[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally posted on February 28, 2006. Given Thomas’ recent retirement after making controversial comments about Israel/Palestine, we thought it appropriate to re-run the interview.]
Helen Thomas has been an iconic face in the White House press room for decades. She covered an unprecedented nine presidential administrations while gaining a reputation as a thoughtful, tough reporter. While working for United Press International for 57 years, Thomas took on the boys’ club of political journalism, becoming the only female print journalist to travel with President Nixon to China and the first woman to hold posts in the White House Correspondents’ Association and the National Press Club. Though Thomas proudly sat in the front row of the press room for decades, she was moved to the back in 2003 by a Bush Administration that she frequently peppered with critical and challenging questions, and has been called on less and less frequently because, she speculates, “they didn’t like me … I ask too mean questions.” She is now a regular columnist for Hearst.
Helen Thomas visited our offices for a panel on civil rights, arriving in a fur coat that swallowed up her tiny frame. Campus Progress sat down with the “first lady of the press” over a cup of very black coffee to talk about women journalists, comparing wars, and undying curiosity.
Do you have any advice for young journalists?
Oh, go for it! It’s the greatest profession in the world. And you should view it as public service—when you are informing the American people, you are doing the greatest thing because you cannot have a democracy without an informed people. It is an education every day. I only feel sorry for those who had to leave it to put the kids through college. But I think once you get hooked on being in journalism you will never, never, ever feel the same way. I’ve seen so many reporters look back in longing for the days when they were starving to death, working 14, 15 hours a day, going to offices where they walk up four flights of rickety steps, and they loved every minute. I just think it takes great dedication. And the pay is too low, the hours are too long—but you never leave when the story’s breaking, and stories never break on your time.
In the last couple of years, aspiring journalists have seen many professional journalists censoring themselves and avoiding asking the tough questions.
I think that there’s a real deterioration in journalism. Unfortunately, everybody with a laptop thinks they’re a journalist today. They don’t have any professionalism, they don’t have any standards, and we have been infiltrated by that. Plus there is the corporatization of all the media companies. It’s a tragedy to have one-newspaper towns with no competition, and having the media broadcast outlets think that entertainment is more important than the issues. So I think that the profession is changing radically, and it has not commended itself very well in the last year in terms of plagiarism, fabrication and so forth. So I think they have to do a lot of soul-searching, but I’d say that the preponderance of reporters are very dedicated to the values and standards of accuracy and honesty and credibility. One thing about this profession: you do not last long if you make a big mistake, because our report cards are on the front page every day.
You covered the White House for a very long time—which presidents and presidential press secretaries do you think were the most honest and forthcoming?
Which president? None. Some press secretaries really tried to wear two hats—you have to be a schizophrenic. On one hand, you’re speaking for the President of the United States, for the whole federal government, for the American people and on it goes. That’s one hat. The other hat is to speak to the reporters who are but a transmission belt to the American people. I think much depends on how much a president wants the American people to know. This Bush administration is the most secretive I have ever covered, and I think the most secretive in American history since the time presidents have been covered.
All presidents think that most information involving government and the White House belongs to them, to their domain, and I think it belongs in the public. I don’t think they should have these secrets—I think it’s unconscionable the hold they have. I mean, I didn’t know the Brits ran any ports until this started! And it’s all decided by a secret committee that decides whether we sell our ports? This is a shock to me, and I think I’m so dumb to have not known that. But why didn’t I know it? Because it’s not been on the public record at all.
Well, back to the thing: I think that the greatest press secretary was Jerald terHorst. He served for one month with President Ford. He had been a newspaper man in this town, for Detroit news, for 29 years—he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was a man of trust.
He was appointed press secretary by President Ford who was a sudden president, and he was saying “the long national nightmare is over,” Nixon resigned. While Jerry was serving, he got a call from a couple of newspaper colleagues and friends on a Friday and they told him that there were rumors that President Ford sent emissaries to San Clemente and that they were working on negotiating a pardon for Nixon. He went to the counsel of the White House, who is the chief lawyer, and he was told that was not true. Jerry came back and told the reporters no, nothing to it. Then on Saturday, I think, he got the word from Ford that he was going to pardon President Nixon and he was so devastated.
I think that Jerry terHorst was a man of great integrity, tremendous integrity. All press secretaries are placed in dilemmas like that- except for these press secretaries now, they are robots! They all promise never to lie but they shade the truth all over the place, they dance around because the president didn’t want them to tell anything.
When you were just starting out, what was the position of female journalists and how has that evolved?
Well, I was very lucky—I had parents who couldn’t read or write, but they wanted everyone to be in education. And the one thing they never told me was that it was a man’s world. So everyone in our family—nine kids—we all chose what we wanted to be on the assumption you’re in America, right? And you can do anything you want.
In high school, I was a sophomore and I saw something that I had written in English class in the paper, and I was hooked for life. I had a byline, my ego swelled—I said, “This is it!” I mean, who needs anything else?
When I started out, there was kind of an automatic reflex to assign a woman who comes knocking on the door of the newspaper—if there’s any slot it would be on the woman’s pages, which is ok because there’s lots of news in that field. But it was the tail end of World War II, and they were drafting every young man who had a pulse. If he was breathing, he was going to war, and that left a lot of slots in the hard news offices for help. So women suddenly became the thing to hire.
But after the war, it was a real shocker to me. We had about nine women fired from our office. I was hiding under a table, knowing this. But they wouldn’t have wanted me; I was going to work at 5:30 in the morning and I was simply a gofer, really. The presumption was that these male reporters, young men, 21 years old, 22 years old who had usually been in college, would want to come back to these jobs for $24 a week. They came back as colonels, captains, commanders and so forth. And they looked at those girls and said “Hell no!”
I hate to think that World War II helped me get started—I mean that’s the tragedy. That was true in medicine, law, all these professions—women had a tough, tough time. Still—they’re not there yet. They should never give up the battle for equality.
So, what was your most outrageous experience as a young female reporter?
Outrageous? Every day! Outrageous.
Well, the Press Club we couldn’t go—you had to be escorted by a man if you were going to get a cocktail or dinner or something. That was shocking. Even though we were on beats with men, toe-to-toe in competition, they did not take us in until 1971. And it was because the Club was down on its uppers, financially, and needed our money, needed our dues.
In 1959, I was President of the Women’s National Press Club. All the press clubs at that time cabled Moscow because it was the start of the co-existence era and Eisenhower had invited Nikita Khrushchev to come. Well, it was a tremendous story, because we were going to talk to the Russians. We newspaper women were determined not to be left out on that. And as it happened, whenever there was a foreign visitor up to that time, the State Department would automatically put them at the National Press Club for a luncheon for their one appearance for the press in Washington. Well, we knew that was going to happen and we started screaming. We made so much noise that they arranged that thirty women reporters, for the first time in history were allowed to sit on the floor of the National Press Club.
Obviously you have a reputation for standing up to power and asking tough questions in the press room. Can you identify a particularly difficult moment where you felt like backing down?
I, back down? No way!
I view the press conference as absolutely indispensable for a democracy. There is no other institution in our society, no other forum where a president can be questioned. If he’s not questioned—and it could be a “she” someday— he could be a king or dictator! There’s no accountability at all. Sure, Congress can subpoena them, but they’re not going to do that unless it’s dire. So I think that if you have a chance to ask a question of a president, you shouldn’t blow it—you should really nail him in some way.
I think that press conferences are extremely important, and this president holds the fewest. But it’s the reporters’ fault because they don’t clamor. Something has happened to the press.
What do you think has happened?
Starting after 9/11, they rolled over and played dead—they were so afraid of being called unpatriotic and un-American and they thought the American people were watching on television. They lost their guts and they did a lousy job. It was so clear, for two years, that President Bush wanted to go to war. Every day on the podium in the press room, we heard Ari Fleischer and then Scott McClellan say in one breath, “9/11—Saddam Hussein—9/11—Saddam Hussein—9/11—.” So later on when they said, no, Saddam Hussein had no links with them it was a little late in the game.
Can you compare the media coverage of the march to war in Iraq and the subsequent events there to other wars that have occurred during your time in the press room?
This one is totally controlled. I think that embedding reporters was good to save lives but they certainly have not done the story. You never really saw the war. You didn’t see the invasion of Baghdad really. You didn’t see the bombs. You didn’t see the victims or anything else. I’ve asked all the people on the networks—“Oh,” they said, “that was too gruesome, we couldn’t do that.” Well, that’s war. The Pentagon and the White House had total control of the news. In Vietnam, a reporter could hop on a helicopter, get some help from the military and go anywhere they wanted—they wrote the story and they also wrote how futile it was becoming. And now we have a system where the Pentagon is planting favorable stories in Iraq and, well, God knows where else.
You think that might be happening in the American media as well?
I think every time Rumsfeld briefs, it’s baloney! Here’s a man who signed off on torture, and then when he finally saw the photographs, he had a little bit of conscience… We’ve killed people in torture. That’s not us—is it? Where is the outrage?
I can say all of this because I’m a columnist now. Before, I never bowed out of the human race. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe—but I didn’t permit myself the luxury of having it in my copy. I wrote the dullest copy—he said, she said, he added, blah blah. I was afraid of a verb that might convey my feeling—but everybody knew I had a megaphone otherwise, with my friends and so forth!
Now that you are working on your column, is there anything you miss about reporting?
I honestly believe that the wire services do the best job of informing the American people. I don’t think my opinion is worth two cents, really, but I do think information is so important—and straight information, unbiased as humanly possible.
There has been a huge change in the last 20 years with the rise of the right-wing shadow media. Even before the internet and before Fox News, which has become huge, you had the New York Post, the Washington Times—all these newspapers that are basically doing right-wing opinion journalism.
I think it’s terrible, really, that they have dominated now. I mean, they’re not giving you news. They’re baiting people. Practically every liberal commentator has been wiped out—I mean Moyers, Donahue, you can name them. It’s a tragedy in my opinion, and I think that part of it the blame is the media or corporations who really think they can make a lot of money with people screaming at each other. The right wing has dominated … and of course the middle ground Republicans don’t have a say any more.
So what news outlets do you rely on? Do you use the internet much?
Well, I read my email with trepidation—“you’re ugly, you’re awful, you should retire“—and I write back "You must be living a dull life if you insist on living mine!" And on it goes. Every day I go to the Starbucks near the White House and read the Washington Post, New York Times. That’s indispensable, I think. That’s your homework. And then when I walk into the office I turn on CNN and keep it on. I think they’ve lost a lot of ground. They were magnificent when they started, but trying to emulate Fox is a joke. So I hope they’ll get back their high standards.
Why do you have to be a beautiful blond woman to be in journalism? But I admit when I go on television I say, "do you have a makeup artist? Please, take half these chins away!"
What do you want to be remembered for?
As a fair reporter. It’s very simple: I can say that off the top of my head. I love reporting. I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world to have picked a profession where even when I am dead tired and not wanting to get up in the morning, I’m still very excited and I have undying curiosity. I don’t want to miss anything while I’m around.