Was SPJ Right to Retire Helen Thomas Award? Media Debate

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Helen Thomas, pictured above. (Credit: YouTube, "Associated Press")

The National Arab American Journalists Association’s Ray Hanania blogged Jan. 15 about the Society of Professional Journalists’ vote to end the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. (See iMediaEthics’ previous reports on Thomas here.)

Hanania criticized the SPJ’s decision in a blogpost, calling the decision an nonobjective and biased decision.

“The Society of Professional Journalists took off their hat of objectivity and pushed aside their principles of free speech to take a political position to censure Helen Helen (sic) Thomas because she had the courage to  criticize supporters of the foreign Government of Israel.

“It’s not a secret that some members of the SPJ are biased when it comes to the Middle East and cannot make decisions based on objectivity or professional journalism ethics and they decided to punish Thomas for expressing those views critical of Israel.”

Hanania went on to say that many “American Arab journalists” sent letters of complaint to the SPJ.  Hanania went on to claim “the current SPJ national board has made a loud and clear proclamation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.”

iMediaEthics spoke with with Scott Leadingham, the editor of Quill, the Society of Professional Journalists’ magazine. He told us that he offered to publish a letter by Hanania, but never received a formal letter response. Leadingham did note that he is publishing a letter by “someone who knows Ray” who wrote in favor of keeping the award.

Leadingham confirmed that he has seen “a lot” of letters in response to the Thomas award issue, and further said that the letters were fairly split down the middle for and against the ending of the award.

According to Leadingham, Quill “will be publishing some of those in our next issue” coming out Feb. 1. He explained letters are selected as in any “Letters to the Editor” environment where the deciding factors include: editorial standards, space requirements, supported arguments and “thoughtful argument.”

Quill has already published two letters regarding Thomas’ comments here.  One, from the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, called for the ending or renaming of the SPJ award. The other, from Lloyd H. Weston, criticized Wayne State University for ending the award in her name, while defending Thomas’ right to free speech.

See Hanania’s post here.

iMediaEthics wrote to SPJ president Hagit Limor asking for comment about Hanania’s criticism.  Because of the sensitivity of this topic and for accuracy’s sake, we are publishing complete statements instead of summaries or paraphrases.

Limor’s full statement reads:

“Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

“The column to which you link has so many mis-statements of facts, it’s frightening a journalist wrote it. What the Society did was the opposite of claims starting with the first paragraph. We did not take a political position; we chose a compromise down the middle. Moreover, we reaffirmed the principles of free speech.

“The Society of Professional Journalists in no way denied Helen Thomas’ First Amendment right to free expression. In fact we defend it. We affirm her right to speak her mind. We also have affirmed her award not only for herself but for the nine recipients who followed her.

“What we did defends our organization’s proprietary right to award future recipients. Just like Helen Thomas, they too have a right to their opinions, which may diverge from hers. This award had become more about Ms. Thomas and her views than about the actual award winners and their lifetime of achievement. It no longer represented the Society’s original intent.

“Board members read the multiplicity of opinions from both sides and considered various options before a full two-thirds of our board felt this step to be in the Society’s best interest. Rather than the original proposal to maintain the award while removing Thomas’ name, we chose a compromise measure, keeping the honor in Thomas’ name but retiring it. We compromised in order for the Society to move forward from this topic once and for all, to attend to the rest of our business.

“In my best world, Ms. Thomas and I would be standing together to affirm all of our rights to speak our opinions.

“Mr. Hanania knows we included his letter and many others from his position so to say we voted as we did ‘under pressure from the politically motivated campaign by the ADL’ ignores the equal political pressure he and other Arab Americans exerted. To claim ‘the SPJ notified only those letter writers who were either pro-Israel or whose letters’ supported Israel is laughable. We sent out a general press release to the same media outlets we inform of every position we take, not to any letter writer on either side. Mr. Hanania’s claims that SPJ is guilty of ‘anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry’ ignores SPJ’s stance just this fall decrying Juan Williams’ comments about his fear when he sees people on airplanes dressed in Muslim garb. He calls our position ‘pathetic and shameful.’ He should look in the mirror.”

iMediaEthics wrote to Hanania asking for comment.  He wrote:

“NAAJA was founded in 1999. We have about 300 members. We’re not a fee-based organization. We are a networking association.

“I’m not surprised by Hagit Limor’s personal attacks against me, noted below. NAAJA’s position has been focused on what we believe is a pattern of anti-Arab actions by the SPJ governance. We have not responded directly to ANY SPJ director by name. However, Hagit’s comments reflect the problems we have encountered. Instead of engaging in a discussion or debate about the issues, she prefers to attack me personally. Her criticism is unfounded and she factually is inaccurate about many of the issues she addresses. The fact she can’t get her facts correct as the SPJ president reflects badly on the organization.

“First, the SPJ NEVER engaged in an open discussion about this issue. Who was it who introduced the motion to terminate the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award and when was that done? I found out about it through secondhand conversations with national board members who were alarmed and approached me. They in fact responded publicly when the ADL complained to them.

“Hagit is playing a game with the time sequence here.

“I wrote a letter of protest and sent it directly to every SPJ board member and officer as soon as I learned about the proposal to terminate the award. Neither Hagit nor the SPJ ever circulated my letter, which was sent on behalf of NAAJA.

“The Quill ran two letters on their web site, one from the ADL which harshly and inaccurately criticized Helen Thomas and one from Lloyd Weston, a journalist I know who criticized Wayne State University’s earlier action (he is an alum of WSU). He disagreed with Helen Thomas’views but defended her right to say what she said.

“Hagit Limor’s argument is confusing. The fact is this debate is about what Helen Thomas said. Her views have become the focus of the debate, the focus of the criticism from the ADL and others, and in fact the reason why the SPJ acted to terminate her award. To argue that she has a right to express her views and then punish her for expressing those views by terminating the award is outrageous. More outrageous is Hagit Limor’s assertion that they “compromised” somehow.

“More importantly, Helen Thomas’ words have been repeatedly distorted and misrepresented and that is shameful on the part of a journalism group. She made a political statement. Her critics contend her comments were anti-Semitic.

“This episode comes in the context of a larger problem between American Arabs and the SPJ. Five years ago the SPJ founded the Arab Journalism Section and gave NAAJA, partners of the SPJ at the time, a blog called al-Sahafiyeen (journalists, in Arabic). Last year, Hagit’s predecessor as president abruptly closed down the blog and the web site without ever contacting any of the NAAJA members. We tried for two months to find out why the site was done thinking it was a technical problem and only learned months later than the president at the time decided on his own to shut the site down claiming that we were ‘too political’.

“I believe that the SPJ has an anti-Arab agenda … and I note Hagit’s words below. She cites the SPJ’s defense of Rick Sanchez, who happens to be Hispanic. The fact is when Octavia Nasr was fired by CNN the SPJ did not issue any public statements on her firing. The SPJ NEVER issued a statement when Helen Thomas was fired. Why? How do we not conclude it is because Rick Sanchez is not Arab and Nasr and Thomas are Arab?

“NAAJA is calling for Hagit Limor and the SPJ board to resign. We believe their action is politically motivated and violates the spirit of the SPJ Code of Ethics. The termination is about politics. Helen Thomas DOES NOT have any history of anti-Semitism, and yet everyone is willing to conclude she is anti-Semitic because of two incidents over the past six months or so in a career that spans a half century.

“It’s tragic.

“By the way, I will put my journalism credentials up against Hagit Limor’s credentials at any time. I have won four Lisagor Awards for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists largest chapter, the Chicago Headline Club. And last year I won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for  column writing.  I currently am the only Palestinian columnist writing for the Jerusalem Post on a weekly basis; and while I am Palestinian, my wife and son are Jewish.

“For me, the issue here is professional journalism and free speech. The SPJ has failed to defend Helen Thomas’ right to free speech especially in the context of a political debate.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Hanania wrote:

“Lloyd Weston and I are both calling for Hagit to resign as SPJ president … I discovered today that she is Israeli when I looked up her name to see what her gender was (I wasn’t sure at first) … I think it is inappropriate for her to continue serving as SPJ president given the obvious conflict between Arabs and Israelis, with Helen’s comments being so pointedly critical of Israel and Israelis. If I were SPJ president, as a Palestinian, I would have expressed my view and then removed myself from the decision making process and presented the issue to the ENTIRE board. As it was, Hagit only presented it to the past president and two others, and then when they agreed to terminate the award, it was presented to the entire SPJ board for a vote.

“What she did is wrong. And, for her to personally attack me in her letter to you was also inappropriate and unbecoming of an SPJ President who should be deciding issues on the basis of facts not prejudices and biases.”

iMediaEthics noted in an earlier report that the SPJ executive committee made a recommendation to the entire SPJ board that the award be “retired.”  According to SPJ bylaws, the executive committee consists of “the officers, the immediate past president and two directors chosen annually by the board of directors.”

We asked Hanania specifically about the discrepancy, to which he responded: “I spoke with several board members who felt that the decision was made by some of the executive committee members … I have never been able to get a response to any of my questions and concerns officially from the president or the past president.”

Lloyd Weston published Jan. 20 a “call for immediate resignation of SPJ president Hagit Limor” on his blog “The Helen Thomas Letters.”  (See here).

We wrote to the SPJ’s Limor asking for any comment regarding the “call for immediate resignation.”

She sent us her full response to Weston (full statement published below):

“Dear Mr. Weston,

It is with great sadness I must respond to your attack, as I have stayed silent through the majority of this controversy. That is key in my response to the misinformation you’ve shared with so many.

Yes, you truly should be ashamed of yourself. I have never hidden my identity or my ethnicity. I would hope everyone in this democracy stands proud of whence they come. Everyone within SPJ who follows Society business knows what you came to discover so late in the game about my ‘all-American-girl-next-door’ sounding name, Hagit Limor.

They also know another ultimate truth. As president, I have acted only for what I believe to be in the best interest of the Society. As journalists set aside their opinions while approaching a story so have I set aside my personal views on this topic for the good of our organization.

Opposite to what you insinuate, I did not bring this to the executive committee or to the full board, nor did I ask anyone to do so. Other members did so on their own. I did not place it on the agenda. Other members did. I did not ask anyone to place it on the agenda. I did not lobby, send emails or in any way try to influence the original proposal – by others in December – to maintain the Lifetime Achievement award but remove Helen Thomas’ name. I did not vote on that issue at the executive board. While others pontificated at length for the six weeks before the executive board met, I stayed silent on the issue. I avoided the conflict of interest to which you refer by taking myself out of this conversation completely. My only public response to media questions about the controversy served to fully support the only Society decision to that point, the one made in July which maintained Ms. Thomas’ name on the award after her initial remarks on the White House lawn.

What I supported here was a compromise measure brought forth by someone who originally wanted to keep the award in Thomas’ name but realized that the board and the Society were deeply split, would never agree, and were spending all our time on this issue rather than the Society business we were elected to pursue. This was not a victory for either side. Those who felt a desire to keep the award without Ms. Thomas name feel they lost just as much as those who wanted to keep it as is. This proposal presented a middle ground that would allow the Society to move forward to the rest of the goals on our agenda. That is what I supported. And it came from someone on your side of the issue, Mr. Weston, not from the side you feel ‘won’, and not from me.

Yes, I kept my own ‘personal prejudices’ to myself, not to the public, despite the slings and arrows, the ugly voice mails to my personal lines, and the emails that assailed me, my religion and my ethnicity personally in language I don’t care to repeat. I kept them to myself because I wanted to bend over backwards to avoid the very perception you now distribute as fact.

What you insinuate in your email is offensive not only to me but to many Americans. Given your logic, no one should be allowed to comment on anything that speaks to their heritage because it’s instantly suspect. So no African-American should ever be trusted to speak honestly about racism. This country and our Society as its reflection stand for our multiplicity of voices. I have a right to express my opinion. But I didn’t use that right so you wouldn’t have ammunition to suspect the two-thirds vote of the general board. Yet, you went there anyway.

I’ve seen many of those Facebook postings, alleging we didn’t allow discussion when I went to every person on the board for comment, and after I brought in constituencies no other president has sought, seeking more voices to contribute before the vote took place, many of those voices urging the opposite of what you presume me to have wanted as an outcome.

Yes, you should be ashamed. You state fiction as fact regarding how this came before the Society and then you presume to know my stance on this topic simply because of who I was born.

So let me state, once and for all, my position: This has never been a violation of Helen Thomas’ first amendment rights. The Society of Professional Journalists in no way denied Helen Thomas’ right to free expression. In fact we defend it. We affirm her right to speak her mind. We also have affirmed her award not only for herself but for the nine recipients who followed her.

What we did, defends our organization’s proprietary right to award future recipients. Just like Helen Thomas, they too have a right to their opinions, which may diverge from hers. This award had become more about Ms. Thomas and her views than about the actual award winners and their lifetime of achievement. It no longer represented the Society’s original intent.

In my best world, Ms. Thomas and I would be standing together to affirm all of our rights to speak our opinions. That’s what the Society of Professional Journalists’ mission should be and that’s what I promise to spend the rest of my presidency fighting to maintain.

Best Regards,
Hagit Limor
President, Society of Professional Journalists”

See iMediaEthics’ other stories about Helen Thomas here.

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Was SPJ Right to Retire Helen Thomas Award? Media Debate

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