The Helen Thomas decision

Few moments in a journalist’s career are more challenging than the times when cherished professional principles are called into question. The exception may be when our journalistic principles run headlong into our personal ones and tug at our moral fabric.

Such was the case over the weekend when the executive board of the Society of Professional Journalists met at it annual summer gathering and faced down an agenda item listed under new business as item “e. The Helen Thomas Award.”

The issue before us was whether we should retain Thomas’ name on our lifetime achievement award in light of her ridiculous and offensive remarks regarding Jews, saying they need to leave Israel and return to homelands of Germany, Poland and the United States. Those remarks cost her a job and disenfranchised her from a number of people and organizations with whom she was associated. Those remarks came in late spring. What SPJ would do wouldn’t be decided until late July in New Orleans.

From the day she uttered her now-famous words, the press wanted to know SPJ’s stance. Let me correct that. Some wanted to know. Most wanted to tell us. Because I felt this organization needed to carefully and judiciously consider this issue, I said from Day One we’d not rush to judgment. But the public did and so did some of our members.  A number of you weighed in on the issue in the weeks leading up to the board meeting and your voices were compiled and available to the board before the meeting.

Most of you provided thoughtful comments. Some made threats to leave the organization if we moved to change the award. Some chastised us for thinking someone so caustic and bigoted should have her named aligned with such an honorable journalism group.

Initially, a motion was made not to change the name and it received a second. What I’d call and very respectful and professional discussion ensued. Everyone had something to contribute. The executive board considered sending the matter to a vote of the full board. There was talk about a resolution before the October convention where sitting delegates could cast the deciding vote. After sharing views for nearly an hour and reflecting on it more personally over lunch, the board decided to take no action, and as such, the award is unchanged. But, as I see it, no action denies Thomas any votes of support from SPJ exec board members.

Personally, this was a tough call.  When I initially considered her remarks, I immediately fell into my First Amendment defense posture. SPJ has spent more than 100 years defending free press and free speech issues. How, after a long-established commitment, even in support of gravely offensive language, could we turn our backs on our principles to punish Thomas for her insensitive comments?

But, the more I thought about it, the more I opened up to other perspectives. As president elect Hagit Limor (an Israeli-born Jew whose father escaped from Germany and survived the Holocaust) said “this isn’t just about free speech rights. It’s about rewarding this kind of language and behavior.” In short, she can say what she wants and be defended, but she doesn’t have to be rewarded with such an important award.

Had Thomas said all black people should go back to Africa, there’s a very good chance this decision would have been made a lot sooner and with a different outcome. I feel confident in saying that.

Many who defended her name on the award made convincing arguments that our award speaks to her work as a journalist, not her personal views, and it’s unfair to throw out five decades of stellar professional journalism over this one incident. The award bears her name and lifetime achievement because it reflects the body of her long and illustrious career. And, quite honestly, that’s a valid argument and I respect it.

In the end, the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award was moved to “old business.” But dealing with bigotry needs to reflect a “new business” mentality. SPJ has three foundational missions – free press, ethics and diversity. If we are to live up to our mission of promoting diversity, it seems counterproductive to allow these very types of words and thoughts to be associated with our organization and, in part, define us. Regardless of her lifetime of achievements, Thomas needs to be mindful that her remarks have no place among people and her brethren whose obligations are to truth and fairness.

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