NEW ORLEANS – After months of debate, the journalism award named for veteran White House correspondent and current Falls Church News-Press columnist Helen Thomas will remain retired. In a sharply divided vote among delegates at the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in New Orleans Tuesday, the national board’s January decision to retire the award after Thomas made remarks critical of Israel was upheld by an 85-71 margin.
Two resolutions to reinstate the award came before the SPJ’s convention delegates at Tuesday’s closing business session. Delegates voted down a first resolution on a voice vote, and then voted 85-71 to defeat a second resolution that was sponsored by a coalition of members.
During a half-hour floor debate, following months of extensive e-mail exchanges on the subject among members of the society, some said they favored retiring the award rather than removing Thomas’s name because it would prevent future recipients from being associated with the controversy.
“It’s not an award to honor Helen Thomas every year; it’s an award to honor members of SPJ every year,” said Jeremy Steele, a member of the society’s diversity committee. “Is it fair to the person getting the award for a cloud to be over it?”
But Peter Sussman, author of the second resolution favoring reinstatement of Thomas’ name, said SPJ officials improperly used its code of ethics to make the decision.”The code of ethics is not for policing personal opinions of members or honorees,” he said.
Sussman said he was a member of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee for 15 years and co-authored the code of ethics that is still being used by the organization today. He said he was “deeply disturbed” by the vote against Thomas Tuesday.
“I don’t believe the vote reflects the values of this society,” Sussman said. “I fear for the future of our organization. I don’t believe we’re prepared to go to the mats for values we espouse to others, including freedom of speech and respecting diversity of opinion.”
Al Cross, a former SPJ president, said he was president-elect when the SPJ board created the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. He said even then, he had reservations about naming an award after a living person. “I think it’s inappropriate to have an award for Helen Thomas,” Cross said. “If we created the award today, would we name it after her?”
Some members disputed SPJ officials’ claims that retiring the award was not about restricting unpopular speech. They said Thomas’ lifetime of journalistic achievements were not and should not be negated because of her comments.
“This is an achievement award, not a speech issue,” said Brandon Ballenger, co-sponsor of the second resolution. “If we don’t stand by it, then it looks like we’re taking a stance on her speech.”
The Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2000 to honor Thomas’ 50-year career as a White House correspondent for United Press International. Thomas was forced to retire as a Heart Newspapers correspondent in June 2010 under fire for controversial comments she made about Israel and Zionism the month before.
In that incident, Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Thomas on the White House lawn to share her thoughts on Israel. Thomas replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” The executive committee of SPJ met to discuss possible action about the award in Thomas’ name at that time, but no action was taken.
Thomas once again ruffled feathers a few months later when she spoke at a diversity conference on Dec. 2 in Dearborn, Mich. She said, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question in my opinion.”
After her second round of comments, Wayne State University pulled its diversity award in Thomas’ name at the urging of the Anti-Defamation League. The SPJ executive committee once again met to discuss the issue, but this time decided to recommend that the board of directors “retire” the award as a compromise between those who wanted to keep the award and those who wanted to revoke it.
Thomas, who denies being anti-Semitic (she is Semitic herself-ed.), has denounced the SPJ’s decision on grounds of her opinions on political matters. She has argued repeatedly that it is not a personal issue, but a wider concern about the corrosion of journalistic ethics.
Falls Church News-Press owner Nicholas Benton, who hired Thomas to write a weekly national affairs column in January, also assailed the decision, saying, “A basic tenet of journalism is that a firewall exists between the journalistic profession and pressure from special interest groups of any kind. Anyone who does not recognize that is not a journalist.”
Christine Tatum, a former president of the SPJ, wrote in an opinion piece (published in this week’s News-Press), “One would think a journalism-advocacy group would ardently defend her right to free speech and be smart enough to make many of the same distinctions between politics and people that she (Thomas-ed.) does. You’d think an organization like SPJ would celebrate that this pioneer in journalism has, in many respects, prompted more Americans to scrutinize one of the world’s most complex and pressing problems, and our nation’s role in it.”
But a press release from the SPJ’s board issued after its January vote, upheld Tuesday, stated, “The committee decided that…the best way to return the focus to SPJ’s important work would be to distance itself from the controversy now overshadowing this award.” The board voted 14-7 to retire the award a week later.