When I think of Helen Thomas, the veteran reporter who died on Saturday, I think not just of her glass-ceiling-breaking moves (for example, forcing the admittance of women into the White House Correspondents Association, then becoming the organization's first female president). I think not just of her show-stopping performances in the Gridiron, an organization in which she continued to participate even in her 90s. And I think not just of her sheer longevity and relentless work, covering every president since John F. Kennedy.
What I loved – and will sorely miss – about Helen is her ability to keep her professional dignity while being bluntly tough on those she covered. Helen might have made news at times in her career, whether it was by asking an unusually direct question of a president or making an offhand comment about the Middle East (Helen was of Lebanese descent, and had a pro-Palestinian perspective not often seen or acknowledged among opinion-makers in the U.S.) to visitors at the White House – a comment that got her in trouble. Helen was tough, but she didn't ask "gotcha" questions. And while she was rightly well-known, she never made her job or her reporting about herself.
Once, a bunch of us were trying to get details on a story from Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the chief of staff to President Clinton early in his tenure. McLarty was kind – he was basically an affable sort – and gave what are now typically vague answers to our questions. We stopped, and McLarty expansively told us to be sure to come to him again if we had more questions. "Why?" Helen said. "You never tell us anything." It wasn't said in a mean way; Helen was just making it clear that she saw right through his obfuscation routine and while he might indeed be able to keep her from getting information, she wasn't going to be made a fool in the process.
But she didn't write about it or tweet it (which of course would have been impossible then). She didn't take internal housekeeping issues and turn them into some national debate. News was news, and reporters, with rare exceptions, are not themselves the news. Thomas got that.
Sadly, that ethic has all but disappeared in the current environment, when "branding" of journalists and a pathetic desire for some sort of celebrity has started to affect news judgment in a negative way. It happens when someone asks a question at a briefing that is not intended to get an answer useful to Americans, but rather to show how tough/indefatigable/insouciant the reporter is (count up how many times President Obama is asked about how a certain policy has affected his popularity in polls, and how he feels about it – who cares?). And it happened quite recently, when a RealClearPolitics reporter felt the need to tweet the fact that a congressman made a mildly inappropriate comment to her.
The congressman was Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and the reporter was asking about something Cohen probably did not want to talk about (and justifiably shouldn't have to talk about to a reporter). He said, according to the reporter, "you're very attractive, but I'm not talking about it." That was inappropriate and unprofessional – who cares if he thinks she's attractive? But the reporter couldn't just write it off – or even say, hey, congressman, that's a bit unprofessional. She tweeted it. That makes the story – and there's no story there; it wasn't an obscene or threatening comment – about her and about self-promotion. She tweeted again when Cohen apologized. Was there any point at all to that public airing, other than to elevate her status by revealing a mildly inappropriate comment? It's hard to believe she was all that traumatized by it, but if she was, it's a good thing she never covered former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who had no problem at all telling us in the press corps that a question was "the stupidest question I have ever heard."
Helen Thomas never would have tweeted such a thing. She might have rolled her eyes and made a comment back. And it's because Thomas was a professional reporter in the most critical meaning of the phrase. She reported. She asked direct questions without caring if they offended the subject of her inquiry, but she didn't ask questions whose sole purpose was to embarrass the subject of her inquiry. She was a newswoman, pure and simple. And we are all the worse for losing her.