Helen Thomas holds a reputation of never backing down from a story, an issue or even a president.
The former United Press International reporter for four decades and now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers has been told time after time what an inspiration she is. Yet she appears to hear every compliment for the first time.
And she always smiles.
But smiles are not always what appear when she goes after an interview subject, particularly a president at news conferences.
Thomas served on a panel on presidential press conferences during the SPJ National Convention in New York City.
News media shortcomings preoccupy Thomas, who said she is in preparatory stages for a book that will explore the question, “What has happened to the press?”
“Journalists have to get their bearings again and not be snookered,” she said. “We have to get our adversarial attributes back in shape again.”
During the panel on news conferences, Thomas focused on those gatherings as prime examples of reporters shirking their responsibility.
Reporters need to ask tougher questions and probe harder for the truth at news conferences, she said.
Most reporters haven’t held President George W. Bush accountable during the war in Iraq, she said.
“The truth — or the search for it — is supposed to be our stock in trade,” she said. “Truth took a holiday. The press laid down on the job.”
Thomas started the session called “The News Conference: Softball Session to Feeding Frenzy” with a five-minute lecture, during which she said reporters blindly followed the administration’s lead.
She said the media have bought into the administration’s propaganda by, among other things, labeling the “unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq as a war on terror.”
She encouraged the media to use news conferences to demand answers from government officials.
Increasing the number of news conferences and improving access is crucial, Thomas said. Thomas said Bush has not had enough news conferences — only 13 since his inauguration in 2001.
She also said journalists have a duty to ask more questions about politicians and their policies.
“Democracy won’t last long if (journalism) continues to pay homage to the government,” Thomas said.
One journalist she plans to interview for the book is former SPJ President Reginald Stuart, who said he feels honored to be included.
“Helen Thomas is a one of a kind journalist — a living legend,” he said.
“She’s thorough and persistent and doesn’t cower to politicians and civil servants simply because they have titles. She reminds us every day that there should be no sacred cows.”
Russ Tornabene, a longtime friend and former UPI colleague of Thomas’, said she is “very smart and very committed.”
“She hasn’t lost one bit of desire for this country to have a workable democracy,” Tornabene said.
Stuart said that just through sheer perseverance, Thomas brings more depth and context than most.
“And that’s rare and should be appreciated,” he said. “I know I do.”
Amanda Lee Myers is a journalism and Spanish senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She worked as a reporter for The Working Press at SPJ’s national convention in New York City this summer.
Rebecca Neal is a journalism and political science major at the University of Kentucky. The senior covered the SPJ National Convention in New York City for The Working Press.