SPJ retires Helen Thomas award after controversy

SPJ Adviser Charles Davis disagrees with the group's decision to retire the award.

The Society of Professional Journalists board of directors voted to retire its “Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement” award on Jan. 14, according to a news release. The retirement of the award, which comes after anti-Semitic remarks from Thomas attracted media attention, will not affect past recipients.

“SPJ fully understands the concerns expressed by both sides regarding whether renaming or retiring the award is necessary or improper,” the news release stated.

According the release, SPJ’s board of directors and executive committee took into account opinions of SPJ members and from people outside of the organization.

“I am disheartened by that decision. I can respect the decision and I know a lot of the people who were involved in making the decision,” said Charles Davis, adviser of MU’s SPJ student chapter and professor at the School of Journalism.

Davis said Thomas was one of the first female journalists around and was a United Press International White House correspondent. Thomas is now 91 years old.

A Jan. 8 news release from SPJ states “The executive committee meeting, held in Nashville, Tenn., marked the second time in nearly six months the committee has 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.’”

According to the news release, this past December Thomas said, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question,” at a speech in Dearborn, Mich.

SPJ said the controversy surrounding the award has overshadowed the reason it exists in the news release.

“To continue offering the award would reignite the controversy each year and take away from its purpose: honoring a lifetime of work in journalism," the release stated. "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.”

Davis said he disagrees with SPJ’s claim.

“I just don’t know how much responsibility a 91-year-old woman must bear for public comments she makes,” Davis said. “Everybody has freedom of speech. I just feel the punishment far exceeds the crime.”

The award was first awarded to Thomas herself, in the year 2000, and has since been awarded to ten other journalists, including Tom Brokaw of NBC News.

“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 in a news release. “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.”

Davis said people used to embrace journalists’ personalities similar to Thomas’ and thought “retiring” the award was a cowardly act of SPJ and called it kind of a backdoor way to strip her name off of it.

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