Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Marilou Johanek

Despite her gaffe, Helen Thomas is still revered

YEARS ago, I worked briefly with a young woman who was an intern at a local TV station. I remember her because she had a famous aunt. She, of course, knew her aunt was well-known but had no idea why people like me held her in enduring high regard.

So I explained the impact Helen Thomas had on many women who followed her into journalism. She was a huge inspiration not only as a female pioneer in the profession, but also as one who demanded respect and got it from her mostly male colleagues, as well as the predominantly male political world she covered for decades.

Ms. Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, broke barriers that women journalists take for granted today. She accumulated a slew of firsts on her resume by working twice as hard and twice as long as anybody else.

For 57 years, she churned out compelling copy for United Press International as a correspondent and White House bureau chief. Her solid credentials came with a lifelong commitment to report better than the best.

The feisty Ms. Thomas was fearless in that quest. The most powerful people in Washington did not intimidate her. She had no reservations about putting presidents on the hot seat to elicit necessary information.

The venerable reporter would skewer them with questions no one else had the guts to ask. Ms. Thomas was the kind of smart, tough, brave reporter we could only hope to emulate in journalism school.

Later, as women began media careers as writers and reporters, our Fourth Estate idol remained a beacon of motivation. And even as new professionals moved into the Washington press corps, Ms. Thomas stood out as one who would not conform or become complicit with authority by avoiding questions that needed to be asked.

From her familiar front-row seat in the White House briefing room, she remained a thorn in the side of administrations, holding them accountable, making them uncomfortable. She never shied from controversy with her trademark aggressiveness.

When she gave up her correspondent's job a decade ago to become a columnist for Hearst News Service, Ms. Thomas retained her briefing room seat of honor. But as she got older, she seemed to treat her revered position with increasing abandon.

Always outspoken, the 89-year-old journalist became even more so as the filters fell away. I suspect she felt unbound by her profession's code of objectivity as a columnist, and free to express her biases as she pleased.

As an American of Lebanese descent, she could indulge her beliefs about the Middle East with comments in support of Palestinian positions. But there's a difference between making provocative arguments on an opinion page and inveighing against Israeli Jews at a White House event celebrating Jewish heritage.

The latter conduct was a serious lapse in judgment that may or may not reflect long-harbored anti-Semitism. The former is what the eloquent Ms. Thomas would have done when she was advancing thoughtful, stirring prose to make a point, not ad-libbing the first thing that came to mind.

Some have wondered what a rabbi at the celebration was thinking when he aimed a video camera at Ms. Thomas for an impromptu comment on Israel. Others questioned his motivation for posting her remarks on the Internet.

But the trailblazing Ms. Thomas, whom I still hold in great esteem, should have known better than to blurt out craziness to get a rise. And her stellar life's work, as the consummate reporter opening doors for generations of women, doesn't give her a pass for the ugliness she espoused without thinking.

Sometimes, like old sports stars who linger when they should have left at the top of their game, old journalism stars stay past their prime. Sadly, Ms. Thomas, approaching her 90th birthday in August, appears to be one of them.

She leaves her storied career as a tarnished icon. But as I told her somewhat oblivious niece years ago, I will be forever grateful to her admirable aunt for the gold standard she set for women aiming for achievement second to none.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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