Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Chasing the news

Helen Thomas was not always popular. She pried, asked intrusive questions, pushed. Thomas, an icon of American journalism, died July 20 at age 92, still trying to work as a reporter, an often unpopular role that is central to democracy.
    “She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents—myself included—on their toes,” President Obama commented in tribute.
    “What made Helen the ‘dean of the White House press corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” he said.
    She relished doing just that. In a UCLA lecture series in the early 1980s on the state of journalism, Thomas was the only speaker who was not an anchor (Walter Cronkite) or a producer (Judy Woodruff) or an opinion writer (George Will).
    During the Watergate scandal, Thomas wrote stories in which she quoted Martha Mitchell, wife of President Richard Nixon’s U.S. attorney general, John Mitchell. Asked if she (Thomas) had any regrets about quoting Martha Mitchell, who was clearly intoxicated during one late-night call, Thomas was characteristically blunt and unapologetic.
    “She knew who she was talking to,” Thomas said firmly. “It is not my job to decide what should or should not be published. I am a reporter. It is my job to find out things and tell what I know.”
    In journalism, editing is important because all information is not of equal value. Opinion writing is important in creating context and perspective from raw facts. But Thomas did not take that career path. She was simply a reporter, confronting Washington politicians and reporting what they said.
    “I respect the office of the presidency,” she once said, “But I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”
    Thomas began looking for the truth during World War II as a radio reporter. When the men came home and women were expected to step back, Thomas refused. For 52 years, her insistence that she be treated the same as any male reporter opened doors for all the women who followed. One of those who did, Eleanor Clift, noted that Thomas never tired of reminding young women how anything worth having is worth fighting for.
    In a democracy, information needed by the electorate is worth fighting for. Without Thomas, finding that information will be a lot tougher.

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