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Longtime White House journalist Helen Thomas set path for female reporters, left controversial legacy

The list of words describing White House correspondent Helen Thomas is as long as her storied career, which saw her cover the administrations of ten American presidents. Thomas, who passed away last Friday at the age of 92, was called a “pioneer” by President Barack Obama. The New York Times and CNN both went into detail in their respective obituary pieces about her “trailblazing” career.

As one of the most prominent journalists covering the White House, Thomas did break several barriers for female reporters. She was the first female bureau chief for UPI.  She was the only female journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon’s historical trip to China. She served as president at two of Washington’s top reporter clubs – the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Gridiron Club, the first woman to hold either position.

Helen Thomas. Photo via USA Today

Despite her accolades, some media commentators have noted that Thomas’ legacy should be tempered by her disparaging comments on Jews and Israel. Others wrote that her personal and open opinions had no place front-row and center at the White House briefing room.

Thomas served as a correspondent for United Press International (UPI), first starting as a radio script writer in 1943. In 1960, she was assigned to cover First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy but then switched to cover President John F. Kennedy. She then became UPI’s senior White House correspondent in 1970, in an era where only 22 percent of newspaper journalists were women.  After almost 60 years with the company, Thomas quit her job at UPI and became a syndicated columnist with Hearst News Service. She wrote or co-wrote six books.

In her later years, Thomas became a favorite among liberals during the George W. Bush administration for her open opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The antagonism she displayed prompted the Bush White House to reassign Thomas from her front-row seat in the White House press briefing room. For three years, Bush refused to call on her during press conferences.

Politicians weren’t the only ones to feel Thomas’ criticism. In a 2006 article for The Nation, she faulted the mainstream press for complacency and not challenging the administration during the buildup for war.

“I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush Administration's war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives,” she noted.

Thomas’ long career came to an abrupt halt after she was caught on video in 2009 saying that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and should return to Poland or Germany.  Thomas apologized for her remarks but before being fired from her post with Hearst.

During a 2010 luncheon, she stated that Washington and Hollywood “were owned by Zionists”, prompting the White House Correspondents’ Association to take her name off their annual lifetime achievement award.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post following Thomas’ death, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes that the criticism Thomas received for her dissenting questioning is similar being dished to reporters such as Glenn Greenwald for his role in the ongoing Edward Snowden saga.

“At a time when the very act of newsgathering is under siege, it is more important than ever to remember Helen Thomas and what she stood for — that no matter who is in power, the principles of watchdog journalism are born of patriotism, and they are always worth fighting for,” vanden Heuvel explains.


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