The Society of Professional Journalists quietly announced that it would be retiring its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award last Friday. I had assumed that the SPJ would simply remove Thomas’s name from the title, but the organization said it will no longer give any award for lifetime achievement.
The decision came after a vote by the board of directors. SPJ said that it took both sides of the debate into account, but in the end decided it just couldn’t deal with the PR nightmare of keeping the award in place:
Both the board of directors and the executive committee heard from many people inside and outside of SPJ’s membership and journalism. SPJ fully understands the concerns expressed by both sides regarding whether renaming or retiring the award is necessary or improper.
A prominent objection to taking any action was that of Helen Thomas’ free speech rights. SPJ staunchly believes Helen Thomas and all people in the United States have a right to free speech. The Society defends that fundamental legal right as a core organizational mission, even when the speech is unpopular, vile or considered offensive.
However, the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists. To continue offering the award would reignite the controversy each year and take away from its purpose: honoring a lifetime of work in journalism. 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.
So was the SPJ’s decision to retire the whole lifetime achievement award an attempt to help Thomas save some face? It probably would have been a bit awkward for both parties involved if the SPJ had simply removed her name from the title, especially since she was the original inspiration for the award’s creation. Regardless of what their reasoning was, I suspect the SPJ will launch some newly renamed lifetime achievement award once the Thomas controversy fades.