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Monday, October 11, 2010
Ethics Toolbox

Keeping Thomas Award was correct

By Andy Schotz

In June, weekly newspaper editors from around the world visited The Mountain Eagle in Kentucky, a paper known for its plucky pursuit of truth in coal-mining territory.

I heard Editor Ben Gish recall a police officer intentionally burning down the newspaper office many years ago. His parents, Tom and Pat Gish, got the next edition out. The front-page logo changed from "It screams" to "It still screams."

As Ben Gish spoke, I noticed a glass trophy on a paste-up table. It was a Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award that SPJ gave Tom and Pat Gish in 2002.

A few weeks before my Kentucky visit, SPJ President Kevin Z. Smith said SPJ might strip Thomas' name from the award because of an offensive remark she made, urging Jews to "get the hell out of Palestine."

Thomas apologized, but critics said she had no place in journalism — even though, as a columnist late in her career, she was paid to express opinions.

In July, SPJ's Executive Committee met but took no action, leaving the award as it is. Smith explained in a blog post.

SPJ gave the lifetime achievement award to Thomas, a journalist and White House correspondent for decades, in 2000 and named it after her. As SPJ's website says, "The award is named after longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, a living icon of journalism for her dogged pursuit of the truth in a career that has spanned almost 60 years."

At the Mountain Eagle, I thought about Smith's comments to a Washington Post blogger: "I'm not personally inclined to advocate for this. Helen Thomas has been a member and supporter of SPJ for a very long time, and do we throw all that away for this last transgression? On the other hand, if you were Jewish and given this award, would you go up and accept it? Without taking a knee-jerk approach, you need to consider other perspectives."

When I asked, Ben Gish said the award name shouldn't be changed. He remembered his parents accepting the honor. "They were really proud of that award," he said. "They spent a long time working on that speech."

"Although this is after the fact, I now can praise the Executive Committee for not giving in to 'knee-jerk' emotion. I agree with its decision." - Andy Schotz

Thomas, now 90, might not think as well as she used to, Gish said. He said he understands firsthand — his mother has Alzheimer's disease. His father died in 2008.

I tried to reach the six other living Thomas award honorees after the Gishes. Only 2008 honoree Caryl Rivers responded. She wrote: "I think the award honors Helen’s long career and accomplishments. To strip her name because of an unfortunate gaffe in her 80s seems too harsh."

Smith asked if a Jew would relish an award named after Thomas.

Can there be a single Jewish reaction? One Jew I know well told me heatedly that SPJ might as well call it the Helen Thomas Hitler Award. On the other side, I saw reason and compassion in a blog post that read: "Forgiveness, as I see it, is part of Jewishness."

I asked SPJ member Menachem Wecker, a columnist for a Jewish newspaper and blogger on faith. He wrote: "There's a rabbinic concept, 'ha-peh sh'assar hu ha-peh sh'hitir,' loosely, 'the same mouth that utters something that incriminates can also speak in a manner that permits.' Wouldn't that be ironic if the best argument to exonerate Thomas comes from the rabbis of the Talmud?"

Although this is after the fact, I now can praise the Executive Committee for not giving in to "knee-jerk" emotion. I agree with its decision.

In years past, I've heard people allege that SPJ stifles debate — such as in Quill — on its own controversies, although anyone who has seen delegates quarrel at the national convention might disagree.

SPJ should be open about the controversy over this award. From the Thomas Award page, we should link to Smith's blog post. Something similar was done years ago when an SPJ contributor got in trouble at his newspaper.

There are other angles to dissect, such as: Does an apology matter?

After her sharp words spread, Thomas said: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

What did she regret — her comment or that people were offended by it? Should awards (or anything else of note) be named after people?

In Maryland's capital, two key government buildings are named after living people — a former House speaker, now a lobbyist, and the current Senate president. If either politician brings shame upon himself, should his name be removed? What if nefarious details emerge long after they've died?

Consider the Postal Service, which says: "No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage." The name "Enron" was removed from Houston's baseball stadium after the energy company disgraced itself. Award honors can backfire in a similar way. But what standard do we require?

Has anyone turned down a Pulitzer Prize because it was named after a publisher who engaged in yellow journalism? Should we investigate the purity of everyone for whom honorable prizes are named?

Where do we start and where do we end?

Andy Schotz is the past chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee. He is a reporter for The Herald-Mail, a daily newspaper in Hagerstown, Md.

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