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Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Helen Thomas

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Helen Thomas
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“I don't think a tough question is disrespectful. I say. ‘Mr. President...' I say, ‘Thank you.' What else do you want? The presidential news conference is the only forum in our society where a president can be questioned. If he's not questioned, he can rule by edict; by government order. He can be a monarch. He can be a dictator, and who is to find out? No. He should be questioned and he should always to able to willingly reply and answer to all questions because these aren't our questions. They're the people's questions.”
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Helen Thomas
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81 of 100
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White House Press Corps Reporter, Author (1920—  )

 To say Helen Thomas is a reporter does neither her nor her career justice. In her early career, Thomas toppled barriers for female journalists, opening the door for others. She has earned a well-deserved spot as a fearless leader of the press, always urging herself and others to put the tough questions to our political figures.

Helen Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants, was born in Winchester, KY, and raised in Detroit, MI. Upon graduation from college, Thomas moved to Washington, D.C. to make her home and her mark as a journalist. Her first job was as a copygirl/gopher at the Washington Daily News. She was promoted to cub reporter, but laid off due to cutbacks (the paper no longer exists). In 1943, Thomas joined United Press International (UPI), and covered women’s interest stories for their radio wire service. At the time, only stories deemed appropriate for women were what female reporters were allowed to write. Undaunted, Thomas persevered and by 1955 was assigned to cover the US Department of Justice, later covering other departments as well.

It was in 1960, however, with the election of President Kennedy, that Thomas began her breakout job of covering the presidents. She began attending the daily press briefings and presidential press conferences. Thomas became known as the “Sitting Buddha” - sitting in the front row, asking the first question, and closing presidential conferences with her signature “Thank you, Mr. President.” Her determination to do her job well helped her break down gender barriers in her profession. She was president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1959, and during that time the Russians were invited to the US. The tradition was that foreign visitors went to one luncheon for the press, at the National Press Club – where women weren’t allowed. Thomas and other female reporters made such strong objections that they were finally allowed to be on the floor during the luncheon. After the Club began accepting women, Thomas became the first female officer. In 1970, the UPI named her chief White House correspondent and later, chief of the UPI’s White House bureau, the first woman to hold that position. Thomas also became the first female member of the famous Gridiron Club. When President Nixon made an historic trip to China in 1972, Helen Thomas was one of the reporters hand-picked for the trip, and the only female print journalist allowed by China to accompany him. She resigned from UPI in 2000 after 57 years of service, and became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

Thomas is known for asking for nothing less than truth from any president she has covered, saying, “All presidents think that most information involving government and the White House belongs to them, to their domain, and I think it belongs in the public. I don’t think they should have these secrets – I think it’s unconscionable the hold they have.” Her relentless pursuit of the truth has not always made her popular among the presidents she’s covered, and this has been made more apparent during the Bush administration. Thomas has been moved in recent years from the front row to the back during press conferences, though she still takes her front seat for the daily briefings. She also no longer is called on first for questions. She claims that because she is a columnist now, rather than a wire service reporter, and because she asks too many pointed questions, she was moved to the back.

She gives her opinions freely now because she is a columnist, saying “I can say all of this because I’m a columnist now…. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe – but I didn’t permit myself the luxury of having it in my copy.” She is critical of her colleagues as well. After the attacks on 9/11 and the push for war, Thomas believes that reporters were afraid to ask tough questions, afraid to appear unpatriotic. She writes that it’s imperative for reporters to continue pushing for the truth, letting “the chips fall where they may.”

Helen Thomas has written several books, the latest called Watchdogs of the Press? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public. She is the subject of a documentary titled Thank You, Mr. President : Helen Thomas at the White House, and recently wrote a children’s book, The Great White House Escape. She is as enthusiastic about doing her job today as the day in high school when she saw her first byline in a story.

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.
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Americans Who Tell the Truth ::

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This beautiful coffee-table book is an eloquent collection of portraits and stirring words of these brave citizens from all walks of life.
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