

David Nelson died this month. He was the last surviving cast member of television’s “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which ran from 1952 to 1966 and, for boomers, was the mother of all family sitcoms born in midcentury white suburbia – warm, prosperous, toothless, responsible.

In time the Nelsons gave way to the mutant households – the Coneheads, the Bundys, the Simpsons – who in turn yielded to the ersatz domesticity of today’s reality TV, of “Jersey Shore” and the “Jackass” franchise, where David’s successors defy their parents and seek out spectacular indignity, and have a blast. Today’s TV generation isn’t watching responsible behavior.

I’m glad. With luck, some of them will become journalists. We can use them.

Why? Let’s start with news that the Society of Professional Journalists, the country’s premier order of newspeople, has furrowed its brow, a dangerous sign, and killed off the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, which SPJ has given since 2000. The problem is that Helen Thomas has crowned her own lifetime achievement as a pioneering female White House correspondent with some ridiculous remarks of late about Israel.

Now, Helen is not alone, and the world is full of people who have made ridiculous remarks about Israel, including no small number of Israelis. No matter. She has made irresponsible utterances, and she must pay. She already lost her job, but now her legacy must be dismantled.

In fact, Helen Thomas remains a giant of 20th century U.S. journalism, who ignored her peers for decades by annoying every president since John Kennedy. She was a pest and a gadfly, insisting on the impertinent question, pushing the limits of the permissible. In an interview some years back, when Fidel Castro was asked how Cuba’s supposed democracy differed from ours, he replied: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”

A few years ago I hosted Helen at a press ethics symposium, and I was astonished by the depth of affection, even adoration, from among the small-town community in central Virginia where I teach. She had built a career out of standing up when it counted, and people knew it.

Helen has earned the right to be wrong. Indeed, she stands firmly within a tradition of unpopular, wrong-headed, irresponsible expression that, once upon a time, journalism not only tolerated, but took pride in. It’s the tradition of H.L. Mencken, extolled today as a master of acid prose but in his time given to racism and a toxic contempt for ordinary people, a fan of the enigmatic Nietzsche decades before U.S. academics turned Nietzsche into a hippie. Even the immortal Voltaire – whom I praised in a column some years back for his brave journalism on behalf of a persecuted Protestant in pre-revolutionary France – he too, as a reader later upbraided me, was a racist and anti-Semite.

But now we’re in the age of responsibility. Mainstream journalism doesn’t rock boats. Today’s curmudgeon isn’t Mencken, it’s Andy Rooney, fussing over why his cornflakes don’t come in a much smaller box, seeing how much the contents settle, know what I mean?

Or take WikiLeaks. A sobering article from McClatchy Newspapers’ matchless D.C. bureau chronicles the way U.S. news media have scrambled to distance themselves from the most extraordinary worldwide assault on official secrecy ever.

Why? Why would newsfolk who should revel in chipping away at government deceit do anything but rejoice at the flood of authentic documentation that WikiLeaks, withstanding enormous pressure, has directed to them – even deferring to their judgment as to what’s wise to publish?

It’s because for all their insurgent posturing, our news media fatally covet approval, the wider the better, and abhor the label of irresponsible.

And it’s a mistake. There is indeed true irresponsibility, behavior that harms, but it’s not the dark muttering of a grumpy 90-year-old woman in the twilight of a distinguished career. And it’s not insisting that the duty of the press is to ensure that publicly significant information be made public, even if secrecy claims must at times be ignored.

Real irresponsibility is when the press submits to the wisdom of the herd, by parroting official lies and enabling a deceitful administration to start a needless war, or by suddenly embracing, in unison, the notion that reining in public spending matters more than alleviating the suffering of millions of fellow citizens.

Protecting unpopular expression instead of punishing it, defying authority instead of cuddling up to it, refusing to march in lockstep regardless of governmental or popular pressure, these are the actions not of an irresponsible press, but of one that’s doing its job.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for the Miami Herald.

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