Honoring Helen Thomas
In the wake of veteran reporter Helen Thomas's resignation from the White House Press Corps after her controversial comments, photojournalist Jenny Warburg and urban educational leader Linda Belans honor Thomas's trailblazing career as a journalist.
As has been heavily documented in the news recently, Congressman Bob Etheridge was approached by two college journalism students: "Hi. How are you? Do you fully support the Obama agenda?" The camera shows Etheridge physically manhandling one student while interrogating him about his identity.
The whole thing lasted about the same amount of time that Helen Thomas was captured on camera with a controversial answer to a question posed by a Rabbi and two young aspiring journalists about Israel. The difference? Etheridge is being forgiven. Helen Thomas was forced to retire. Words are indeed mightier than the sword.
Within a couple of hours, Etheridge issued an apology. Thomas issued an apology, too, but no one from the White House applauded her for it as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did when he said, "I've known Bob Etheridge for more than thirteen years [...] He is one of the most honorable people I know, and I'm proud of Bob for taking responsibility and apologizing."
We agree that Bob Etheridge is an honorable man. We wish that Gibbs and the White House would have acknowledged the same traits in Helen Thomas after her apology. With Etheridge, Gibbs anchored his response in the Congressman's history; there was no such mention of Helen Thomas' equally honorable history.
Thomas, who featured in the 1967 "World Almanac's 25 Most Influential Women in America," has been outspoken throughout her coverage of all 10 presidents beginning with JFK. She has been uncompromising in speaking truth to power. She served as an uncomfortable mirror to most of the White House press corps' silent acceptance of what they were fed, most notably concerning the Iraq war. And she never gave up. Yet we fear this grand finale by a grande dame of journalism is what will, from here forward, always follow the comma after her name.
We're not here to pass judgment on Thomas' most recent comments or defend her politics. Instead, as women journalists, we offer an appreciation for the 89-year-old game-changer, a woman of firsts who blazed the trail for all us who have followed.
Helen Thomas spent 57 years at United Press International, roughly half of it serving as White House bureau chief. She was the National Press Club's first female officer; the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association; the first female member of the Gridiron Club and the only female print reporter on Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972. She has traveled the world with all U.S. presidents since then and covered every Economic Summit since 1975. Famous for her front row seat in the briefing room, she held every president's feet to the fire, no matter the party: most recently relentlessly grilling Bush to tell the truth about his justification for the Iraq war, then pressing Obama to prove that his foreign policy is actually different from his predecessors.
Fidel Castro was once asked to define the difference between democracy in Cuba and the in United States. "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas," he said.
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