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Helen Thomas on gender and journalism

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay at our studio in Washington, DC. Our special guest today is Helen Thomas. Helen Thomas has been a member of the White House press corps for over 58 years. She’s covered every president since John F. Kennedy. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association, and in 1975 she was the first female member and later became the president of the Gridiron Club. She’s written five books. Her latest, with coauthor Craig Crawford, is Listen Up, Mister President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. So go back to your first days at the White House, a young woman showing up to cover the White House. How were you greeted by your male counterparts?

HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there was a lot of discrimination against women per se, but once you were in the press corps they sort of tolerated you, I should say. But in that time there were only about five women who covered the White House regularly. I was the first wire service woman, which means 24-7, where you’re there all the time on the body watch. But I couldn’t belong to the National Press Club because I was a woman, and that went for all the newswomen. And we had to fight, really fight. When Khrushchev was coming to town, we knew that State Department always located the presidents and vice presidents and kings who would come to town for three or four days, come to the White House, and so forth; they would always arrange one press appearance for this leader, world leader, at the press club. We couldn’t go.

JAY: How did your colleague journalists defends this, your male colleague journalists, that you weren’t allowed in the press [inaudible]

THOMAS: It’s only after—eventually we got in, in 1972, in the Press Club. They said the scales began to fall from their eyes. But they defended—they had some real neanderthals in the club, I mean, who thought that women should not be there. It was really a struggle. But the feminist movement, everything helped, and we fought, and they finally, I think, felt really ashamed of themselves.

JAY: And in covering the White House itself, did they give you a hard time? Did they make it difficult for you?

THOMAS: No, once you are on the team, per se. You know. And then they treated you very equally. But at the same time it did feel a little bit discrimination, just slightly.

JAY: So talk a little bit more about being such a leading woman journalist in Washington, some of the problems facing you.

THOMAS: Well, I think that the whole business of—that we were not really too welcome in press corps, and I think we had to struggle for our equality. Well, it was World War II that changed everything. They were drafting every young man who could breathe—if he had a pulse, he was going to war. So then more and more women were getting into the professions—journalism, medicine, law, and so forth. And eight women were in UPI, United Press International, when the war started, and they hired women to replace the men, and I was sort of low person on the totem pole.

JAY: What year did you begin?

THOMAS: I went in in 1943 in the United Press, and I had worked as sort of a copyboy on Washington Daily News, which is now defunct. Anyway, eight women were fired right after World War II on the premise that all these young men, working for $20 a week or $24 a week, would want to come back to their old jobs. By this time they had been in war, they were colonels, captains, majors, and so forth, and they learned about the chip and they learned about all these new innovations. They weren’t about to come back to UPI. But meantime all the women had been fired. I was hiding under a desk, and they didn’t get me. So, anyway, then they began to hire women again. So we’ve had our ups and downs.

JAY: Now, you were a journalist during the whole McCarthy period.

THOMAS: Yes.

JAY: So tell us about newsrooms during McCarthyism.

THOMAS: Well, I was in the office most of the time. I was not covering White House. But there was a whole sense of fear in the country, and more markedly in Washington: everyone felt who were a little to the left and the liberal were on target. And even, I think, the top side were very worried, like, even the president and all the cabinet people. Everyone felt they were going to be accused. It was a very terrible period. And I just think we were lucky to have some courageous people in the Senate who censured McCarthy. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

JAY: Murrow, Edward R. Murrow’s statement was very important.

THOMAS: Oh, he was tremendous.

JAY: Did you know Murrow during that time?

THOMAS: I didn’t know him, but I knew certainly he was big in a sense of journalism. Everything that he contributed was so great.

JAY: So when did—you say things started to change in the early ’70s for women in the profession. What happened?

THOMAS: The whole feminist movement, I think, was very much a part of that. But women were doing the jobs during World War II. Rosie the riveter, for one, is—. So, gradually women—they almost dominate journalism now. We have two anchor women on the nightly news, which is unheard of. So they’ve made great strides—not enough in my opinion, but we always want more.

JAY: Talk about some of the critical issues, or hot button issues, I should say, that faced women. Certainly the abortion debate was a big one. And how did that show up in terms of your work in the White House?

THOMAS: Well, it didn’t show up, per se, unless you could get a president to go along with it. But I don’t understand why it’s an issue anymore. It’s been legalized and so forth. Who are these men who are trying to intrude on our lives? I think it’s an individual choice. Why aren’t people against war?

JAY: Have you found, in terms of substance, the way women report on the White House and men, is there any difference? Or is it really just a political-ideological issue, that some women report this way, the same way men do?

THOMAS: I think they report the same way. News is news. Facts are facts. I don’t see any difference.

JAY: Do you find women more substantively taking up some of the issues like war than men or not?

THOMAS: No. No.

JAY: I mean, you kind of stand—certainly the White House press corps, you kind of stand alone here, male or woman.

THOMAS: I haven’t seen—I think they have to play ball. I don’t fault them for what they—. I write an opinion column, so I have more privilege. But I hope they’re against war, this wanton killing of Afghans and Iraqis. What did they do to us? They had a bad leader, so therefore we go halfway around the world to kill them?

JAY: What do you make of the new generation of women journalists?

THOMAS: I think they’re great in terms of doing a wonderful job and so forth. I would like to think that they have more heart and compassion, but I don’t know.

JAY: Also, not just women but men, too, a lot of the journalists that are coming up, in especially television but in print, too, they don’t seem to want to ask the hard question and take the flak for asking it, which you’ve done.

THOMAS: And I think that they might have a valid reason for not approaching. They might—maybe their bosses tell them, you know, you’re off base or off the reservation.

JAY: And how come you never worried about that?

THOMAS: I’ve got nothing to lose. That doesn’t make me very brave, does it?

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.