“You can’t have a democracy without an informing people” ~ Helen Thomas
Helen Thomas became a staple of the White House press corps. Her outstanding and unprecedented career in the male dominated White House briefing room began in 1960, and ended in disgrace in 2010. Her signature words, “Thank you, Mr. President”, have concluded press meetings with Commanders-in-Chief for nearly 50 years.
Regardless of your feelings about Helen Thomas, she spent her career fighting to drag the truth out of American Presidents, and that is a feat worth honoring.
In 2008, HBO Documentary Films released a 38 minute retrospect on the life of the first female member of the White House Press Corp called, “Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House.”
This short documentary covers her trailblazing career from her time on the campaign trail with the Kennedy’s, through 9 presidencies, including President George W. Bush. Done in an interview style, intermixed with archival footage and television clips, this film weaves a tapestry that manages to bring you just a little closer to the “First Lady of the Press.”
While the documentary is well executed, it is not overly informative; however it does give a rare glimpse into the mind of a brilliant and accomplished journalist. The film begins to expose what made Helen Thomas the iconic reporter she would become.
Helen talks about her inquisitive childhood, and what drove her to become the hard-nosed, unrelenting journalist that hounded many of the most powerful men in history. She gives her candid thoughts on several presidents, and you can feel the gratitude she has for her opportunities through her giddy excitement as she talks about being photographed with her presidential adversaries.
The film exposes some of the fundamental shifts in news coverage and press access through the changing dynamic of the information era. Her career spanned two eras, beginning when people got their news from radio, newspapers and newsreels, and extending well into the era of the 24-hour news cycle.
The film also highlights some of Helen’s clashes with the Bush administration, and even the President himself. When asked if she felt the media had a liberal bias she replied, “Hell no. I’m dying to find another fellow liberal…” Helen Thomas seemed to be an unapologetic woman who always strived to ask the questions because, “If you don’t ask the questions, they don’t get asked.”
We only get to catch glimpse of Helen’s life as the film is too short to cover anything truly substantial. Here you have a woman that has spent more than 65 years (as of 2008) in journalism and climbed a male dominated ladder to become known as the “dean” of the White House briefing room. Her contributions to journalism can hardly be understated, and yet this film spends only a few seconds on her overwhelming achievements.
Award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy does an excellent job with this film overall, but it just seems lacking in depth of content. It almost feels as though it is rushed, or incomplete. There is a slight sense that this documentary is attempting to paint an image, not so much of Helen, but of the media as a whole. Near the films crescendo, Helen expresses her disapproval of the media’s reluctance to push harder on the Bush administration, about the invasion of Iraq, and to demand real answers.
There are obviously lessons to be learned from a veteran reporter like Helen Thomas. Her insatiable lust for the truth, and abrasive style of questioning earned her many critics. Bill O’Reilly once praised the White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, for scolding Helen for questioning whether or not the U.S. Military was targeting civilians in Iraq.
Since the film was first released in 2008, Helen’s career has taken a few astonishing turns.
At his first news conference, President Obama called on her for the first time, saying: “Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.” The accomplished reporter was denounced only 16 months later when she commented that Jews should, “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany, Poland or America. Helen retired from her twice-weekly column with Hearst, on June 7th, 2010. The following day President Obama called her remarks “Offensive” and “Out of Line.”
Many of her detractors called her an anti-Semite, discontinued awards in her honor, cancelled appearances, and publicly admonished her for her comments. Her supporters pointed out what they saw as a, “double standard” when “ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters” engaged in “bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs.”
Shortly before giving a speech at the eighth annual “Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans” conference in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas told reporters that she stood by her comments. Referring to her resignation, she said “I paid a price, but it’s worth it to speak the truth”.
Thomas’s hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, asked Helen how she responded to accusations of being anti-Semetic, the first generation American daughter of Arab immigrants replied, “I’d say I’m a Semite. What are you talking about?”
Helen passed away, just 15 days before her 93rd birthday, on July 20th, 2013, at her home in Washington DC. Many of her former adversaries and detractors, including Dana Perino and President Obama, praised her for her legacy as a pioneer in journalism and her steadfast dedication to her craft.
Helen Thomas spent a nearly 70 years as a journalist. She broke down barriers and dared to question. It’s ironic that she faced such public disgrace for exercising her 1st amendment rights, and a terrible shame her legacy was tainted so completely by it.
Whether you admired Helen Thomas, or condemned her, she was without questions, one of the most relentless and ardent journalists to ever set foot in the White House. She was a trailblazing pioneer for women in journalism, and she became a fixture in the American politics.
Thank you, Ms. Thomas.
For those of interest please check out HBOGo for this documentary or purchase it at places like right here. We leave you with HBO’s original trailer.