Dec 11, 2013
Truthdigger of the Week: Helen Thomas
Posted on Jul 20, 2013
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Helen Thomas, the White House reporter who became a national name covering the administrations of 11 American presidents, died surrounded by family and friends at her apartment in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. She was 92.
Thomas was born to immigrant parents from Tripoli, Lebanon, who were illiterate in English and made their living running a grocery store in Detroit. After deciding in high school that she wanted to become a journalist, Thomas enrolled in what is known today as Wayne State University in Detroit, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English. She got her first job as a “copy girl” at the now-defunct Washington Daily News, earning $17.50 a week fetching coffee and doughnuts for the paper’s editors.
In 1943, United Press International, then simply United Press, hired her to write news stories for the local radio wire. Her coverage was early on limited to “women’s news, society items and celebrity profiles,” The Associated Press said in an obituary of Thomas. She became president of the Women’s National Press club for one year in 1959.
Thomas’ career breakthrough came in 1960 when she was about 40 years old. The election of John F. Kennedy saw her first presidential assignments. She was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., to observe and write about the vacation of the president-elect and his family. Her angle switched from what were regarded as women’s concerns to the news of the day. She became the White House correspondent for UPI at the beginning of 1961. During conferences with the Kennedy administration, Thomas revived the then-lost tradition of ending sessions with the valediction, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Thomas quit reporting for UPI on principled grounds in 2000, when Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church and founder and owner of the international media conglomerate News World Communications Inc., bought the service. Moon was notorious for seeking power in everything that he did, and is reported to have called democracy a “failed system” and said that his accumulation of wealth and influence “gave all the individuals in the world cause to kneel down in front of me.”
Upon her admirable resignation, Thomas became emboldened to express her personal critical views, now in a regular column for Hearst Newspapers. In a remark given during a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which suggests the kind of reporter she might have become had she been freer to speak her mind earlier in her career—while also revealing her predatory side—she said: “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’ ”
Thomas’ reputation reached beyond U.S. borders. At roughly the time of her departure from UPI, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked to explain the difference between democracy in Cuba and democracy in the United States. He reportedly replied: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.” Thomas regarded those words as “the height of flattery.”
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