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DEAR READER: It's OK for Helen Thomas' seat to go to another columnist

Friday, June 11, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Helen Thomas, long the dean of the White House Press Corps, retired this week after making controversial comments regarding Israel and the Palestinians.

Specifically, she said that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go to other countries in the world.

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Those comments cost Thomas her job.

She announced her retirement while resigning as a columnist with Hearst News Service.

It was a sad, unfortunate end to a trailblazing career.

And while much hay has been made over her comments, her journalistic legacy and her much-coveted front-row seat in the White House briefing room, it’s the White House Correspondents’ Association that piqued my interest.

As part of its statement distancing itself from Thomas’ comments, the association said: “But the incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room.”

Thomas may have been a columnist during the last decade of her career, but it was her tenacious reporting and fearless attitude while questioning the most powerful men in the world that made her famous.

Asking the commander-in-chief the tough questions, as Thomas did with both conservative and progressive presidents, often brought accusations of “liberal media bias” or of “being in the pocket of the administration,” depending on who wanted to attempt to discredit her at the time.

A reporter’s job is to gather the necessary facts to get to the truth of the matter, to fairly explain complex situations.

But after the reporter has gathered all the facts, how does one state those facts in a truly objective way? Even if you subscribe to the inverted-pyramid style of journalistic writing – which is to lead with the most important fact, then the next, then the next, and so on – isn’t the very determination of what is the most important fact in itself subjective?

And what happens when facts are in dispute? Or when there are no facts, only projections, logical conclusions and lots of gray in between the black and white?

That’s where conversations like this come in. That’s where opinion columnists, bloggers, letter-writers and anybody else with an informed opinion make the argument for or against. That’s where the shades of gray are explained, debated and scrutinized.

Fairness and transparency are much better measuring sticks for journalists and news organizations. Fairness means that all voices in a debate are heard.

Transparency means the journalist has been honest and upfront about any potential bias. Together, fairness and transparency can give you the reader all you want to know about a subject and leave it up to you to make up your own mind.

Should a columnist get Thomas' treasured seat at the White House press briefings?

Absolutely.

***

You’ve been seeing or are about to see some new faces in the opinion section this summer. I’d like to tell you a little bit about these folks.

Amanda Woytus, whose debut column appeared Wednesday at ColumbiaMissourian.com and in Thursday’s print edition, is a recent graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. She is starting her graduate studies this summer and is spending most of her summer practicing journalism here at the Missourian and with Vox magazine.

Woytus is the managing editor and calendar editor for Vox, and she will be a copy editor and columnist for the Missourian. I’m not entirely sure why she’s bothering to pay rent on an apartment when she spends all of her time here, but I’m glad to have her all the same.

Kelsey Whipple, another recent graduate who is sticking around to pursue graduate studies, will try to bring something new to the opinion section this summer with essays on popular culture that we hope will entertain and put a smile on your face. Whipple is also the deputy editor for Vox magazine this summer.

Molly Harbarger is a senior journalism student who has spent the last year as an assistant city editor, copy editor and reporter at the Missourian. She’ll be trying her hand at opinion writing this summer while continuing her role as an assistant city editor on the education beat. Harbarger will not be writing opinion pieces on education in order to avoid a conflict of interest, but she will be weighing in on other issues pertinent to Columbia.

***

Some good news out of Kansas City last weekend: Missourian columnist Brian Jarvis received the gold medal for best news column in the under 55,000 circulation category at the Heart of America Awards last weekend. The awards are given by the Kansas City Press Club.

Jarvis wrote columns during the summer and fall semesters last year. In the spring, he switched to editing on the copy desk before joining the crew at KOMU this summer. He’ll be rejoining the copy desk in the fall and, hopefully, will find time to pen another column or two for this page as he finishes up his graduate studies.

Jake Sherlock is the Missourian's opinion page editor. If you have an idea for your own column or letter to the editor, or if you'd like to discuss something you've seen in the opinion section, contact him at sherlockj@missouri.edu or by phone at (573) 882-9951.


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