When I graduated from Ohio University with a journalism degree, eons ago, I was naive about my chosen career. Armed with newspaper clippings that I compiled from summer internships, I expected to walk into a reporting job and make journalistic history à la Woodward and Bernstein.
I was lucky to get a weekend gig writing news copy for the CBS flagship radio station in St. Louis. The rest of the week, I reported to a kitchen in a downtown restaurant to do inventory.
Hanging on to my first journalism job was tough. It was my baptism of fire in the news business, a humbling experience for a college know-it-all.
I moved into writing radio documentaries and covering stories beneath the dignity of veteran staffers. I learned about paying your dues, cultivating contacts, staying with a story until the bitter end, producing accurate copy on deadline, and earning the grudging respect of the pros.
I also learned about a woman’s place in newsrooms. Male reporters covered hard news. Female reporters covered soft news — “fluff.”
Male reporters were sent on breaking stories. Female reporters were sent to ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
The gender disparity I struggled with in male-dominated news operations from St. Louis to New York, from Atlanta to Cleveland, to Toledo, varied.
Yet the professional inequities were evident, and to a large extent, still are for many women journalists. We have to work twice as hard as men to be taken seriously on the job and in the field.
It was worse when legendary journalist Helen Thomas, who died last week at 92, began her career in 1943. But the diminutive role model from Detroit showed how female tenacity can triumph over testosterone.
She bided her time in the trenches. She covered women’s news and society items, and wrote celebrity profiles. In 1960, when she was assigned to the “White House women’s beat,” she made her move.
Instead of writing only about presidents’ kids and wives, as was customary, Ms. Thomas wrote hard news stories alongside men. She became the first woman reporter at the White House to cover the president, not just the first lady. She covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.
She was anything but a nameless scribe for the wire service that employed her for 57 years. United Press International recognized her indefatigable drive to bypass barriers.
Ms. Thomas became UPI’s first female White House bureau chief.
Over the years, the fearless reporter would push open many doors for generations of women. She would become the first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first woman admitted to the Gridiron Club, another Washington journalism institution.
But it was her dogged pursuit of a story that drew universal admiration from colleagues. She was relentless in digging for information and scooping her competition. For decades, she was a familiar fixture to millions of Americans who watched her, sitting among men in suits, at White House briefings.
From her front-row-center seat, she could be counted on to skewer presidents with questions that demanded accountability. She always had a follow-up to their scripted rhetoric.
The men standing behind the presidential podium visibly squirmed when Ms. Thomas rose with her blunt queries. Some, such as President George W. Bush, tried to marginalize the dean of the White House press corps by not calling on her during press conferences.
But those who underestimated her persistence did so at their peril. She was a tough, cantankerous old bird whose wings would not be clipped.
She did not become a trailblazing pioneer for strong women reporters by being reticent. “We don’t go into journalism to be popular,” she told Ms. magazine in 2006. “It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”
In newsrooms around the country young female journalists like me were greatly inspired by her chutzpah. The irrepressible Helen Thomas added more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, former President Bill Clinton and former first lady, senator, and secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement after her death.
But more than moving mountains to achieve equal footing with men, Ms. Thomas leaves a legacy of an unyielding press so vital to a healthy democracy. For that, we all owe her a debt of gratitude.
Contact Marilou Johanek at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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