Truthdigger of the Week: Helen Thomas
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.”
“Bigger and better assignments” followed for Thomas, the AP reports. She traveled with President Nixon to China in 1972, a trip during which the foundation for the modern day relationship between that country and the United States was laid after 25 years of separation between the two. She covered every economic summit involving the major industrialized nations from 1975 onward and authored a regular column for UPI called “Backstairs at the White House,” in which she provided a limited insider’s view of various presidential administrations. She eventually got a press room front row seat, which later on was inscribed with her name.
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.”In the second Bush era, Thomas regarded the move into Iraq as a “mindless invasion … without provocation.” She asked an audience at the University of North Carolina in late 2003, “Where’s the national outrage? … Who is demanding to know why we invaded Iraq — a country that did absolutely nothing to us?” Thomas went on to say the war is “a violation of international policy under any circumstance and is immoral.”
Thomas drew the love of liberals for rankling functionaries of the administration of George W. Bush. In a November 2007 conference at the White House, she asked press secretary Dana Perino why Americans should rely on Gen. David Petraeus, rather than the president himself, to determine when U.S. troops fighting in Iraq should be redeployed. When Perino began to answer, Thomas interrupted her by saying, “You mean how many more people we kill?” Perino acted appalled and made noises about the privilege of being a White House journalist, saying she found it “really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a … it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.”
One year before, Thomas was called upon directly by President Bush for the first time in three years. She asked him to reveal his true motives for invading Iraq. “I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, [about] your decision to invade Iraq,” she said. “Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? …. You have said it wasn’t oil … quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?” Bush predictably deflected the question, citing Saddam Hussein’s refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraqi facilities. Thomas’ colleagues were used to being made uncomfortable by her questions by then, but some of them criticized her for the question.
Although liberal administrations generally fared better, Thomas criticized Obama officials as well. Of its handling of a so-called town hall meeting in 2009 where questions appeared to require preapproval by the administration, she interjected to say of the White House’s actions: “We have had some control but not this control. I mean I’m amazed, I’m amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and you have controlled.” She went on to tell a glib Robert Gibbs, then Obama’s press secretary, that the administration exhibited “a pattern of controlling the press.”
Thomas’ fall from grace in the eyes of the establishment occurred while leaving a Jewish heritage celebration at the White House in spring 2010, when she criticized Israeli aggression against Palestinians and said occupying Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine.” She lost a number of professional engagements and relationships, academic credentials and other honors in the controversy that erupted in response to the remarks, and resigned from her column at Hearst. In January 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement.
She publicly apologized for the way she expressed her view. References to a 2011 radio interview quote her as saying: “I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive.” She added that she apologized because people were upset, but that ultimately she still “had the same feelings about Israel’s aggression and brutality.” In an earlier conversation with journalists, she reportedly said: “I paid a price, but it’s worth it to speak the truth.”
No price is too high to pay to give the public the respect it receives when reporters speak their mind. In valuing honesty in a place where all sorts of powerful forces wanted to do her harm, Thomas preserved her dignity as well. And she did it while “breaking the barrier against women covering the White House” and working as journalists in general, as Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer said. For being an individual among Washington drones, we honor her posthumously as our Truthdigger of the Week.