Vermont Public Radio comment for Thursday July 25th, 2013

INTRO: Helen Thomas, who covered every American president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International, died this past week at the age of 92. This morning, commentator and veteran ABC News correspondent Barrie Dunsmore reflects on her extraordinary journalistic career.

 

TEXT: Journalistic competition was never a problem for Helen Thomas. She worked harder than any two or three White House correspondents and got more than her share of scoops in six decades of reporting- including during Watergate.

 

Helen’s problem was that she was a woman and women were not welcome in journalism when she arrived in Washington in 1942 - or for years thereafter.  When she was young she was not unattractive but would never have considered using charm to get high ranking government officials to spill secrets to her. She succeeded in becoming a journalistic icon by working tirelessly and by asking plain-spoken, tough questions, eventually of ten presidents on national television. It was in that way that she gained the respect of many of the most powerful people in the country- and of her peers. 

Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for the Washington Post recalled this week what Thomas meant for female journalists.

“Helen Thomas had planted the ‘first woman’ flag on just about everything she did.” That included being the first woman to cover the White House full time for a news service. But Tumulty also found from personal experience that quite the opposite of the woman who made every president squirm, Helen was most helpful to her younger colleagues. Quote: “What Thomas figured out early- and what she taught us- was there was value in making powerful people uncomfortable. It was a sign we were doing our jobs right.”

 

President Barack Obama said of Helen Thomas this past week, “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and bringing down barriers for generations of women in journalism….during that time she never failed to keep presidents- myself included- on their toes.”

 

As I covered foreign policy my contact with the White House press corps was mostly during overseas presidential trips. But over time I came to respect that even though she was a star in an ego driven field Helen remained modest. I also appreciated her sharp sense of humor – like the time when Pat Nixon was visiting a pig farm in China and was wondering what breed the pigs were, and Helen piped up “male chauvinist.”

 

Thomas’ long career ended on a down note. She was nearly 90 when she told a rabbi, in words captured by a camera, that among other things, Jewish settlers “should get the hell out of Palestine.”  The video went viral. A day later she had apologized, resigned and retired amid much criticism, including from the White House. This incident became the second line in some of her obituaries. But award winning journalist and author Sheila Weller thinks that is unfair, and concluded a commentary with these words:

 

“Not withstanding that one ugly remark she made (and it was ugly) I salute her for all the doors she opened and all the inspiring things she did and stood for, to the tremendous benefit of the women who came after her in the media arts and in all fields.”

 I quite agree.




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