On Friday of last week, the Society of Professional Journalists announced that it will be “retiring” its lifetime achievement award established in honor of longtime UPI writer Helen Thomas. The decision came after a SPJ executive committee meeting, which recommended to the Board of Director the retiring of the award. This was the second time in the past year the executive committee took up the issue.
“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.”
The controversy over the award stems from comments Thomas made to Rabbi David Nesenoff last June. When asked where about Jews in the Middle East, Thomas said to “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”
Nine years earlier, the SPJ awarded Helen Thomas, who has been a journalist for over 70 years, the first award with her namesake. The award was created to recognize similar journalists who have had a distinguished and extensive career in any journalistic capacity.
“Helen Thomas is an icon in our business,” Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, then SPJ Board president, said in 2000, “and we’re honored to create a lifetime achievement award in her honor and perpetuity.”
One past recipient of the award, spoken to by LWR, said the retiring of the award did not bother him in the least. He went on to add that he still considered it a great honor.
Nonetheless, the award has now been officially “retired.” As such, SPJ indicates that Thomas’ name will not be removed from it, nor be replaced. Instead, the organization will simply not award the honor in the future.
As part of its decision, SPJ also cited more recent comments that Thomas’ made to a crowd in Dearborn, Michigan. Thomas said, “I stand by it. I told the truth. I paid a price but it’s worth it to speak the truth.”
“She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view, and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate,” CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoller said. “As a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters.”
While Thomas’ comments were, indeed, offensive to many, retiring her award does nothing for journalism as an occupation. Instead, it marks SPJ–an organization one would hope to be entirely independent–as susceptible to political pressures as other institutions. We should be celebrating long careers of journalistic excellence, like Thomas’. To let a single reporter’s belief dismantle her entire career and the debt journalists owe to her is to disavow reality.