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Helen Thomas Controversy Persists

posted on: Jan 4, 2011

The fallout over journalist Helen Thomas’ controversial remarks about Israel could continue Saturday, when another group convenes to consider removing her name from another prestigious award.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ board will meet Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., to reconsider a lifetime achievement honor named for Thomas. The name of the award is being reconsidered because of inflammatory remarks Thomas made about Israel and Zionists.

Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, retired from Hearst Newspapers last summer after telling an interviewer Jews should “get the hell out” of the Palestinian territories. She further enraged critics last month in Dearborn by saying “Zionists” control Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street.

“I have received hundreds and hundreds of e-mails on this,” said Hagit Limor, president of the journalists group, which has about 10,000 members. She said the feedback was “mixed.”

Jewish leaders have called Thomas’ remarks anti-Semitic, but Arab-American groups and others say the 90-year-old was commenting on Israel, not Jews. Thomas is of Lebanese descent and said she considers herself Semitic.

Wayne State University retired the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media award after Thomas’ comments in Dearborn, saying the comments detracted from the goals of the award. It was named after Thomas, one of the university’s most famous graduates to honor those who have exemplified diversity in the media.

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, sent a letter Monday to the journalists’ group urging the renaming of the award.

“This is not a matter of freedom of speech,” Steinberg said. “This is about honoring someone who says these things.”

But Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he hopes the journalists continue giving the award. His committee gave Thomas its 2010 Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award.

“We knew from Day One this was going to be a virus … that would spread,” Hamad said. “That’s what is so disappointing. People are being so irrational about it.”

The SPJ award was first given in 2000 to Thomas and subsequent recipients have included former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News