A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Letters to the Editor – feedback on Helen Thomas awards [Updated 1/27/2011]

By Quill

Editor’s Note: Quill and SPJ have received feedback on renaming the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement in the aftermath of recent and past comments made by the award’s namesake. After the first incident in summer 2010, the SPJ Executive Committee discussed removing Thomas’ name from the award; however, the decision at the time was to leave the award as-is. In the wake of recent comments and wide news coverage of a speech in which Thomas defended her earlier statements, and made additional related ones, the SPJ Executive Committee will again consider renaming the Helen Thomas Award. The meeting took place Jan. 8 in Nashville, Tenn., after many letters and comments (including those below) had been reviewed. The committee decided to refer any decision to the SPJ board of directors in an emergency meeting to take place within 10 days. The committee sent a recommendation to the board of directors to retire the entire award with Thomas’ name intact. The recommendation was not to rename the award or to remove Thomas’ name. On Jan. 14, the board of directors voted to accept that recommendation, and Quill went to press early the following week. A statement regarding the decision is on the SPJ site here. An explanation of the process behind the two meetings and the ways for members to give feedback is here.

Following are letters Quill has received on the topic. Submit letters to quill@spj.org

Thomas exemplifies truth in reporting news

To the Editor:

Helen Thomas has opened many doors of opportunity for Arab-Americans in the media profession. Her expertise in journalism over the years has mirrored the truth in reporting newsworthy events worldwide, especially in the Middle East. I believe her goal has always been to educate and inform the American public about the reality of many issues that affect our political, social and cultural diversity, as well as the lifestyle in America. She exemplifies what the truth is in reporting the news, not as a cover up, but as a means to resolve conflicting issues that affect us all.

Isn’t that what true journalism should be all about? The fact that Helen Thomas spoke out of line at a time when many people in the Middle East have and continue to suffer senselessly, without any basic human rights, while in search for mutual recognition with peace, most likely agitated her and sparked her unnecessary comments.

The truth and facts in reporting newsworthy events and happenings in our world today has become, unfortunately, an obscured voice for the voiceless.

Helen Thomas recognized her one mistake and apologized publicly. Her image as a professional journalist who has served as a White House correspondent, under many U.S. presidents over the years, should be given the respect and admiration she deserves among her peers and the American public. As a White House news correspondent, Helen Thomas was always assigned the front-row seat because she had a pulse on worldly issues facing the American public. She always had the knack for asking provocative, tolerant and justifiable questions to the president, whether he was ready to answer them or not. Without a doubt, that was Helen Thomas’ style of journalism, outright daring, and the courage to be the advocate voice of the people. To deny a Lifetime Achievement Award in Helen Thomas’ name does not represent the foundations of freedoms and the Bill of Rights for which America’s founding fathers fought and died for.

It simply would be a total travesty of injustice if Helen Thomas’ work as a journalist and lifetime achievement awards did not serve as a model or advocate for other aspiring journalists, the culturally diverse public, as well as the Arab-Americans in our communities today. Helen Thomas should not only be recognized for her lifetime journalistic achievements and awards,

but also for her humane voice for the world’s voiceless people and while advocating their social justice, democracy and freedoms.

To Helen: As an Arab-American freelance journalist, I salute you and your decades of lifetime achievements and awards as a journalist, but most important, for your unwavering human ideals, and honesty in reporting the truth. In the poetic words of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, “Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.’”


Bridgeview, Ill.

Thomas is frustrated, not anti-Semitic

To the Editor:

I have closely followed the Helen Thomas “controversy” since it occurred last summer. I was also at a gathering in her honor on the evening of her address in Dearborn. At that gathering, she reiterated her belief that it is easier, and more acceptable, to vehemently criticize the president of the United States than to say anything against the actions of the Israeli government or about Zionism in general. The reason, as I see it, is that Israel and Zionism become enmeshed with Judaism and the Jewish people in such a way that to criticize the political entities is to blaspheme the faith. This is the root of this controversy.

Although her comment about the control of Hollywood was certainly reprehensible, her sentiment throughout the past six or so months is not: that she believes Israel is an oppressive, occupying regime that does not warrant the unwavering support of the U.S. government. It is this sentiment, which is held by many academics and community organizers including myself, that has put Ms. Thomas in this hot water. As she has reiterated, she is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. She is simply frustrated, and unfortunately that frustration manifested itself in one or two inappropriate comments. But to strip her name from the award, as Wayne State University did, is shortsighted and reeks of the kinds of political pressure that journalistic integrity should rise above.

I am not a journalist and I have no connection to your organization, so obviously this letter will not be influential. But I am thankful for the opportunity to voice my opinion as a historian. Please note that these opinions are my own and not those of any organizations with which I’m affiliated.


Ann Arbor, Mich.

SPJ should rename or discontinue Helen Thomas Award

To the Editor:

In light of the shocking anti-Semitic remarks by longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, we believe it is time for the Society of Professional Journalists to rename or discontinue the “Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement,” which the SPJ has annually bestowed since honoring Ms. Thomas with the award in 2000.

Although she at first apologized for the anti-Jewish remarks that led to her abrupt resignation from Hearst Newspapers in June, Ms. Thomas made clear in a speech in Dearborn, Michigan on December 3 that she did not regret her comment that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” She followed that admission with an anti-Semitic diatribe worthy of the 19th century conspiratorially minded anti-Semitic fraud, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” She claimed that “Zionists” are the hidden hand behind U.S. government policy and opinion vis-à-vis Israel, and repeated the classic anti-Semitic canard that Jews “control” the White House and Hollywood. “We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that,” Ms. Thomas said. “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is …. We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way.”

This episode was a sad final chapter to an otherwise illustrious career as a trailblazer for women and minorities in journalism. Unlike her first off-the-cuff remarks into a camera, Thomas’ comments were carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism.

In the immediate aftermath of her Dearborn speech, Thomas’ alma mater, Wayne State University, announced that it would no longer bestow its “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award.” We believe that was the right decision, and that other journalism schools and institutions who have honored Thomas should now follow suit. 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.


National Director, Anti-Defamation League

Wayne State University wrong to discontinue Helen Thomas Award

To the Editor:

I read in the papers that my beloved alma mater, Wayne State University, has “retired” the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media award because of controversial remarks made by the award’s namesake. In reading some of these remarks – at the time they were made, and again today – I find that, in every case, she has done no more than express her opinion, in fact, regularly using phrases like “in my opinion” and “I think that…” With all due respect to Helen Thomas’ last professional job as an “opinion columnist” for Hearst Newspapers, I fail to see the controversy.

Frankly, even considering all the common infirmities affecting her in her 91st year, I find many of her recent remarks, about Israel and the Middle East, to be deplorable and without basis in fact.

However, the 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. 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.

That’s what they were teaching at Wayne State University’s School of Journalism when I was a student there… when Helen Thomas was a student there. I fear today that my professors and hers are turning in their graves.

I cannot imagine any American journalist – let alone fellow alumni of Helen Thomas – being anything but humbled, honored and proud to receive an award named for her and commemorating her long, distinguished career and many achievements as a woman, a correspondent and an author.

Officials at Wayne State apparently believe that, by canceling the Helen Thomas award, they are “saving face” and perhaps enhancing the reputation of the university. I suggest rather that they have irreparably diminished the value of a degree in journalism from WSU by their clear failure to uphold freedom of speech – the very foundation of any journalism curriculum.

Others may condemn Helen Thomas for her opinion and her politics – as many have. But a public institution of higher learning – a forum for ideas of all stripes, in particular a school of journalism – is ill-advised to condemn her right to that opinion and her right to express it.

In 1964 (the same year I received my journalism degree from WSU) Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote, in New York Times v. Sullivan, of America’s First-Amendment “commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Even false statements, Justice Brennan wrote, “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need … to survive.”

The reasoning behind WSU’s decision to no longer offer the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media award sends a mixed message to its students – especially journalism students – that the values instilled in them over four years of education are both flexible and expendable; that freedom of speech and of the press is not a foundation, set in stone, upon which life in America is based, but rather merely a suggestion to be taken if it suits you, or left behind when it becomes inconvenient or embarrassing.

I have urged officials of WSU to reconsider what they have done, and to apologize to Helen Thomas, of course, but, more importantly, to the Wayne State University students and alumni who expected better of them.


Newspaper Editor and Publisher (Ret.)

Member, Chicago Headline Club