Friday, October 08, 2004

Helen Thomas

The National Press Club forgot to publicize a roundtable discussion with Helen Thomas on Thursday, so three girls from my program and I got to sit directly across the table from her. Thomas, known as "The First Lady of the Press," is a former United Press International White House bureau chief who closed White House press conferences with the signature, "Thank you, Mr. President." From 1974 to 2000 she followed American presidents, asking them the tough, straightforward questions. In doing so, she changed the way the world looked at female journalists.
Thomas now writes a semiweekly column for Hearst News Corp. After practicing balanced journalism her whole life, Thomas said her columns initially read like news. She's over that now -- and just the spitfire columnist you'd expect.
She said journalists take the information they're fed at press conferences without question. She encouraged us, as young journalists, to simply stand up and ask "why?" For the past few days, I've been looking through Washington reporting and noticing what she was talking about.
A lot of the stories read like insider information -- leads loaded with political jargon and followed up with an obligatory quote. I found myself reading further and further into the stories just to figure out what all that stuff in the lead actually meant. Perhaps becoming a Washington insider is a disadvantage if you lose a perspective readers can connect to. Helen Thomas made Washington reporting seem like any other reporting, and it should be.
In response to something I was pitching, my mentor at my bureau said a lot of people will stop reading when they see the words "soft money." I just worry they might stop reading when they see the dateline "Washington."

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