by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 25, 2013
HELEN THOMAS: A FEARLESS FIGHTER FOR A FREE PRESS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Trailblazer. Role model. Inspiration.
Those words barely begin to describe the legacy of journalist Helen Thomas, who died on July 20 at the age of 92.
Her career spanned nearly seven decades - from typewriters to smartphones, from newsreels to YouTube, from newspaper hawkers shouting "Extra!" to the Internet.
She started as a copy girl with United Press in 1943 in a era wheN women were not particularly welcome in journalism. By the time UP merged with Hearst's International News Service to become UPI in 1958, she was covering federal agencies and fighting to hold her own in a male-dominated profession.
In 1960, she covered John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and when he was elected, she became the first woman assigned by the wire services to cover the White House full-time.
She would eventually cover every president from Kennedy to Obama. She more than earned her front row seat at presidential news conferences with her hard, persistent questioning.
There were better writers than Thomas, but there were few men or women on the White House beat that could out-report her. In her prime, she worked from sunrise to sunset and had more than her share of scoops.
She hated secrecy and evasion by the White House, no matter who was the occupant, and fervently believed in the responsibility of journalists to hold public officials accountable.
She stayed with UPI long after its glory years. By the time it was sold in 2000 to News World Communications, the media arm of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Thomas was the marquee name left. But she could not abide the news service she spent decades toiling for being in the hands of Rev. Moon, so she quit to take a new position as columnist for the Hearst Newspapers.
It was in her last decade, writing for Hearst, that she found her voice. Freed from the need to be objective, she was absolutely fearless in taking on the Bush Administration at a time when other reporters were to frightened to do so.
Her critical questioning, informed by her many years in Washington, gave her a creditability on the White House beat that few others possessed.
The Bush team despised Thomas, who called their boss "the worst President in American history."
They did their best to marginalize her, from taking away her front row seat to ignoring her questions, but she persevered as one of the few reporters willing to question the Bush Administration on why we were in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thomas seemed as if she'd go on forever, but she was forced to retire from Hearst in 2010 after a dustup over remarks she made about Israel, saying that it should "get the hell out of Palestine."
It was a reminder of another battle she faced during her lifetime - the prejudice against Arab-Americans. It was also a reminder that challenging Zionism is the third-rail of American politics is risky. Anyone who questions the legitimacy of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is immediately tarred as anti-semitic.
Watching how quickly Thomas was abandoned by her alleged peers speaks volumes about the state of American journalism. Her critics gleefully used this incident to trash a nearly seven-decade career.
They should be ashamed of themselves now. They will be forgotten while the legacy of Helen Thomas will endure - the legacy of a woman who lived a life, and not an apology, in the way she stood up for a free and fearless press.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.