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SPJ Voting on Whether to Rename Helen Thomas Award

Helen Thomas’s alma mater, Wayne State University, has already decided to rename an award it gave in her name, and now it looks like the Society of Professional Journalists may follow suit. The SPJ will vote on whether to change the title of its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement on Jan. 8, in response to her continued anti-Semitic public remarks:

The Society of Professional Journalists is revisiting its decision last summer not to change the name of its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award after Thomas, 90, told an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., last month that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”

Thomas, a 67-year-veteran of Washington reporting, resigned from her job as a columnist at Hearst last June after remarking to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States. She later apologized, but her remarks in Michigan on Dec. 2 have raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of the apology.

“Ms. Thomas’ most recent remarks led to calls for a reconsideration of the issue by the executive board,” said Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an investigative journalist for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

The SPJ published two letters debating the name change in its journal. One letter was from Abraham Foxman of the ADL, which has mounted a pretty successful campaign to get universities and other institutions to rename awards given in Thomas’s honor. Foxman wrote that Thomas’s recent deplorable remarks at an Arab-American dinner “were carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism.”

“No academic institution or organization should want to be associated with an unrepentant anti-Semite and bigot, and it should no longer be considered an honor to receive an award bearing her name,” said Foxman.

The other letter, by Lloyd H. Weston, argued that Thomas was merely voicing an opinion, and that he “fail[ed] to see the controversy.”

“[T]he same First Amendment that protects my right to be a Jew and a Zionist in America, protects Helen Thomas’ right to express her opinion of Jews and Zionists, no matter what that opinion may be,” wrote Weston. “And while I vehemently disagree with the opinions she has expressed about Jews and Zionists, I will defend, as long as I live, her right to express them.”

How courageous for Weston to vow to “defend” Thomas’s right to an opinion, but I don’t think anybody here is attempting to deny her that right. This issue isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about the public image of a respected institution. Societies like the SPJ give these types of awards because they’re considered prestigious for both the honoree and the organization. Well-regarded groups probably wouldn’t pass out awards named after, say, David Duke or Paris Hilton.

So to echo what Foxman said, I’m not sure many journalists would want to put “Recipient of the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement” alongside their byline. I also have a hunch that the SPJ’s public affairs department probably doesn’t want to deal with the inevitably uncomfortable press coverage every time they hand out the award.

Thomas still has a great deal of friends, supporters, and defenders in the journalism industry, but I have a feeling that this vote will result in a name change. It would be a nightmare for SPJ if its Executive Committee decided otherwise. As unfortunate as it may be, Thomas’s recent anti-Semitic statements have come to define her. And fair or not, if SPJ votes to continue to issue the award in her name, it will be viewed as a nod of support for her remarks.