Legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas passed away peacefully on July 20 at her Washington D.C. apartment, while surrounded by family and friends. She was 92.
Still, Thomas will always live in the work of others she inspired.
“I will always carry a piece of her in how I approach things. She was an inspiration to who I am,” said Siham Awada Jaafar, a television host and producer for WDHT TV in Michigan.
Speaking to The Arab American News, Thomas’ niece, Suzanne Geha, says that it was her iconic aunt who inspired her to go into broadcast journalism. A few of Thomas’ other nieces and nephews who she had influence over, and some of their children have also pursued careers in the profession as well.
Thomas, a Lebanese American, emerged as one of the most prominent White House reporters, during a time when the profession was dominated by men. Generations of women in the profession have been influenced by her work.
“Helen Thomas began her career in the 1940s, as a young woman, working in a man’s business and overcoming many institutional barriers that kept women from gaining equal access. Through her tenacity, integrity and willingness to follow-up any lead and work any hour of the day or night, she reached the pinnacle of her profession and paved the way for generations of women to follow,” a statement released by Thomas’ family, following her passing, read.
“Aunt Helen was our mentor,” Geha said. She said Thomas had spoken to her about how hard it was for her to break into the profession when she first started and prove that a woman could do the same job as a man.
Thomas covered 11 presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama for the United Press International and Hearst Newspapers. She wrote five books and was the first female member of the National Press Club, White House Correspondents' Association and the Gridiron Club, which announced her death.
Thomas’ ability to vigorously question U.S. presidents and other high-powered officials are what made her stand out. She never shied away from asking the tough questions, or expressing unpopular views.
She made it clear at White House press conferences that she opposed the Iraq war, while other journalists across the country were being criticized for not asking enough hard questions about the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Thomas traditionally sat at the front of presidential news conferences, but during the Bush Administration she was moved to the back row. When she was once asked why she was seated in the back row, she responded, “They didn’t like me, I ask too mean questions.” As a senior correspondent at the White House, Thomas ended dozens of presidential news conferences with her famous phrase, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Thomas devoted her nearly 70-year career in journalism to the pursuit of the public’s “right to know.” She was a champion of the First Amendment, fervently advocating for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
For years, she proudly occupied her front row seat in the Press Briefing Room at the White House, considering it the people’s chair in the people’s house.
Geha says that Thomas felt it was her responsibility to get answers for the public from people it didn’t have access to.
The statement released by Thomas’ family went on to say that she always acknowledged the privilege of being the eyes and ears of the public, and she boldly and unabashedly asked the hard questions to hold our leaders accountable.
Arab American Community Defends Thomas
In 2010, Thomas retired from Hearst Newspapers after making controversial remarks about Israel, Jews and Palestine. Although she apologized afterwards, efforts were made to get a statue of Thomas removed from the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, but were not successful.
She later made additional remarks that caused more controversy, while speaking at a workshop on anti-Arab bias in Dearborn at Byblos Banquet Hall, when she said, “Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question in my opinion..."
The day after, her alma mater, Wayne State University (WSU), revoked the “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award” and, later, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) also removed the “Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement.”
Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, is the recipient of the “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award” and a member of the Congress of Arab American Organizations (CAAO). After WSU removed the award, members of CAAO met with officials from WSU to discuss its decision.
CAAO cautioned that if the decision was not properly addressed and corrected, it would negatively impact relations between the university and the Arab American community for many years.
The decisions resulted in a major backlash from groups and individuals across the country, who called on SPJ and WSU to reinstate both awards, saying the decisions were an attack on free speech and undermined the principals of journalism. Several organizations, including youth groups, held protests to put pressure on the university and SPJ to reverse their decisions.
Jaafar says she spoke to Thomas after the awards were revoked. “She always said, ‘No one can take anything away from you, as long as you stand on solid ground and maintain your integrity.”’
Still, even after she was forced to resign, and her awards were removed, the brave and outspoken Thomas would continue fighting for what she believed in. She remained true to herself until the end. During an event at the Palestine Cultural Office in May 2011, where Thomas was presented with the “Relentless Courage Award” for her audacity to speak truth to power, she delivered a speech in support of Palestinian rights, while wearing a bracelet that read “Palestine.”
At the event, when asked by The Arab American News whether she would take back her remarks about Israel, she said, “Never. I spoke the truth. I don’t believe in human tyranny, which is what is happening in Palestine.”
When TAAN asked Thomas whether she was bothered about not being at the annual WSU Spirit of Diversity Awards Ceremony, which was being held on the same day, she said, "I'm not bothered. They should be bothered. They denied Americans freedom of speech, and that is shameful for any university."
In response to some of her awards being pulled, several new ones were created in her name from groups, such as the Lebanese American Heritage Club and the National Arab American Journalists Association.
Thomas made it known that she was proud of her Arab roots.
“She was somebody who made you feel proud to be Arab American. She was extremely confident in who she was,” Jaafar said.
“Helen’s life is a remarkable American success story; a rich fulfillment of the American Dream,” says Devon Akmon, Arab American National Museum Director.
“Her immigrant parents took the risk, sought the opportunities for themselves and their children, and raised Helen to be the independent, tireless achiever she was – a woman who did not allow her gender, ethnic heritage and later, her age, to limit her goals in any way.”
Thomas was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 1993.
President Obama also commented on Thomas’ passing, saying, “What made Thomas the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.”
Thomas was married to Douglas Cornell, who was a White House reporter for the Associated Press and passed away in 1982. She graduated from WSU in 1942 and is among its most distinguished alumni.
Thomas will be greatly missed by her three surviving sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. Thomas’ body will be brought back to Detroit, where she will be buried. Sources say that the service is expected to take place in August, and a memorial service will be held in Washington D.C. this October.
When asked what Thomas’ advice to young and aspiring journalists would be, Geha responded, “Don’t be afraid. Have courage. You’re not out to win a popularity contest. You are there on the public’s behalf to keep them informed.”
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