Thomas, Helen (1920—)

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Thomas, Helen (1920—)

American journalist. Born on August 4, 1920, in Winchester, Kentucky; daughter of George Thomas and Mary Thomas; Wayne State University, B.A., 1942; married Douglas B. Cornell (a journalist), October 11, 1971 (died 1982); no children.

Hired by United Press International (1956); was the first woman promoted to White House bureau chief (1974); awarded honorary L.L.D.s, Eastern Michigan University (1972) and Ferris State College (1978); awarded honorary L.H.D.s, Wayne State University (1974) and University of Detroit (1979); elected first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association (1975); elected first woman head of the Gridiron Club, Washington, D.C. (1975).

Journalist Helen Thomas covered the White House through eight presidential administrations and four decades, becoming one of the most respected members of the American press. She was born on August 4, 1920, in Winchester, Kentucky, one of nine children of George and Mary Thomas , illiterate Syrian grocers who had immigrated from the Middle East. After Thomas' birth the family moved to Michigan, and she grew up in the city of Detroit. Her parents were determined that their children be well educated, and despite their modest means and the effects of the Depression, they insisted that all of them go to college. An excellent student, Thomas was already interested in journalism before she entered Wayne State University in Detroit. Graduating with a degree in English in 1942, Thomas immediately moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue her dream of becoming a newspaper reporter.

Women were very rare in newsrooms in the 1940s, and paper after paper turned her down, believing, as Thomas reported later, that a woman employee would soon marry and quit working. However, with many men drafted into the army during World War II, Thomas found work as a "copy girl" with the Washington Daily News. Soon she was a radio news writer for the United Press' City News Service, primarily covering the events of the war. In 1955, Thomas left the City News Service to work as a reporter; in 1956, she joined the national staff of United Press International (UPI) and began covering the Justice Department. By 1960, she had been promoted to White House correspondent, although as a woman she was mainly assigned to covering first lady Jacqueline Kennedy rather than political news. She attributed her move to covering the president in part to the first lady's dislike of her tough questions and perceived intrusion into the president's daily life.

In the early 1960s, Thomas was given more "hard" news assignments, and in 1970 was named chief White House correspondent, one of American journalism's most coveted assignments. The following year, Thomas married a fellow journalist, Douglas Cornell, a White House correspondent for UPI's competitor, the Associated Press, but did not consider quitting work. She was the only print journalist to accompany Richard Nixon on his trip to China in 1972. In the early 1970s, during the heat of the Watergate scandal associated with Nixon's reelection campaign, Thomas successfully earned the confidence of Martha Mitchell , wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, who had information about the high-profile scandal. Thomas, as a result, became privy for months to breaking news stories while the details of Watergate unfolded. In retrospect, Thomas expressed reproach for herself and other members of the elite White House Press Corps for their failure to perceive tell-tale irregularities that under further investigation might have exposed the Watergate affair much sooner. Syndicate executives were nonetheless pleased with her reporting, and in 1974 they promoted Thomas to the post of White House bureau chief for UPI. She was, in fact, the first woman ever to head the White House Bureau for a national wire service.

Over the course of many years at her post, Thomas' presence at White House Press Conferences became a matter of accepted routine. Presidents came and left the White House, while Helen Thomas outlasted each of them. In her 1975 publication Dateline: White House, she discussed the presidential administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, all of which she observed firsthand.

Besides serving as a model and inspiration for young journalists, Thomas was active in many professional press organizations. She was one of the leaders in the struggle of women journalists to open membership in the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club to women in the 1970s; she later served as the first woman officer of the National Press Club, as well as president of the Gridiron Club and of the White House Correspondents' Association.

Thomas remained chief correspondent until her retirement from the United Press (now UPI) in June 2000, the day after UPI was purchased by News World Communications, a company founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. She offered no explanation for her departure after 57 years with UPI. Though she had had to struggle against the biases of male reporters, she earned the respect of her colleagues as well as of Washington politicians for her pointed questions and demands for straightforward answers from presidents and press secretaries. She once told Bernice Mancewicz : "There's no such thing as a news leak; a leak is legitimate news."

Helen Thomas remains outspoken against the discrimination still facing women in the press, and is a strong advocate of opportunities for women journalists. She is equally passionate about the special role of the press in preserving a democratic government by providing for an informed public. She has received many awards for outstanding writing and reporting and holds numerous honorary degrees. Her memoir, Front Row at the White House, was published in 1999.

sources:

Gareffa, Peter M., ed. Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1988.

Thomas, Helen. Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times. NY: Scribner, 1999.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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