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Veteran Journalist Helen Thomas Leaves An Outspoken Legacy

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Veteran Journalist Helen Thomas Leaves An Outspoken Legacy


Veteran Journalist Helen Thomas Leaves An Outspoken Legacy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer. Journalist Helen Thomas died this morning at her home in Washington, D.C., after a long illness. She was 92. Over decades, she made her mark as a woman journalist who shattered barriers in the nation's capital and invariably spoke her mind. She became a fixture at the White House, too. But toward the end her bluntly expressed opinions about Israel and Jews cast a shadow on her long career. NPR's David Folkenflik has this remembrance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Helen Thomas was a trailblazer and gadfly, and had she stepped away after the first six decades of her career, she would have been hailed simply as one of the most famous White House reporters in modern times.

JENNIFER LOVEN: It sounds glamorous - and it is - and it's a wonderful job, but there's a lot of legwork that goes into doing it well; and Helen was as committed to that as anybody.

FOLKENFLIK: Former Associated Press reporter Jennifer Loven first encountered Thomas as an intern in the early 1990s, but retained her awe for Thomas as she rose to be a full-fledged White House correspondent for the AP. After decades on the job, Loven says, Thomas was continuing to scramble after stories, and yet took time to mentor a younger woman who was reporting for a rival news agency.

LOVEN: You know, there is a confederation among journalists that you help each other up until the moment when you have to, you know, beat the crap out of each other.

FOLKENFLIK: (Laughing)

LOVEN: And she was true to that.

FOLKENFLIK: Helen Thomas was born in the small town of Winchester, Ky., the daughter of two Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. with less than 20 bucks in their pockets. And the family soon moved to Michigan. The Thomases had nine children. Helen went to public schools and then on to Wayne State University, later becoming a cub reporter in Washington, D.C., and a chronicler of so-called women's issues before covering various federal agencies for what was then United Press.

She covered Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and then after his success, followed him to the White House, where she continued for just shy of five decades; her sign-off at the end of press conferences becoming so well known, it was included in movies about White House intrigue.


HELEN THOMAS: (As herself) Thank you, Mr. President.

FOLKENFLIK: And so Thomas herself became part of the institution - the fearless, tenacious part.


B.J. COOPER: I used to be a deputy press secretary at the White House.

FOLKENFLIK: B.J. Cooper was a press aide to then-President George H. W. Bush. He spoke to NPR's Audie Cornish in 2010.


COOPER: And when I started in 1989, Marlin Fitzwater - who was the press secretary at the time - said to me: Now B.J., when you come in, Helen's going to be sitting on the bureau outside my office. I said: Yes, sir. He said: She's going to ask you questions. I said: Yeah. He said: Don't answer 'em. Don't say anything because anything you say will be the top of her story.

FOLKENFLIK: Thomas was the first woman to join the White House Correspondents' Association, and the first to join the Gridiron Club as well. She pushed hard for entry, as both professional groups provided validation for reporters in D.C. She thrived on the public theater of the job, poking and provoking presidents of both parties at press conferences; but put a premium on shoe-leather reporting out of view. Here, Thomas spoke on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION in 1999, following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment of President Clinton.


THOMAS: Well, I know we're being accused of overkill. But I think that the aggression, in the aftermath of being lied to for nine months for everything was inoperative - that they said, and we were the transmission belt. A certain disillusionment does set in, and we all realize that we were not aggressive enough; we didn't ask enough questions.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2000, United Press International was sold to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, and Thomas wanted no part of him. She became an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers, unshackled from notions of journalistic objectivity but still present in the White House press room.


THOMAS: We'll never leave Iraq until we have total victory. What does that mean?

FOLKENFLIK: What does total victory mean in Iraq? A memorable exchange with President George W. Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan, in 2005.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN: When you engage in a war, you take the fight to the enemy. You go on the offense. And that's exactly what we are doing. We are fighting them there so that we don't have to fight them here. Sept. 11th taught us...

THOMAS: It had nothing to do with - Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

FOLKENFLIK: Which was, of course, true. But her outspokenness had occasionally inspired controversies that would flare up for a day or two and then subside. It took only 30 seconds in 2010 to dislodge her, at the age of 89, from the perch in the White House Press Corps she prized so deeply. A rabbi at a Jewish Heritage Day celebration - held on the White House lawn - asked Thomas if she had a message for Jewish people. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Thomas was asked if she had, quote, "any comments on Israel."]


RABBI DAVID NESSENOFF: We're asking everybody today...

THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

FOLKENFLIK: Just to be clear: At a goodwill event for Jews, she told them to get the hell out of Israel. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Thomas said Israel - not Jews - should leave Palestine - not Israel.]


NESSENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

THOMAS: They'd go home.

NESSENOFF: Where's the home?

THOMAS: Poland. Germany.

NESSENOFF: So the Jews - you're saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

FOLKENFLIK: A particularly galling jab, given how many Jews were driven from, or murdered in, those two countries during World War II. Hearst announced Thomas' retirement soon after that video was posted online. She would soon take up as a columnist at a small Virginia paper, but her voice would be heard from little again.

Her fans among her former colleagues offer no defense of those remarks that day, but say her legacy is being wrongly overshadowed. Again, former AP reporter Jennifer Loven.

LOVEN: She stood up; and she asked the questions that are hard to ask, that are challenging, that are - you know, sometimes provocative. I mean, you could find - you know, clip after clip after clip of White House press secretaries standing up at the podium and saying well, Helen, I reject the premise of your question, but - and then, you know, coming out with some kind of an answer; which she invariably thought was insufficient, and would tell them so immediately.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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