Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Footsteps of a Pioneer

"I don't speechify. I know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And that's what I ask. But they get mad at the straight line. I just want to ask a tough question."

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas died yesterday.

Many things were said about her during her lifetime. Many things have been said in the hours since her death at the age of 92.

To me, she has always been one thing — a journalist. You could modify that, I suppose. Make that a trailblazing journalist, a pioneer.

And, by the way, that is journalist in what I consider to be the truest sense of the word — a print journalist. Not a talking head — although young Americans can be forgiven for knowing her only from those televised presidential news conferences.

Lots of folks probably do associate her with those news conference — even though there really haven't been many of them in the last four years, and the memory of them tends to fade — until the current incumbent of the Oval Office decides to interrupt a news briefing and seize the lectern for as long as he cares to speak.

She was there from the start of the evolving presidential relationship with television, in the Kennedy administration. Actually, she was there before Kennedy — in the last months of the Eisenhower presidency.

And she did, indeed, ask tough questions.

But she seems to remain an enigma to many of the new generation of journalists — non–journalists, too, for that matter — which may explain my appreciation for what Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor had to say about her: "In the news cauldron that is Washington, there are journalists who are loved, there are journalists who are respected, and there are journalists who are feared. Over the course of a long, remarkable and ultimately controversial career, Helen Thomas was all of those."

Actually, though, I kind of preferred what the Monitor's Jimmy Orr wrote about her five years ago. Thomas, he wrote, was "outspoken, blunt, demanding, forceful and unrelenting."

My kind of journalist.

The longevity of her career was not its only distinguishing feature.

She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club.

Thomas was the only female member of the press corps to travel to China with Richard Nixon in 1972. Not long after that, she was frequently on the receiving end of Martha Mitchell's phone calls in which she complained that the Nixon administration was setting up her husband to take the blame for Watergate.

She often encouraged young journalists to "Get into the game!" but the game can be rough.

In 2010, when asked to comment on Israel, Thomas replied, "Tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine."

When asked for a followup, Thomas, who was of Arab descent and said so, said, "Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land, not German and not Poland's." Where should they go? she was asked. "They could go home." Where is home? "Poland. Germany."

She was labeled anti–Semitic, and her career was over. It was unfortunate that this brief — and, frankly, ill–advised — segment of the interview sparked a controversy that ended an otherwise distinguished career.

I was especially disappointed that the Society of Professional Journalists, a group with which I was affiliated as both a student and a professor, chose not to consider the accomplishments of Thomas' lifetime and, on the basis of the interview, discontinued its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement.

That can't erase the many achievements of her lifetime nor should it change the fact that she continues to inspire young people of both genders to get in the game.

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