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Delegates reject reviving Helen Thomas award

By The Working Press

By Jordain Carney
The Working Press

A Society of Professional Journalists lifetime achievement award named for veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas is history.

Efforts by delegates to have the award reinstated failed during voting at Tuesday’s closing business session.

A gavel to call the SPJ closing business meeting to order sat on the front table in the Rythms Room.

The Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award was retired in January after Thomas charged that Zionists were running the White House and Congress.

Two resolutions calling on the SPJ board to reinstate the award were debated for nearly an hour. Both were defeated, one by voice vote and the other by a vote of 85-71.

In other action, the board’s recent decision to increase dues by up to $4 was upheld with delegates rejecting a resolution to undo it.

Debate over the Thomas award was passionate and prolonged, with delegates stepping to microphones to voice a variety of views.

Peter Sussman, who wrote one of the resolutions, said the board put itself in the position of judging what views are unacceptable.

“Three of SPJ’s values — diversity, ethics and independence — were all tarnished by this vote,” he said of the delegates’ action.

Others supported the board’s decision and Tuesday’s outcome.

“She committed an ethical breach that this society should not endorse even by implication,” said Al Cross, a member of the Bluegrass chapter. “I think it is inappropriate for us to have an award for Helen Thomas, and it grieves me to say that.”

Former national President Kevin Smith said having Thomas’ name on the award would make it difficult for SPJ to promote high ethical standards. He said the organization would have to look “other people in the eye and say, ‘We will condemn your hated, bigoted, racial remarks, but we’ll protect our own when they do.’”

Jeff Cutler, of the New England chapter, supported the board and the delegates’ decision but thought the award should have not been retired.

“The award itself signifies a lifetime achievement of good journalism, of ethics, of performing the duties of a professional in this field, and perhaps what she said diminishes who she is as a person,” Cutler said. “But what she has done over a lifetime of work shouldn’t be neglected when making a decision about the award.”

This week’s decision to hike professional membership dues to $75, from $72, was upheld when delegates voted 99-31 to reject a resolution that would have overruled the board.

The dues increase was the first in 10 years, said Bill McCloskey, a director at large. The last increase was $2.

McCloskey said dues make up one-third of SPJ’s revenue and that other revenue sources are unreliable.

Membership dues are “the one thing we can count on. You don’t know how many ads you’re going to sell next year. You don’t know how many grants you’re going to get,” he said.

Others said some members can’t afford to pay higher dues.

“We don’t believe that execs at SPJ have proven the case for this increase right now,” said Don Stankum, a Connecticut chapter member.

In other business, delegates also passed by voice vote a resolution to recommend that newsrooms discontinue using the terms “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant.” The resolution says only courts and not reporters and editors can decide when a person has committed an illegal act.

Final election results were also announced.

McCloskey was re-elected as director at large. Gideon Grudo and Taylor Mirfendereski were elected as campus representatives.