“I was just part of a cabal, fighting the injustice of it all, of how women were treated in every field.” Helen Thomas reacts almost hesitantly when I suggest that without her, women journalists might not be where we are today. No, she is not a trailblazer, she says resolutely.
But to many of us female journalists, she was. For the past 60 years, she had been the tenacious award-winning grande dame of U.S. journalism, a straight-shooter, the dean of the White House Press corps. With wit, timeless candor and a razor-sharp voice and pen she has held an unprecedented ten presidential administrations accountable since beginning her career as a copy girl on the now-defunct Washington Daily News and then as a United Press International reporter in 1943. Thomas was the first woman officer of the National Press Club after it opened its doors to women members, and for many of us, she has become a role model and then some. In 2002, she won NYWICI’s MATRIX Award for her achievements in the field of newspaper journalism. But in light of all that, what is so striking about her is her unpretentiousness.
“I am not a woman. I’m a reporter,” is her credo. “You don’t delineate someone in the profession as to whether they’re a man or a woman, but what they do.” But when she embarked on her career, female reporters were the exception, and a woman reporter covering the White House was unheard of. If she could start all over again, would she choose the same profession, I ask her. “Absolutely! Without a doubt.” The answer comes without delay, and I can hear her smile.
And yet, isn’t journalism still a ‘Boys’ Club’? “No, I think it has become more and more a women’s club! Women have come a long way. They still have a way to go in terms of equal pay and recognition. And they should not give up the fight for equality. But times have changed for female journalists." Have they really? I probe. “Mostly beautiful, blond women make it in broadcast journalism,” Thomas once remarked wryly. Does she think that still holds true today? “I’ll give you the answer: Watch television! You have to be very attractive. That’s all I am saying.”
There are many past trailblazers like Dorothy Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Pauline Frederick, Marguerite Higgins, Doris Fleeson and May Craig that Thomas holds in high esteem. But she won’t single out her own role models or mentors. If anyone, she says, it was her parents — who were illiterate, raised nine children and wanted everyone to be educated — who made the real contribution to her life.
Media realities are changing, but for Thomas, nothing can replace experience and real dedication to truth. “Young people often don’t react enough to what’s going on in the world. You got to have a conscience. I’d rather have my nose against the windowpane than be part of the crowd. Thank God for leakers and whistleblowers.”
What is the impact of new media and blogging on journalism and the public discourse, I ask her. “It is very effective. But I wish that newspapers would be read more. You get a much better air view of what’s going on from a newspaper than from blogging. Now everybody with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist. I don’t call them media. I call them individuals who are getting their point of view across.”
And then she thinks out loud, “I hope we’ll still have newspapers.” Will we? “Absolutely!” But the notion that the public doesn’t hold today’s media in high esteem irritates her tremendously. “I don’t give a damn! I know how I try to do my job.”
A slightly longer version of this article was published in NYWICI’s print newsletter CONNECT (Fall 2006).
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More about Helen Thomas:
Helen Thomas provokes White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:
May 2010: Helen Thomas asks President Barack Obama why the US is still in Afghanistan
July 2007: Helen Thomas asks George Bush about the Iraq war
August 2009: President Obama surprises Helen Thomas in the Press Room for their mutual birthday
And click here to see Helen Thomas on The Daily Show, June 2006.
March 17, 2010