Sunday, 13 June 2010

Honoring Helen Thomas, the First Lady of American Journalism

“Be fair, be decent… be honest, tell the truth, be educated, seek a better life and help mankind.” – Helen Thomas, on the values imparted by her parents.

This extraordinary woman has dedicated her life to seeking the truth for the benefit of all humanity. Often described as the First Lady of American journalism, Ms. Thomas has practiced her profession for sixty-seven years. She has been a pioneer – the first woman appointed Chief White House Correspondent for United Press International (UPI) and the only female print journalist to accompany President Nixon to China on his historic trip in 1972. Ms. Thomas was also the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member (later president) of the White House Correspondents Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. After 57 years with UPI, she resigned to join the Hearst Newspapers as a columnist writing on national affairs and the White House.

The senior member of the White House Press Corps, Ms. Thomas has known and questioned every president since Kennedy in 1961 and written four books about her tenure. She holds the distinction of having the only chair in the White House press room labeled not with the name of her employer, but with her own name.

Helen Thomas’ amazing career has not been without controversy. She is known for direct and pointed questions. After a lifetime censoring her own opinions, she gave an off-the-record comment to the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California, calling George W. Bush the “worst President in American history.” When then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed she had said it, she lost her prestigious front-row position in the press briefing room and was moved to the back row. Ms. Thomas’ ostracism came at a very crucial moment in 2003 as President Bush gave a press conference in which he told the reporters that America was on the verge of war. Ms. Thomas recalls that no reporters within view of the President asked him why, and the President did not call on her from the back of the room.

Ms. Thomas wrote a polite note to President Bush apologizing for calling him the worst President. He graciously replied, then called on her at the next press conference. True to her profession, she took the opening and asked him then, “Why did we go to war?” After that, she said, she was put in the deep freeze.

Ms. Thomas has also spoken candidly about what she sees as the degradation of the White House press itself. A famous incident came in April 2008 when the White House finally acknowledged the US had tortured suspected terrorists. When not one reporter questioned why President Bush had earlier denied using torture, Ms. Thomas asked her fellow reporters, “Where is everybody?”

She received 50 bouquets of flowers and cards from her colleagues saying, in effect: we’re here, we’re here.

“Look, you said this yesterday, and you’re saying this now,” expressed an exasperated Ms. Thomas. “How can you approach the American people with this? We’re supposed to be an informed people. We can handle the truth.”

Ms. Thomas has also been quoted as saying the only truism in life is change. She feels sure the press will wake up, come out of their coma and, when she retires, take up the work she has started.

Helen Thomas you deserve the spot atop our masthead because you have lived your convictions. Your words and questions bear witness to the power of truth. You have always asked why. We salute you, Helen Thomas.

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