Helen Thomas (August 4, 1920 – July 20, 2013) was an American author and news service reporter, member of the White House press corps and opinion columnist. She worked for the United Press and post-1958 successor United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau manager. She was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. She covered the administrations of eleven U.S. presidents—from the final years of the Eisenhower administration to the second year of the Obama administration.
Thomas was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She wrote six books; her latest, with co-author Craig Crawford, is Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (2009). Thomas retired from Hearst Newspapers on June 7, 2010, following controversial comments she made about Israel, Israeli Jews and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Early life and education
Born in Winchester, Kentucky, Thomas was the seventh of the ten children of George and Mary (Rowady) Thomas, immigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Thomas has said her father’s surname, “Antonious”, was anglicized to “Thomas” when he entered the U.S. at Ellis Island, and that her parents could neither read nor write. Thomas was raised mainly in Detroit, Michigan, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store. Of her experience growing up, Thomas has said,
“We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people.”
She has also said that in Detroit in the 1920s, she came home crying from school, “They wanted to make you feel you weren’t ‘American’… We were called ‘garlic eaters’ “. She was raised as a Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church.
She attended public schools, and decided to become a journalist while in high school. She enrolled at Wayne University in Detroit, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1942.
Her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, but shortly after being promoted to cub reporter, she was laid off as part of massive cutbacks at the paper.
Thomas joined United Press in 1943 and reported on women’s topics for its radio wire service, earning $24 ($318 today) a week. Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote UP’s Names in the News column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. After 1955, she covered federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Thomas served as president of the Women’s National Press Club from 1959–60. In 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
2010 speech on Arab Americans
On December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech for the eighth annual “Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans” conference in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas told reporters that she still stood by the comments she had made to Nesenoff. Referring to her resignation, she said “I paid a price, but it’s worth it to speak the truth.” During the speech, Thomas said: “Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion.” Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, “I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country.”
The next day, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had “clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite” in the speech. Hours later, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her antisemitic remarks. The school issued a statement saying: “As a public university, Wayne State encourages free speech and open dialogue, and respects diverse viewpoints. However, the university strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas…”. Speaking for the school, Matthew Seeger said: “The controversy has brought a negative light to the award, which was never the intent of the award.” Thomas herself reacted with scolding remarks saying that “the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press.” She also stated that “the university also has betrayed academic freedom—a sad day for its students.” The university’s Arab American Student Union held a protest on campus December 10. In a news release the Palestine Cultural Office of Michigan made a call for concerned individuals to contact the university. Also, members of the Congress of Arab American Organizations held a meeting with university officials on December 7 in an attempt to make them repeal their decision, but a later response from the university said it would not reverse its position. Asked by the Detroit Free Press how she’d respond to people who say she’s anti-Semitic, Thomas responded: ‘I’d say I’m a Semite. What are you talking about?'”.
2011 Playboy interview
In March 2011, Thomas did an interview with David Hochman, a reporter for Playboy magazine. Asked by Hochman to explain her controversial remarks about Israel and Jews in particular, made in May 2010, she said, “Well, there’s no understanding [on the part of the Israelis] of the Palestinians at all. I mean, they’re living there and [the Israelis] want to come and take their homes and land and water and kill their children and kill them.” When asked what she had meant when she commented that “they” should go back to Germany, Poland and America, Thomas replied that the millions of German, Polish, American and Russian Jews who have come to Israel in recent years should have stayed where they were as they have not been persecuted since World War II. Upon being asked if she recognizes that Palestinian hijacking and suicide bombing is wrong, Thomas answered, “Of course I don’t condone any violence against anyone. But who wouldn’t fight for their country?…The suicide bombers act out of despair and desperation.” Thomas insisted she does not feel antisemitism toward Jews at all: “I think they’re wonderful people. They had to have the most depth. They were leaders in civil rights.”
Later in the interview, when asked by Hochman if she stood by her December 2010 accusations that Zionists own the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street, Thomas answered that she did stand by those remarks. When confronted with the fact that Jews constitute a small percentage of the total population, Thomas told Hochman: “I know where you’re leading with this. You know damn well the power [Jews] have…It’s real power when you own the White House, when you own these other places in terms of your political persuasion. Of course they have power. You don’t deny that. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” Hochman said that he was Jewish.
Thomas accused Israel of treating the Palestinians as the Nazis had treated the Jews of Germany and Poland and Hungary: “They can’t just come in and say, ‘This is my home,’ knock on the door at three in the morning and have the Israeli military take them out. That’s what happens. And that’s what happened to the Jews [during the Holocaust]. Why do [the Israelis] inflict that same pain on people who did nothing to them?”
Thomas was employed as a weekly columnist by the Falls Church News-Press in January 2011. Owner-Editor Nicholas Benton repeatedly defended the decision to hire her despite her controversial comments. He noted in 2011 that he was “outraged” when the Society of Professional Journalists voted on retiring a scholarship award named for Thomas. Benton says that Thomas “is herself a Semite” and was “expressing a political point of view [in the interview with Nesenoff above], and not a bigoted racial sentiment.”
For most of her adult life, Thomas chose her work over her personal life. At the age of 51, Thomas married a colleague, Douglas Cornell, who was just retiring as the White House reporter for the Associated Press. Four years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she cared for him until his death in 1982 with help from a sister who was a nurse.
Thomas died on July 20, 2013 at her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 92, just 2 weeks short of her 93rd birthday. Many female journalists memorialized Thomas on Twitter, including Judy Woodruff, who called her a “trailblazer”, and Lynn Sweet, who said she was a “glass ceiling breaking journalist”. Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Thomas “made it possible for all of us who followed.” Dana Perino, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, remembered that on her first day as Press Secretary, Thomas approached her to give her words of encouragement.
Thomas has received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1976, Thomas was named one of the World Almanac‘s 25 Most Influential Women in America.
In 1986 she received the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas. Thomas received an Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum in 1991. The White House Correspondent’s Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the “Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award”. In 2000, her alma mater, Wayne State University, established an award for journalists in her honor, the “Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award”. In December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State which cited her renewed remarks similar to those in May 2010. Speaking for Wayne State, Matthew Seeger, its interim dean said, that the award is given to promote the importance of diversity in the media and that this award “is no longer helping us achieve our goals.” In 2007, Thomas received a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families.
In October 2010, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) honored Thomas with a lifetime achievement award.
In April 2012, Thomas received an award from the Palestine Liberation Organization‘s General Mission to the United States. The award was presented by PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi to “recognize Thomas’ long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way.”