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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Saluting a writing watchdog

“We don't go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.” – Helen Thomas

One evening in 1999, my wife and I picked Helen Thomas up at the Twin Cities airport. With time to kill until she was to do a keynote speech at a scholarship event, she asked us to drive around, show her the area, and talk about reporting.

It was among the fastest two hours I ever spent.  She regaled us with stories about time in the White House Press Corps, her work at home and abroad with the United Press, and how journalism was changing, some for the better, but much to her chagrin, much for the worse.  She worried about where things might be headed and how as writers we needed to be diligent in telling the whole story and not caving in to the ever-growing pressure that many in the profession were feeling from the growing influence of the internet.

Thomas, who would’ve turned 95 today (she died in 2013), plowed new ground for women in journalism and spoke eloquently that night about staying the course and being true to the term “Watchdogs for Democracy.”  It was just when her new book Front Row at the White House came onto the market, and at evening’s end she gracefully took a copy from her bag and signed it to us as we returned her for a redeye flight home.

Author and news reporter for 60 years, she covered the administrations of 11 U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama.  She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  She wrote thousands of articles for the UPI, for radio broadcasts, and for newspapers, literally beginning in the trenches as a copygirl and ending at the highest echelon, earning every major newswriting award and 30 honorary doctorate degrees along the way. 

Helen Thomas

Her starting salary for the United Press in 1943, by the way, was $24 – a week.  “I wasn’t in it for the money,” she quipped.  When she handed me that signed book, I was flabbergasted.  “I don’t know how to thank you,” I stammered.  “That’s so unexpected.”   Her response:  “When you’re in the news business, always expect the unexpected.”  It’s a line I’ve never forgotten.

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