Final Decision: SPJ Board of Directors Votes to Retire Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award
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.
Society of Professional Journalists