Explaining the process behind retirement of Helen Thomas Award

From Joe Skeel, SPJ Executive Director:

When a news organization presents a controversial story, it often shares with its audience a behind-the-scenes look at the decision-making process. This isn’t done in an attempt to persuade the audience to agree with the decision. The goal is to provide the audience with all the facts so that an informed opinion can be reached.

Today, as Executive Director of SPJ, I’d like to do the same.

Most of you probably know by now that the board of directors voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement on Jan. 14. What I present below is the timeline and process that led to that decision. Please keep in mind: I am an employee of SPJ. I do not sit on the board of directors or have a vote. My job is to simply carry out the wishes of the board. In short, I have no personal stake in the decision regarding the award.  I am not Jewish. I am not Arab. When it comes to an unbiased party in this process, I think I’m as close as you can get.

Whether you agree or disagree with the decision, I ask that you take the time to read this entire post so that you may educate yourself on the complexities surrounding this incredibly difficult decision. Only then do I think you will have a true understanding of how gut-wrenching this was for all the leaders that volunteer on behalf of you and SPJ.

THE BACKGROUND

In May 2010, Helen Thomas was asked by a rabbi conducting interviews at the Jewish Heritage Celebration at the White House:

Rabbi: Any comments on Israel?

Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Rabbi: Ohh, any better comments?

Thomas: Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.

Rabbi: So where should they go, what should they do?

Thomas: Go home.

Rabbi: Where’s home?

Thomas: Poland, Germany.

Rabbi: So you’re saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

Thomas: And America and everywhere else.

Here’s a link to the video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQcQdWBqt14.

Many felt she was ambushed with the questions. At that time, SPJ was contacted by media outlets to get its position on her comments. Reporters also wanted to know if those comments would have any bearing on SPJ’s award that is given in her name.

Then-president Kevin Smith told reporters that he would take the question regarding the award to the executive committee, which was scheduled to meet in July. During that meeting, the executive committee felt the comments were a one-time slip-up that was a result of a questionable interview tactic. No motion was ever made to remove her name from the award, so the committee (and therefore SPJ) took no action. The award remained unchanged. SPJ’s position, and what Smith told reporters, was that her remarks were insensitive and didn’t fall in line with SPJ’s commitment to diversity. But, she was asked her opinion, and she has every right to give it. SPJ didn’t feel that this temporary lapse in judgment warranted any changes to the award. Plus, she later apologized.

When President Smith first shared with the media that he was taking this topic to the executive committee, there was very little if any real backlash or outcry from our membership or the general public. THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT FACT TO THIS STORY. REMEMBER IT.

Fast forward to December. During a prepared speech at the “Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans” conference in Dearborn, Mich., the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News quoted Thomas as saying, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question.”

Almost immediately, a handful of leaders within SPJ began discussing her comments. Media members began calling and by the next day or two, SPJ received a letter from the Anti-Defamation League. At this point, SPJ leaders had not decided to take the concern to the executive committee. Once the letter from the ADL became public, as a result of being distributed to media outlets, those supporting Thomas began to voice their concerns.

Still, when asked SPJ’s position on the matter by media members, new president Hagit Limor (who began her presidency in October 2010) replied that SPJ’s leadership discussed her comments in July and felt it was a one-time slip up, and that the award remained intact. Clearly, that answer wouldn’t suffice because the notion that this was a one-time misstep was no longer valid. Members of the media continued to reach out in an effort to find out what SPJ was going to do given Ms. Thomas’ most recent comments.

President Limor wanted to make sure that the comments she shared reflected the Society’s position, not her opinion. At that point, she asked for my recommendation on how to proceed.

I recommended that we revisit the topic with the executive committee, which was meeting in less than a month on January 8. Two other board members recommended the same. My rationale: I’m a creature of habit. And this is the same process we followed after Ms. Thomas’ comments in May. My thinking was simple: The committee could revisit the topic and determine if their collective feeling had changed. Regardless of any action (or non-action) we would have a unified SPJ position for President Limor to use when asked about the award.

As word spread that the executive committee would be discussing the topic, to see if its collective feeling had changed, members (including board of directors members not on the executive committee) and the general public became even more vocal. What ensued was the notion that the executive committee was going to decide whether or not to strip Ms. Thomas’ name from the award. For the following month, SPJ headquarters, President Limor and various board members received an onslaught of phone calls and e-mails. We heard from those supporting Ms. Thomas’ free speech rights and those who believed her comments were bigoted and that SPJ was anti-Semitic if it continued to carry an award with her name. These comments, from both positions, came from inside and out of SPJ.

Note: As I sit here today, I’m still not sure why the outcry of the second executive committee meeting came about. It didn’t create a blip before the first meeting in July. I suspect it had a little to do with the fact that Hagit Limor is Jewish. And I suspect that many felt she was pushing a personal agenda. This, of course, is nonsense. And I’ll explain that later. I also suspect that because this was the second time Ms. Thomas made her remarks in the span of six months, those supporting her felt that SPJ leadership may have lost its patience. As those voices grew louder, so did the voices wanting her name removed.

In the end, forced to deal with the derailing cacophony, the executive committee had no choice but to make a decision. Anything less would prolong the onslaught of divisive behavior inside SPJ. With spring conferences just around the corner, it was important that SPJ try to return the focus to things that unite it and keep it running: professional development, networking, recognizing outstanding journalism through its awards programs, setting a budget for the coming fiscal year, etc., etc.

The committee’s job: Decide if SPJ would rather be viewed as a hater of free speech or a bigoted, anti-Semitic organization, judging by the tone of the feedback received on either side leading up to the meeting.

THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEETING

In an effort to get as much input as possible, President Limor reached out to former presidents. Current board members weighed in. She compiled a sampling of the countless e-mails she and I received from members, former leaders, current leaders and the public. She did more to seek outside input than any president in my six years at SPJ. Each committee member received the compilation. However, the sentiments shared in the packet were not new to committee members. Everyone was fully aware of the differing opinions out there.

As the committee members began to talk, they all shared their concerns about the issues of free speech and SPJ’s commitment to diversity. It was apparent that there was no use in trying to agree on which one was more important. It’s like asking which of your two children you love more. It debated SPJ’s Code of Ethics: Minimize Harm. Act Independently.

The group, agreeing that concerns from both sides were understandable and valid, discussed the original intent of the award: to honor someone for his or her lifetime body of work and commitment to journalism. Some in the group questioned if future winners would refuse the award. Some said the winner should be allowed to decide if they want it. Some questioned the point of even having an award if a winner had to decide between being honored and any potential backlash. Their position: having to make that decision is no honor at all.

At that point, another idea was raised. What if SPJ retired the award and left the history intact? If the original point of giving the award is lost in this controversy year after year, why even give out an award? Ms. Thomas’ name could remain on the award she received in 2000 and the subsequent recipients would be unaffected.

Still, one of the concerns from some board members was that this important decision shouldn’t be made by just the seven people on the executive committee. Several regional directors had asked that this decision be brought to the full board of directors for consideration.

So, in an effort to reach a compromise between those who believe Ms. Thomas name shouldn’t be stripped from the award, and in an effort to display its commitment to diversity, the executive committee voted to send a recommendation to the full board that the award be retired. The motion also stated a conference call of the full board would be held within 10 days to vote on the recommendation. That motion passed 6-1. This, the committee felt, would allow SPJ to move forward and focus on the other important work that SPJ does. Even though the executive committee could have made a final decision on its own, it preferred to heed the call of SPJ’s regional directors and allow the full board a voice. It would now be up to the 23 elected leaders to decide.

Note: Since this controversy restarted in December, President Limor has been accused of pushing her personal agenda. The assumption here is that because she is Jewish, she was working to remove Ms. Thomas’ name from the award. I’m here to tell you that is inaccurate and, frankly, insulting to her integrity and that of SPJ’s leaders who are involved in the process. President Limor kept her comments on this subject to herself. Since taking office in October, she has responded to reporters with SPJ’s position: that Ms. Thomas’ remarks were insensitive, but the award continued to carry her name. She hoped to get the executive committee’s position so she could answer appropriately when asked. During the executive committee meeting, she remained silent in the discussion until the final motion was brought to the table. At that point, she supported the motion – viewed as a compromise by those in the room – with the idea that this would allow SPJ to move on. Those who wanted Ms. Thomas’ name stripped from the award didn’t get their wish. Those who wanted the award to continue in Ms. Thomas’ name didn’t get their wish. This was a lose-lose situation, and she – along with the rest of the committee – recognized that. But, they felt, this was a compromise.

THE CALL

In an effort to put this controversy behind SPJ as quickly as possible, and to stick with the 10 days the motion called for, President Limor scheduled the telephone conference of the board of directors for Jan. 14 – six days following the executive committee. Some people have questioned why a decision of this magnitude had to be made so fast. Why couldn’t it wait until the annual spring board meeting in April? The executive committee felt it was important to come to a conclusion on this matter for a few reasons.

SPJ typically begins marketing annual award nominations in January. This, of course, couldn’t be done with its future still in limbo. In addition, those following this story were waiting for a resolution, although that was a minor influence in the decision, I suspect. Plus, the spring board meeting always has a full agenda, including the adoption of the yearly budget. And, as stated before, the desire was to have this controversial storm well behind us by the time spring conferences rolled around in late March and early April.

As the call started, President Limor asked a member of the executive committee to share the rationale behind its recommendation. It was presented very matter-of-factly: The committee felt this was a compromise between those asking to protect her free speech by keeping her name on the award and those asking for SPJ to strip her name off the honor. Was it a perfect solution? No. The committee knew the outcome was a lose-lose situation. But it felt this was the best way to move forward.

After the explanation, President Limor called for a motion from the floor. At that moment, two people spoke simultaneously. Both had motions to offer. President Limor called on the executive committee member making the motion to retire the award. A second was made and “discussion” ensued.

Because this was a conference call, President Limor gave each board member three minutes to share his or her opinion. Many chose not to speak. At one point, a substitute motion was made and seconded then discussion continued around the virtual table. According to procedural rules, the substitute motion took precedent.

After discussion, the substitute motion – “to continue presentation of the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement but to make a statement saying the award is for her decades of journalism service and indicating the board does not endorse her statement about Israel” – was considered. The result: 14 against, 7 in favor.

At that point, a motion was made by a board member to “call the question.”  Doing so would put an end to discussion or other motions until the original motion (to retire the award) was considered.  The board voted, 14-7, to call the motion for a vote. The board then voted on whether or not to retire the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. Again, 14 for retirement, 7 against.

Following that vote, another motion was made that the board “recommend to future boards that SPJ never again offer a lifetime achievement award.” That motion failed, also two-thirds to one-third.

Note: Since that conference call, I have seen claims that “parliamentary tactics” were used to push this vote through the board conference call. Having listened in on the call and taking notes, my opinion is that the order of the motions, votes, etc., did not matter. No matter how you sliced it, two-thirds of those on the call supported the executive committee’s recommendation to retire the award – and they were going to vote that way.

WHAT NOW?

Some people within SPJ don’t agree with the decision. That’s to be expected. When you get 8,000 people in a room, not everyone is going to agree. Fortunately for them, they have the ability to request a vote on the convention floor through the delegate system. That’s the beauty of SPJ’s democracy. The members truly are the keepers of the organization.

From SPJ’s bylaws:

ARTICLE NINE

Section One. The convention shall be the supreme legislative body of the organization. It shall be held at least biennially at a time and place designated by the board of directors.

Section Two. The convention shall be composed of delegates or representatives from each chapter, the national officers and the national board of directors.

SPJ’s next convention will be the joint SPJ/RTDNA conference in New Orleans, Sept. 25-28.

At that point, if SPJ’s membership decides the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement should be reinstated, then that’s what will happen. No member of the board or executive committee has ever said otherwise. It’s the process our organization embraces.

And if you, as a member, feel strongly that it should be reinstated, then you should work with members who agree with your position.

But as we all move forward, I simply ask that you please understand the impossible decision your elected leaders were asked to make – even if you disagree with the final vote.

Note: As I read the attacks and innuendo that are migrating through Facebook and the Internet about this issue, I have come to feel bad for every single leader that was asked to make this decision. Some are calling them “cowards” who have bowed to outside pressure. They are being painted as leaders who don’t support SPJ’s mission of free speech or as misguided folks who don’t realize the impact of this decision. I sat in those rooms and on that call through this entire process. Trust me when I tell you that this no-win decision was made with the utmost concern and care for SPJ and its members. Many hands were wringed and foreheads rubbed over the past few months as this topic was discussed. For anyone to imply otherwise of this group of leaders is disingenuous and uninformed. They should be admired, not condemned.

Worse yet, I fear that fewer people will be willing to stand up in the future and lead this great organization. When you look at what has transpired over the past few months, who could blame them? The reward for these 23 volunteers has been ridicule and insults. Unfortunately, much of that has come from within SPJ’s family.

Correction [1/25/2011  12:18 p.m. ET ]: This post has been updated to correct spelling/word-usage errors of “Ms.” and “persuade.”

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