I first learned of Helen Thomas as a fresh, 15-year old high school sophomore. I occasionally wrote for the school paper, The Tattler, and at our monthly meeting, the editor in chief strongly recommended that someone cover White House journalist Helen Thomas’s talk at Cornell the following week. “Someone has to go,” I remember him saying, “She’s pretty amazing.”
As she first walked onto the stage, I remember thinking how old she looked. At age 86, she was a little old woman about to speak to a crowd of mostly college-age students who had grown up reading Yahoo News and Wikipedia. But once she began to speak, Thomas was sharp and she was sassy. She spoke about her own impressive career, reporting on nine presidents from Eisenhower to George W. Bush, who was in office at the time. (She later reported on President Obama as well). But her main message was about the importance of the free press. Most Americans don’t have much contact with the government beyond paying our taxes and occasional visits to the DMV. Yet, this country is a democracy, which means that the people elect the officials who represent them. However, a true and well-functioning democracy is dependent on a well-informed public that is able to hold the government accountable for its actions. This is why the free press is so important. They are the link between us and the government.
“We in the press are the only institution in our society that can question a president on a regular basis and hold him accountable,” Thomas said. “It’s the greatest profession in the world. It’s a search for the truth.”
However, Thomas emphasized that it wasn’t enough for the press to simply exist, but that to do their job, they had to be critical and able to ask the tough questions. On this point, Thomas didn’t hesitate to criticize what she saw as the recent shortcomings of her peers in the press. After the events of 9/11, journalists had been too quick to accept President Bush’s excuses for fighting the war in Iraq. “Truth has taken a holiday in this war. President Bush struck a match across the Middle East and invaded that country. Who are we? What have we become? Whose war is this?? … I came to Washington in a different era, when government was respected and liberals were not demonized for wanting a better society,” she said. “It was a hopeful time, and the idealists were legion.”
I walked away from that lecture with a new perspective. I think that society often under-values journalists such as Helen Thomas. Maybe we glance at the headlines every morning (or at least those of us who still subscribe to or otherwise read papers). We take for granted that all this information is available to us and trust that it’s accurate and up to date**. It’s easy to overlook that people put their livelihoods into making sure that we have access to all this information. And we do them a great disservice by choosing to remain ignorant.
By junior year, I had joined the editorial staff of The Tattler, and my senior year, I served as its Editor-in-Chief. Sometimes I tell people that if I hadn’t gone the way of science, I would have wanted to become an investigative journalist. As a writer and editor for The Tattler, I learned and shared a great deal of information about Ithaca High School, and the greater Ithaca City School District. I covered everything from the “boring stuff” on recycling programs, to the drama of a million-dollar lawsuit and not-unrelated resignation of the high school principal. It was an immensely rewarding experience for me.
Helen Thomas passed away this past weekend at the age of 92, after a career that spanned over half a century. I think that she truly served her country well, and served as an inspiration for myself as well as countless others.
**Of course you have to be wary of your sources of news as well. The New York Times might cover the same events as Fox News or Jon Stewart on the Daily Show while telling an entirely different story. But that’s another conversation… I think the fact that we have so many options for where to get our information is a good thing.