Credit: Aleks Sennwald

Old age is a shipwreck, said Charles de Gaulle. And if Helen Thomas, 90, has hit the shoals, so has the Society of Professional Journalists, the 101-year-old organization to which she belonged until she resigned in anger and anguish in January.

SPJ is riven by internal debate. On one side are its national officers, people I don’t know. Leading the other side are two journalists from Chicago I do. If I thought either side was seriously misguided here, I’d tell you.

The Helen Thomas affair began last May 27 on the lawn of the White House, which Thomas had covered during ten presidencies, mostly for UPI though at that moment for Hearst. The occasion was a Jewish American Heritage Month celebration. “Any advice for these young people over here for starting out in the press corps?” said a stranger with a camera.

Thomas grinned. “Go for it. You’ll never be unhappy,” she said. “You’ll always keep people informed, you’ll always keep learning. The greatest thing of the profession is you’ll never stop learning.”

The stranger, Rabbi David Nesenoff, proprietor of the blog, had a second question.

“Any comments on Israel?”

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas, the daughter of Christian Arabs from Lebanon. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not their land. It’s not German. It’s not Poland’s—”

“So where should they go? What should they do?” Nesenoff wondered.

“Go home,” said Thomas.

“Where’s home?”

“Poland. Germany. And America. And everywhere else.”

Days later, Nesenoff posted the exchange online, and Thomas became a news story at the mercy of breezy judgments. On YouTube you can find the blithe hosts of Fox & Friends Weekends reviewing the video and assessing Thomas’s outburst. “Spoken with conviction too,” mused Dave Briggs. “Maybe the biggest problem there.”

Thomas had tried to make amends. She said, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” But to Briggs these words fell short. “Hard to imagine her keeping her job with those comments,” he said. “I don’t know that that explanation will do it.” It hadn’t been an explanation; it had been an apology—but whatever.

Nesenoff said Hearst had “got to get rid of her.” Sarah Palin tweeted, “Helen Thomas press pals condone racist rant?” Ari Fleischer, who’d been George W. Bush’s press secretary, said, “She should lose her job over this. . . . I find this appalling.” A high school in Bethesda, Maryland, canceled the graduation speech it had asked Thomas to deliver.

And soon Thomas announced her retirement.

Perhaps the leaders of SPJ owe themselves two cheers for forbearance. When the executive committee of SPJ’s board of directors met in July, the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement was on the agenda. The committee decided to give the 2010 award to David Perlman, a 91-year-old science writer still active at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then there was the larger question of the award itself.

President Kevin Smith, who teaches media at James Madison University in Virginia, thought SPJ should take Thomas’s name off the award. Secretary-treasurer Darcie Lunsford, real estate editor of the South Florida Business Journal, favored doing nothing. “She’d said things, but it didn’t overshadow a lifetime of journalism,” Lunsford says she reasoned.

“A lot of us were conflicted. I was conflicted as well,” remembers the then president-elect, Hagit Limor. But she had something to say in response to Thomas. My father is a Holocaust survivor, she told the other directors. After leaving the concentration camp he and his father tried going back to Poland. “They were run out within an inch of their lives.” And that is why Limor was born in Israel.

In the end, the executive committee did nothing. And by the time Perlman received his award at the SPJ convention last October in Las Vegas, Thomas’s comments were all but forgotten.

But on December 2, speaking to Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas said, “We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that. 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.”

There was a second burst of outrage, louder and broader than the first. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Thomas of revealing a “deep-seated and obsessive” prejudice that marked her 60-some years of professional impartiality as a mere “pretense.” Foxman served notice that “professional associations and academic institutions should not want to be associated with an anti-Semite.”

As the society’s new president, Limor now had the primary responsibility for determining whether SPJ followed Foxman’s advice.

Executive director Joe Skeel would later post a blow-by-blow of these days on the SPJ website. “For the following month,” wrote Skeel, “SPJ headquarters, President Limor and various board members received an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails. . . . These comments, from both positions, came from inside and out of SPJ.”

On January 8 the executive committee met in Nashville, and Limor tells me the “deep fissure” in the room could not be closed. “Some people believed it was a free speech issue. Some people believed it was a hate speech issue. Nobody was going to change their mind.”

Kevin Smith, now the head of the ethics committee, believed Thomas had—in prepared remarks she was not taking back—violated SPJ’s ethics code. He recently told me, “There are people in the journalism community—and I’m not going to mention them by name, but let’s say on radio talk shows—those people are noted for being clearly bigoted, having prejudices and expressing those prejudices. Nobody in SPJ is going to propose putting those individuals on an award. Now we have a member making bigoted and prejudiced remarks and standing by those remarks, and from my standpoint, an ethical standpoint, that’s a serious concern.”

Lunsford, now president-elect of SPJ, told me this went through her mind:

“I’ve had the pleasure and burden of going through the applications of people nominated for that award. They’re not the Helen Thomases of the world. A lot of them are average working reporters who’ve spent 30 years working for small and medium-sized papers. They haven’t interviewed presidents, they haven’t reached national notoriety. These are folks kind of like me and you. They’ve spent decades in journalism and they’ve brought their ethics with them. Getting this award is their moment of glory, their moment of recognition. It’s their colleagues saying, ‘Good job. We appreciate it.’ The reason we give this award is not to honor Helen Thomas. It’s to honor the person.”

Lunsford was astonished by the “tone of the conversation” Thomas’s speech had incited. “I had never experienced the level of dogma coming from both sides. And a lot of it was coming from outside [SPJ]. They just believed what they believed, and whatever you said, they wouldn’t change their minds.”

SPJ had been “sucked into the Middle East unrest,” Lunsford realized, and that was “a political battle we shouldn’t have anything to do with. We’re just trying to honor a journalist.”

Director at large Bill McCloskey, who favored leaving the award alone, offered a compromise: leave her name on the award but retire it. “People said, ‘It’s a Solomonic decision,'” says Limor. “And that’s the one time I expressed my opinion. I supported it. I believed it was time to move forward.”

The executive committee voted six to one to retire the award, and Bloomberg News‘s Steve Geimann, who’s president of SPJ’s Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and is a former UPI colleague of Thomas’s, was assigned the task of calling to tell her that her award was being put to bed. Shortly, the ADL issued a statement applauding.

Limor knows she’s accused of railroading the outcome she was after. But she didn’t, she says, and she’s pleased to described the process. She tells me she kept her opinions to herself as the executive committee found its way to a resolution that “lets both sides win something.” And though the executive committee could have decided the matter, it wisely framed its vote as a recommendation to the full board—which in a conference call on January 14 approved the McCloskey compromise 14 to 7.

Furthermore, in order to have “more opinions in the room,” early on Limor reached out to SPJ’s past presidents for their thoughts. Not that she’s totally happy with the results. One of the former presidents—2006-’07—was Christine Tatum of Denver, remembered in Chicago as a Tribune reporter who nine years ago was president of SPJ’s local chapter, the Chicago Headline Club.

“I’m the one who brought Christine Tatum into the mix,” Limor told me this past Monday. “And as soon as I did, that’s when I started getting hundreds and hundreds of e-mails, from nonmembers mainly, blasting us. That brought on the onslaught that leads us to be talking to each other today.”

Limor wants SPJ to move on, but she has a raging rear-guard action on her hands that’s being fought by e-mail, on Facebook, and on the SPJ website. But Tatum doesn’t think she started it.

She tells me she was surprised to hear from Limor about Thomas because she thought that question had been settled last July—Helen Thomas is old and she’s ours and she’s at the end of a distinguished career and we’ve decided she can say what she likes. But apparently SPJ hadn’t decided.

In a flurry of e-mails, the former presidents exchanged views. Kevin Smith, first to speak up, wrote that “I firmly believe the Society’s interests are better met by pronouncing our disassociation with Helen Thomas than it is with being her ally.” He elaborated in a second e-mail:

“I find it incredibly hypocritical of this organization to stand up as the bastions of professional ethics and use our code as a guide, to reach out into the journalism world and criticize [Juan] Williams, [Keith] Olbermann, [Bill] O’Reilly, [Rush] Limbaugh, but then shield Helen Thomas from that same fate because she is an endearing member of our SPJ family.”

Former president Mac McKerral turned Smith’s argument on its head. Maybe it was SPJ’s holier-than-thou posturing that needed to change: “I am not sure why SPJ ever got into the condemning business, other than as a way to keep the SPJ name on the media radar, a marketing ploy.”

Tatum played a gadfly role. She repeatedly urged the leadership to contact Thomas and tell her what was going on, and she championed a decision by the full board. It may not be accurate, she allowed, but there is a “perception” that Limor and her executive committee allies want to handle the matter themselves “because they’re already assured of a particular outcome.”

It seemed to Tatum that too few members of SPJ had any idea what was going on. She showed me an e-mail that Limor got a few days before Christmas from Brian Eckert, the director of SPJ’s Region 2, the region Thomas belonged to.

“Dear Hagit,” Eckert wote. “I am hearing reports of extensive private discussions about whether SPJ should take Helen Thomas’ name off the lifetime achievement award named after her. If that is true, as a member of SPJ’s national board of directors and the regional director serving Helen’s area of the country, I would really like to know a little more about what is planned.”

Tatum says she read that and thought, “OK, so if this guy doesn’t seem to know what she has planned, I’m not crazy after all.”

On February 19 Tatum posted a long commentary on Facebook headed “How SPJ lost the P in its name when communicating with Helen Thomas.” It’s a time line critical of almost every element of Smith and Limor’s handling of the Helen Thomas affair, but its focus is on “the shameful way in which [SPJ] communicated with her.”

There was no communication, Tatum says, until McCloskey ran into Thomas at a party on December 18. Tatum reproduces McCloskey’s memo to Limor describing the encounter:

The first words out of her mouth were “Well, are you going to take my name off the award?”  I told her we were expecting to discuss the issue when we met in January.

She said we would be “hypocrites” if we stripped the award of her name.  Her view that as a columnist and a retiree she has the right to speak her mind. [sic] She also carefully noted that she was talking about Zionists in the political sense, as opposed to the religious sense and said Americans should not allow any group to hold such sway over the communications and other businesses.  

Helen remains outspoken and dug in.  

After the board decided, Geimann called Thomas, and a day later she called him back. The conversation didn’t go well. “She said she already knew,” Geimann reported. “She asked if I worked for the Israeli government and said SPJ was taking away her honor. I tried to explain that the then-recommendation preserved the honor for her, and the other recipients would forever be HT lifetime achievement honorees. She complained about the recommendation, suggested her First amendment rights were being denied then hung up on me.”

Thomas e-mailed Limor to say she was “saddened” by the board’s decision “to betray the First Amendment, and my right to free expression.” She continued, “Obviously your Board has bowed to outside pressure, but SPJ did not have the courtesy, nor the courage, to inform me personally of the decision. Instead, I had to read a jubilant press release from the Jewish & Israel News (JTA). Also, you have not stated your honest reasons for your actions. An infamous chapter in SPJ’s long and proud history.”

She concluded: “I learned long ago that the greatest sin during the Nazi era was silence. Of course I cannot remain a member of a so called professional journalism organization that would deprive Americans of freedom of speech.”

Limor caught the references to “honest reasons” and “Nazi era.” She wrote back, “I would hope you wouldn’t conclude my ethnicity trumps my fiduciary responsibility to protect the reputation of the Society.” As for the lack of notice, Limor reminded Thomas that she’d hung up on Geimann, a friend and fan who “was kindly trying to explain how we came to this position. It became difficult to ask anyone to follow up on that call, given your response to a supporter.”

Anyone? “Why did Ms. Limor fail to understand that SHE should have assumed this very important responsibility?” Tatum’s time line wonders. “Regardless of what anyone thinks about Helen Thomas, her work and her controversial opinions, this Society owes her an apology for the shabby and profoundly unprofessional nature with which it has communicated with her.”

A second plague to the SPJ leadership is Tatum’s Chicago friend, Ray Hanania. In his frequent appearance in my Reader media articles, Hanania’s worn the hats of City Hall reporter, syndicated columnist, radio personality, flack for the town of Cicero, stand-up comic, blogger, and activist Palestinian Christian. If his versatility gets him ink, so does his gift for provocation. “[Thomas’s] remarks were not anti-Semitic, but were distorted by her critics to appear that way,” Hanania argues on the SPJ site. “I am concerned that SPJ President Hagit Limor, who NEVER responded to any of my letters including my first letter urging that the SPJ not take action—has a personal agenda in this matter. . . . For someone to targeted [sic] Zionism, a political movement that not only includes Jews but also non-Jews, should be within the realm of discussion.”

On February 11 Hanania sent an e-mail to Limor and copied it to pretty much every other journalist he could think of who might care. SPJ maintains standing ethics, freedom of information, and diversity committees, and Hanania wants all three of them to investigate how the society handled the Thomas award. “I hope what we learn will guard SPJ from the arrogance, prejudice and outrageously bad conduct we have seen evidence of in the Society’s current leadership,” he explained.

There’s history here. While Tatum was president, SPJ gave Hanania a blog and on his recommendation created an American Arab Journalism Section, and he played a big role in translating the SPJ Code of Ethics into Arabic. But last March Smith wrote Hanania to say the blog was coming down because he’d misused it. “Too often,” Smith told him, “it has served as your personal and political platform.” As for the section intended to bring more Arab-American journalists into SPJ, “I’m informed that in nearly four years, the only member to actually join this section of SPJ is you.”

Not exactly, Hanania tells me. The idea was to have an American Arab section that journalists could sign up for online by paying an extra $10. But SPJ never set it up. “So how could anyone sign up for it? In fact, I couldn’t sign up for it and never did because there was no way to do it.” As for the blog, “the ONLY time anyone complained was when I tried to explain the Iraq journalist’s shoe throwing incident.”

Tatum and Hanania both accuse SPJ of a lack of “transparency” that extends to its attempting to hide the inconvenient truth that the uproar over Thomas did not originate within the organization. To me that’s not a secret—it’s virtually self-evident. Abraham Foxman isn’t in SPJ. Those “dogmatists” Lunsford spoke ofthose raving zealots SPJ shouldn’t have to put up with—were aliens. And Limor told me the “vast majority” of the complaints were from nonmembers.

But if a Foxman jumps at any opportunity to kick up dust and earn his salary, that doesn’t make him wrong. Journalists like to think they’re better than a lot of other people, but they act just like everyone else when their only response to criticism is to circle the wagons and say nothing.

There are times when it’s up to somebody to do something. The question is—was this one of those times? I would say it wasn’t—I think SPJ was embarrassed once and embarrassed twice, when it should have been less embarrassed and more concerned about setting its famous and faithful member down for a talk. But I can’t fault Smith, Limor, and the others for concluding two months ago that as guardians of a calling in which words have consequences, they were required to act. I believe they perceived correctly that this was not a simple First Amendment issue. Journalists know better than anyone that we are free to choose our words but we’re not free from having to answer for them.

Board member Neil Ralston, a professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University, voted not to retire the award. The criticism the board’s now receiving is fair, he says, though not the “suggestion by a very few people that the board’s decision was motivated by some sort of anti-Arab sentiment.” Ralston voted for Thomas because he believes SPJ’s support of “free expression principles” must be unequivocal.

What if, wondered Darcie Lunsford, “she’d been spewing racial epithets and hate speech? If she had, would so many journalists be standing behind her?” Lunsford didn’t think so—yet wouldn’t the very same First Amendment argument apply? But Lunsford’s hypothetical cuts both ways. If, as she apparently believes, Thomas hadn’t been spewing racial epithets or hate speech, why was Thomas being singled out so harshly for an extreme opinion?

What if, wondered Tatum, Thomas “had come out swinging the other way”—slamming Palestinians? Would we have heard a peep? She doubted it. We’d have heard from Ray Hanania, I said. “And Ray Hanania would have been a tree [falling] in a forest,” said Tatum.

Tatum’s position is colored by her memory of inviting Thomas to Chicago to speak nine years ago, when Tatum ran the Headline Club, and hearing Thomas tell the journalists in the audience that they weren’t doing their job. At the time the United States was gearing up to go into Iraq, and the press was cheerleading and, frankly, not doing its job. But who said so besides Thomas and Seymour Hersh, someone else Tatum brought to Chicago? And Tatum remembers introducing her to the Tribune editor she worked for: Thomas stared at him and said, “You’re not a Society of Professional Journalists member. I want you to sign up.”

Because Tatum knows Thomas, she’s let it be personal. “One of my very best friends was my great-grandmother,” says Tatum. “She died when I was in college. And I know when she died she was a very, very different person in some respects than the one whose memories I treasure.” This brings Tatum to a conversation she had with Thomas in February and now describes to me. “I said, ‘Come on, Helen, you know you have sat there at press conferences, and reporters roll their eyes when you ask your questions. They think you’re this batty old woman.’ She said, ‘I know. And as I bow out of this life, I have decided to speak my mind.'” Tatum concedes that she’s diminished. “You can look at her on her video. She’s not as eloquent, and the quips don’t come as fast. I look at Helen with a softer eye. I’m not trying to excuse her. I’m not trying to coddle her or diminish her. But I think people are throwing her under the bus. There’s a degree of compassion and empathy that’s missing from people’s evaluation of Helen these days.

“I called her. I said, ‘Did you hang up on Steve?’ She said, ‘Yes, do you want to know why?’ It took him a day and a half to call, and in the meantime she was hearing from these reporters from Jewish news agencies jubilantly trumpeting this [the loss of her award]. Yes, she was angry. In fact, she was crying. She was getting these calls and she was crying.”

Kevin Smith cannot put aside the knowledge that what Thomas said in December she said in a prepared speech. “If my mother were to say something like this, I’d call her on it,” he told me. “My mother’s 92 years old. She would never say anything like that, but if she did I would call her on it.”

So perhaps the debate about the Helen Thomas award comes down to being a referendum on how we think about old age.