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Breaking News! Journalists Stink at Covering Their Own Controversies!

Over the past few weeks, some journalists have skewered the Society of Professional Journalists for its decision to stop awarding a journalism award named after a controversial journalist.
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Talk about a Fourth Estate feedback loop: Over the past few weeks, some journalists have skewered the Society of Professional Journalists for its decision to stop awarding a journalism award named after a controversial journalist.

Here's what happened...

On Jan. 14, SPJ -- the nation's largest journalism organization with 8,000 members -- decided to "retire" its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. The decision came after the award's namesake, the famous former White House correspondent, said last May that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and added in December, "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question."

SPJ's decision has been covered by industry insiders like the Columbia Journalism Review and mainstream media outlets like NBC Washington. And it's provoked heat from both sides.

When AOL wrote about it on Jan. 19, it spawned 1,346 comments -- with the very first one pointing out, "This is absurd! A society of journalists punishing one of their own for exercizing freedom of speech??? What a crock!!!!"

(Of course, three question marks, four exclamation points, and the misspelling of exercising can also be considered a crock.)

Even a former SPJ president wrote in the Denver Post, "SPJ leaders have practically twisted themselves into pretzels to justify this shameful decision" and ominously warned, "Many are already mounting protests."

Meanwhile, SPJ leaders have managed their own news so feebly, they couldn't mount a pony. They've ignored all the lessons journalists (should) have learned from covering other people's controversies...


Back in June, SPJ's board of directors received an email from an irate journalist, demanding Helen Thomas' name be removed from the award. How do I know this? I served on that board until last fall. So I emailed my peers and begged for debate. Their consensus was summed up by this plea from the SPJ president, who insisted it would be discussed later: "Let's please agree that we don't need to kick up a lot of dust on this issue before then."

Lesson: Deal with controversy quickly. You don't have to make a decision right away, but you need to acknowledge its existence and set a public schedule for getting to it.


I urged SPJ to do something to get ahead of this story. At the very least, I wanted us to announce we'd never name another award after a living person. I also wanted to poll our 8,000 members and get them involved. Those ideas died in silence.

Lessons: In most controversies, there are uncontroversial things you can do to prevent the same thing from happening again. And seeking the opinions of others without declaring your own gives you time to ponder but still shows vigor.


SPJ's executive committee -- basically, the top half-dozen board members -- met last July. In an update to the board (but not to the membership) the president wrote, "After a very thoughtful and intellectual discussion by the exec committee, the decision was to make no decision. I hope that's clear to everyone now." Sure, crystal.

Lesson: "Deciding not to decide" doesn't look wise and impartial. It looks weak and evasive.


SPJ's leaders felt nothing else needed to be done. I privately fretted to some board members that because we resolved nothing, we solved nothing. When Thomas was quoted in December, I was already off the board. But as a regular ol' SPJ member paying his $72 annual dues, I didn't hear about the press release the board issued on Jan. 14: "SPJ board of directors votes to retire Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award." Instead, irate SPJers contacted me. SPJ didn't tell its members until Jan. 26 -- in an email newsletter with a dozen items. And it wasn't even the first item. It was a single paragraph under the headline, "Explanation of awards process." Can you say, "bury the lead"?

Lesson: If you let your opponents announce your own news, you've lost control of the message.

So from that first email in June 2010 till today, SPJ's leaders have never asked its 8,000 members what they think. And in this deadline-driven business, they waited two weeks to tell them what they'd already done.

You'd think journalists would instinctively grasp how to weather a media storm. After all, we cover (and occasionally create) enough of them. But sadly, it doesn't work that way. It reminds me of the doctors and nurses who huddle outside my local hospital, smoking cigarettes -- if anyone should know better, it's them, right?


SPJ's big problem is that it's run by small-town journalists. The board currently has a whopping 23 members, but only two work for a Top 50 newspaper: Sonny Albarado at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and James Pilcher at the Cincinnati Enquirer.

There's no one from The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today, much less the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune or Dallas Morning News. There are no national network reporters or producers, nor any editors from national websites like Slate or The Huffington Post.

In fact, when SPJ was mangling its media image last year, SPJ's president was a "temporary assistant professor of journalism" at a Virginia college with 7,500 students. It's no great shock he didn't understand how journalism works in the real world and in real time.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no media snob. I've met morons at TIME magazine and geniuses at weeklies you've never heard of. And I know firsthand that the current SPJ board is dedicated. It's just not diverse. Imagine if the American Bar Association was led only by solo practitioners from rural states. Or if the NBA had no basketball teams from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami.


SPJ doesn't get the internet. Its board and staff have no clue how quickly the web spreads news. In fact, they don't understand most web tech because they refuse to try any of it.

During my two-year board term, I was chastised for refusing to spend members' dues flying to meetings in Indianapolis (SPJ's headquarters) when the agenda was sparse enough that we could've deftly handled it via Skype or GoToMeeting.

But none of the SPJ leaders I lobbied had ever used either program. Several had never even heard of them. Which is weird, because SPJ touts new media training on an eCampus section of its website. Perhaps board members should be required to take some of that training -- especially about social media, since that's how many pissed-off SPJers (on both sides of the issue) have commiserated about being cut out of the Thomas decision.

As for my opinion on the matter, I've purposefully sidestepped that. I plan to keep it that way -- because I know how the blogosphere works, and I don't want my own message getting hijacked. I want the focus to stay lasered on how SPJ always does things, not just what it did in this single case.

Because this episode involved a famous name and charges of anti-Semitism, it's gotten a lot more play than the mundane decisions SPJ regularly makes with the same silliness. I believe it's one reason SPJ's membership is dropping. When I was still privy to those membership numbers, I learned that SPJ is adroit at recruiting new members, even during this newspaper-destroying recession. But many of those members refuse to renew -- SPJ's "churn" is much higher than the other journalism organizations I belong to.

Part of the reason, I think, is the irony that a bunch of journalists can't run their own society with the same values they cover American society.

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