In June of last year, White House press corps vet Helen Thomas resigned from her columnist’s post with Hearst Newspapers following an outpouring of condemnation aimed at controversial comments she made about Israel. Asked by a Rabbi for “any comments on Israel” at a WH Jewish Heritage Celebration, Thomas responded, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” She went on to say, “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land,” and suggested that Israelis leave Palestine and go back to Germany and Poland.
Thomas, now ninety, has since defended her remarks and is back to writing—penning a column for the Falls Church News-Press. In an interview about the new job, Thomas walked back her statements a little: “I didn’t tell the Zionists to get out of Israel, I told them to get out of Palestine, and to stop mistreating the Palestinians. It’s very depraved and inhumane. I’m not anti-Semitic.”
Now, in a move that has put Thomas once more in the spotlight, the Society of Professional Journalists decided last Friday to retire their “Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award—in December, it was reported that Wayne State University in Detroit made a similar move, putting an end to its “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Media Award.” In a letter carrying the names of SPJ president Hagit Limor and communications coordinator Andrew Scott, the Society writes:
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.
Some will no doubt disagree with the decision. In a letter to the SPJ Executive Board sent before the decision was reached, journalist Lloyd H. Weston wrote:
I no more believe that Helen Thomas is an anti-Semite than I believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But the issue before you this week has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It is not about Israel or Zionism. It is not about the Jews, the Palestinians or the Arabs. It is not even about Helen Thomas.
The only issue on your table today is whether SPJ stands for the unabridged right of any journalist - any American - to speak his or her opinion, on any subject, without fear of punishment or retribution from any government, individual, private or professional organization. To remove Helen Thomas’ name from the SPJ Lifetime Achievement Award, I believe, would constitute such dire abridgement, punishment and retribution.”
Where do you stand? Should the SPJ have retired the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, or continued handing it out?