By Jordain Carney
The Working Press
SPJ members are expected to debate two resolutions at Tuesday’s closing business session on whether to reinstate a lifetime achievement award named after veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
After the debate, delegates are expected to vote on the resolutions.
The award was retired in January after Thomas said Zionists were running the White House and Congress.
Both resolutions call for the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award to be reinstated. One resolution contends that SPJ’s decision politicized the organization’s awards. The other says SPJ shouldn’t have penalized Thomas for her speech.
“We have heard a multiplicity of opinions about the topic, and we expect a full discussion at Tuesday’s business session,” said Hagit Limor, SPJ’s outgoing president.
Thomas, 91, said she didn’t know anything about either resolution, except what she heard from her friend Christine Tatum, a former SPJ president. Tatum has been a vocal critic of the board’s decision.
“They retired the award, because they don’t like my views on Israel,” Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent, said in a telephone interview. “I am shocked that the organization would deny me my First Amendment rights.”
SPJ’s board of directors voted 14-7 in January to retire the award after Thomas’ speech last December at her alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit.
A media firestorm erupted around Thomas after a video was released showing the veteran journalist saying Jews should leave Israel and “go home.” The approximately one-minute segment came from a longer video interview conducted as Thomas left the White House.
Thomas later issued a public apology, saying she regretted the comments. She also resigned from her job as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. She currently is a columnist for the Falls Church (Va.) News-Press.
At the time, the Executive Committee discussed Thomas’ comments and whether to retire the award. But the committee decided to treat it as a one-time slip-up and left the award intact, Limor said.
Limor said it was Thomas’ December speech that repeated and expanded upon her initial comments that caused some on the board to change their minds and led to January’s vote.
Peter Sussman, president of the North California professional chapter and author of one of the resolutions, said the issue goes to the core of whether SPJ stands for what it believes in — freedom of expression.
“I think SPJ sullied itself in the process. Nothing about the award can ever be the same,” he said. “They essentially politicized it and all the awards.”
“It was a compromise between those who wanted to remove Ms. Thomas’ name and those who wanted to keep it,” Limor said. “The compromise maintained the award given Ms. Thomas and all who received it subsequently but retired the award moving forward.”
Limor said the decision was an “opportunity for the society to move forward to the many other topics that unite us.”
The January meeting was the second time the Executive Committee had considered whether to retire the award.
Thomas’ comments also attracted attention from outside the journalism industry.
The Anti-Defamation League called on journalism schools and professional organizations, including SPJ, in December to “rescind their honors after she clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite in remarks to an Arab American group.”
But Sussman accused SPJ of caving in to a lobbying organization “that’s oversensitized to overreact to anything they view as suspicious.”
News organizations, including Columbia Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher and NBC News, reported on SPJ’s decision.
Thomas said she found out about SPJ’s deliberations about the award when two reporters called her for comment.
In the interview, she said she didn’t know if the award would have the same prestige if it were reinstated.
“That’s the organization’s problem,” Thomas said. “I don’t belong to the organization and would never belong to an organization that didn’t believe in the First Amendment.”
Sussman said a decision against reinstating the award “would certainly call into question every comment we make on an award, an award winner or freedom of expression.”
Thomas said reinstating the honor would only prove that SPJ believes in the First Amendment.
“I don’t care about the award. I know who I am,” Thomas said.