The Society of Professional Journalists, saying the subject of Helen Thomas and her remarks about Jews had become too “divisive,” voted on Jan. 14 to entirely drop the “Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement” rather than remove her name from the award, which had been given since 2000.
Thomas, longtime White House correspondent, had ignited a firestorm of criticism last June when she said, among other things, that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.”
The SPJ board, headed by Hagit Limor, a reporter at E.W. Scripps WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, said, “The controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists.”
The board expressed the fear that continuing to offer the award would “reignite the controversy each year and take away from its purpose: honoring a lifetime of work in journalism.”
Limor said, “It’s time we in SPJ stop focusing on this divisive issue and start focusing on what unites us.”
Thomas was the original recipient of the award and SPJ said the board’s decision “will not impact that honor or subsequent honorees.”
Foxman and Ph.D Argue Both Sides
Commentary on the issue includes letters to the editor in the Jan./Feb. Quill, the magazine of SPJ, from Abraham H. Foxman, national director, Anti-Defamation League, and Matthew Stiffler, Ph.D., researcher at the Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Mich.
Foxman said the claim by Thomas that “Zionists” control U.S. policy and opinion about Israel “repeated the classic anti-Semitic canard that Jews ‘control’ the White House and Hollywood.”
While the initial remarks of Thomas may have been “off-the-cuff,” her later remarks Dec. 3 in Dearborn were “carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism,” said Foxman.
Stiffler Says SPJ Bowed to Politics
Stiffler, who identified himself as an “academic,” said Thomas was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Jewish” but had become “frustrated.”
He said she believes that “Israel is an oppressive, occupying regime that does not warrant the unwavering support of the U.S. government” and that this sentiment “is held by many academics and community organizers including myself.”
Stiffler, who received his Ph.D. in American Culture and Arab American Studies from the University of Michigan in 2010, said he believes that Israel and Zionism
became enmeshed with Judaism and the Jewish people in such a way that to criticize the political entities is to blaspheme the faith. This is the root of this controversy.
Removing the name of Thomas from awards “is short-sighted and reeks of the kinds of political pressure that journalistic integrity should rise above,” he wrote.
INDIANAPOLIS – The board of directors of the Society of Professional Journalists voted Friday to retire the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.
The vote means the Society will not give out an award for lifetime achievement. The action does not rename the award or remove Thomas’ name.
Both the board of directors and the executive committee heard from many people inside and outside of SPJ’s membership and journalism. SPJ fully understands the concerns expressed by both sides regarding whether renaming or retiring the award is necessary or improper.
A prominent objection to taking any action was that of Helen Thomas’ free speech rights. 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.
“As I said last week after the executive committee meeting, it’s time we in SPJ stop focusing on this divisive topic and start focusing on what unites us,” SPJ President Hagit Limor said. “There’s tremendously important work for us, like training our members for our ever-changing industry and fighting to ensure journalists and citizens have access to public records.”
At its meeting Jan. 8 in Nashville, the SPJ executive committee voted to call a special board of directors meeting to consider the award. The committee then sent a recommendation to the board to retire the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. This resulted in Friday’s vote. Read the Jan. 8 news release following the executive committee meeting with more background.
SPJ initiated the award in 2000. Helen Thomas was the original recipient, and this decision by the board will not impact that honor or subsequent honorees.
The Jan. 8 executive committee meeting marked the second time in nearly six months the committee considered removing Thomas’ name, stemming from an incident earlier in 2010 when the longtime White House reporter and columnist commented to a rabbi on video that Jews in Palestine should “go home.” Thomas drew widespread criticism after the video was posted online, and she later resigned her job as a Hearst Newspapers columnist. The executive committee considered removing Thomas’ name during a July meeting but did not, noting it was a one-time, spontaneous remark for which she apologized.
In December, Thomas reiterated her previous comments before a speech in Dearborn, Mich., the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News reported. The News quoted her at the time as saying, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question.”
After the speech and follow-up news reports, calls again – including from inside SPJ – came for SPJ to remove Thomas’ name from the award. The executive committee placed the item on the agenda for the already scheduled Jan. 8 meeting and collected a wide range of letters and e-mails both supporting and opposing removing Thomas’ name from the award.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.