Reporter Helen Thomas died at home in her Washington DC apartment, surrounded by her loved ones. She was 92 and had been ill for years, according to a friend. Covering every president from JFK to Barack Obama, Thomas was an excellent reporter, in her own right, whose no-nonsense, probing questions made George Bush uncomfortable. But on top of these achievements, Thomas was a pioneer for women journalists and was a first in many things. For instance, Thomas
- is considered the first woman to write about things not considered the “women’s beat,” which the AP defines as “the soft stories about presidents’ kids, wives, their teas and their hairdos.”
- was the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service (for UPI in 1974)
- was the first female officer at the National Press Club (also in 1974)
- was the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association
- was the first female member of the Gridiron Club, a news society.
Thomas was forced to retire from Hearst after making insensitive comments that were considered controversial about Israel. The backlash against Thomas revealed the bias and double standard in the media, when it comes to the Middle East.
Obama praised Thomas in a statement, saying “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism… she never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.” He also said,
“What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account. Our thoughts are with Helen’s family, her friends and the colleagues who respected her so deeply.”
Hillary and Bill Clinton released a statement as well:
“Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat. Throughout her career she covered the issues and events that shaped the course of our world with perseverance and a tough-minded dedication.
“Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy.”
She famously grilled George W. Bush for why he invaded Iraq, saying
“I’d like to ask you, Mr. President. Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?”
It was this tenacity and fearlessness which inspired the hilarious Stephen Colbert video (see above. It starts at 1:56)