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Friday, February 11, 2011

Open Letter to the SPJ board to conduct a full investigation of the actions of the President and the Past President regarding Helen Thomas

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Open Letter to the SPJ board to conduct a full investigation of the actions of the President and the Past President regarding Helen Thomas

Greetings from Chicago. 

My name is Ray Hanania. I am an SPJ member who first joined the Society in 1978. I am a recipient of many SPJ and SPJ chapter journalism awards, among many other journalism awards. I covered Chicago City Hall as a political reporter from 1978 until 1992 and I currently write for Creators Syndicate and every week for the Jerusalem Post Newspaper in Israel. I write for three Chicago community newspapers and I manage a media communications company.

Though I realize the committees to which they have been appointed serve at the pleasure of the president, I respectfully ask that members of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics, freedom of information and diversity committees investigate recent actions of President Hagit Limor and Past President Kevin Smith and that those members also generally examine how the national board of directors has handled the controversy surrounding the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. 

I respectfully ask members of these national committees to tackle this important work because I hope what we learn will guard SPJ from the arrogance, prejudice and outrageously bad conduct we have seen evidence of in the Society's current leadership. 

After conducting my own review of Ms. Limor and Mr. Smith's behavior, I have concluded that they have some serious explaining to do to all SPJ members. I believe they have willfully taken steps to marginalize and muzzle the voices of American Arab members of this organization. They have acted in violation of SPJ's code of ethics, and I believe they have acted contrary to the SPJ mission they were entrusted to protect and live by as SPJ officers. I also happen to believe that Ms. Limor and Mr. Smith are guilty of arrogance and unprofessionalism that has reflected very poorly on SPJ. 

I hope SPJ's national committee members and members at large will join me in asking hard questions and demanding straight answers. I present some of my chief complaints here: 

June 16, 2010. I wrote a letter directed to Executive Director Joe Skeel. It asked that the national board not suspend the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. The following day, on June 17, then-President Kevin Smith responded with a sharp e-mail stating that my criticism of SPJ was intolerable and that, as of that day, he was further directing SPJ staff to shut down the Arab-American Journalists' blog maintained on I quickly started asking questions of staff and quietly learned that Kevin had actually ordered that blog's shutdown weeks before our e-mail exchange without ever speaking with anyone including myself. He was attempting to justify his decision as a reaction to my criticism of this organization. But I found out he'd actually been making these plans for awhile. When I protested the Arab blog's closure, I heard from other SPJ members that the blog had been deemed "too political." Too political for whom? In the end, I realize now that when too many of SPJ's national leaders are inconvenienced by members' speech, they simply get rid of it. 

Kevin Smith also ordered the disbanding of SPJ's American Arab Journalism Section when he was president and Hagit Limor was president-elect. This section offered the bios and talents of prominent American Arabs who were members of SPJ. Our many activities included working with Peter Sussman, who was then a member of SPJ's national ethics committee, to translate SPJ's code of ethics from English to Arabic. Under Mr. Smith's direction, this section was closed without any explanation or notice to me and any of the section's other members. SPJ simply stopped accepting these members and made plans to fold this section. There was no discussion with our members before any actions were taken. No complaints (except one from the prior year regarding the issue of throwing shoes, a cultural tradition in the Arab World not understand in the same context in the United States or the West, and we had an email discussion about the topic). When SPJ members did take the time to question and write, they never were spared even the courtesy of a short message confirming that their e-mails had been received.

Hagit Limor initiated action against Helen Thomas, an American Arab journalist, during the executive committee meeting of summer 2010. Ms. Limor should stop claiming that she has been "100 percent neutral" and that she "stepped aside" during this controversy. She did not. It is insulting to everyone's intelligence that Ms. Limor wants us to believe that she made an impassioned case to punish Ms. Thomas with an award suspension and, only a few short months later, was maintaining neutrality for "the good of the Society." SPJ members deserve a detailed account of what Ms. Limor told executive committee members -- several of whom sit on the current national board -- that day. Ms. Limor also needs to explain the phone calls she made in late 2010 and early 2011 to some national board members, urging them to vote a certain way regarding the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. 

SPJ's leaders need to show all of this organization's members just where the calls of complaints regarding the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award were coming from. Because of how poorly our current leaders made this decision and have explained it, they should prepare to make public to us logs demonstrating that, indeed, a vast majority of protests were coming from actual SPJ members. I strongly suspect that never was the case -- especially because several SPJ chapters are speaking up in protest because they weren't even aware that the board was going to tackle this decision in the first place. No, the calls and complaints were coming from groups outside SPJ -- and this Society's current leaders, under the direction of Ms. Limor, bowed to them. 

The voices of American Arab journalists -- and really anyone reacting in support of Helen Thomas -- were cast aside and practically ignored. When American Arab journalists, including me, wrote letters to SPJ, they weren't published -- or, once again, even acknowledged. However, views expressed by the Anti-Defamation League -- which isn't even a journalism group -- received high prominence in Quill magazine. Even worse is that it wasn't until AFTER the Helen Thomas decision was made that Quill Online acknowledged American Arabs' protests. This alone reflects very, very shamefully on SPJ. It gets more interesting: Ms. Limor has made herself available to news organizations and journalists who supported punitive measures against Ms. Thomas. However, Ms. Limor can't say that she has granted nearly as many, if any, interviews with journalists who took the opposite view. 

What's with not responding to members' correspondence? SPJ's current leaders and staff need to get a sense of decency and professional courtesy. They need to respond to every member who writes them. That certainly hasn't been the case throughout this controversy -- at least not if you've been a member who has expressed support for leaving the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award alone. 

What's with the highly insulting e-mail -- and what do members need to do show their leaders that this kind of correspondence is inexcusable? I have been personally attacked in e-mail sent by Ms. Limor and Mr. Smith, and I'll be glad to provide my copies of that correspondence she made to a US media ethics news website.

Just this week, yet another example of this bad behavior emerged when Kevin Smith launched a vicious assault against Christine Tatum, a former SPJ national president. Mr. Smith sent his screed to the full national board and to the director of the Spring Media College Conference after learning that Ms. Tatum will interview Ms. Thomas at that event. Read the e-mail for yourself, and tell me that his tirade was professional or in any way called for. In that message, Mr. Smith accused Ms. Tatum of launching a "campaign" to defend Helen Thomas. Wow! And then he complained that he -- or someone else from the national board -- should be given the right to respond and challenge Ms. Tatum and speak directly to Ms. Thomas herself. That leads me to this ... 

SPJ's national leaders should be ashamed of their communications with Helen Thomas. Go ahead and ask, and you will find that no one from SPJ ever invited Ms. Thomas to issue a statement, explain herself, meet with leaders, defend her actions, etc., before making this decision. That is disgraceful. (And NOW Mr. Smith is demanding an opportunity to speak with Ms. Thomas.) Perhaps even worse is that Helen Thomas learned from news reporters at Jewish news agencies about SPJ's actions (as I did also) before she ever heard from SPJ representatives. An SPJ representative spoke with Ms. Thomas roughly two days after the executive committee meeting -- but by then, she had already heard from reporters and was so disgusted that she hung up on our rep. Then, after the national board's decision, no one from SPJ contacted Ms. Thomas at all. It is shameful that our president, if she didn't want to ask anyone else to do the honors, did not in her touted "state of neutrality" think to handle them herself. This, too, is outrageous misconduct and poor leadership. 

It is disgraceful that Ms. Limor and Mr. Smith have conducted the business of the Society of Professional Journalists in such a shabby, unprofessional and possibly discriminatory manner. Take a look over time, and you'll see an alarming lack of respect for views that differ from their own -- especially if those views come from people who happen to be American Arab. 

I contend that Ms. Limor and Mr. Smith have violated specific mandates of SPJ's mission:

— To promote this flow of information. FAILED
— To maintain constant vigilance in protection of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. FAILED
— To stimulate high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism. FAILED
— To foster excellence among journalists. FAILED
— To inspire successive generations of talented individuals to become dedicated journalists. FAILED
— To encourage diversity in journalism. FAILED AND FAILED
— To be the pre-eminent, broad-based membership organization for journalists. FAILED (Lacking diversity)
— To encourage a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely. FAILED

I will refrain from demanding Mr. Smith and Ms. Limor's resignations from the national board -- but in light of all of this, I can't say I find such calls entirely unreasonable. What I do want to see is an accurate account of what has really happened here in the last several months. Executive Director Joe Skeel's blog post is missing far too many important details and the true story MUST be told. That’s what we are mandated to do as journalists. Tell the whole story. Be fair and represent ALL sides. Be Honest. Those objectives have not been done in this case. 

I welcome hearing from you.  


Ray Hanania

PS … I have copied the members of the Chicago Headline Club and I URGE all of you to please pass along this letter to your chapter leadership so that we have a full and open discussion on this important matter.

1 comment:

USMC_Loveless86 said...

No posts. Surprising. I am neither an American Arab, nor a Journalist and yet even I find this whole situation both distasteful and offensive. I have been researching the whole Helen Thomas fiasco for only a few short days now, as it never reached my ears while I was overseas. I wish I could say I had faith in you, but this looks as though that journalism (and in kind, the first amendment once held so dear) is being muzzled quite harshly. I hope somehow you manage to force the truth out into the light. We, the people, demand no less. God speed.