Monday, July 22, 2013

Does being there first and staying for a long time make you a trailblazer?

Long time White House correspondent Helen Thomas died on Saturday and a lot of the commentary about her has hailed her as a "trailblazer."

The end of Thomas' career was marred by a set of remarks that were anti-Israel.   The NYT ran a front page OBIT on Thomas with tons of laudatory comments.   Eleanor Clift reported that among Thomas' scoops was the news that during the Kennedy presidency that Caroline Kennedy's hamster had died.

But at least two reporters took a contrary position.  Jonathan Tobin of Commentary said "anyone who watched her use her perch in the front row in the White House press room as if it were a platform for political opposition to administrations whose policies she didn’t like must understand that, along with her symbolic importance, we must also give Thomas her share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press."   James Taranto in the WSJ commented "She was an ideologue rather than a partisan."  He also argued that some of her supporters mistook "belligerence for toughness."

Thomas certainly was there for a long time.   And she was dedicated to the profession as she saw it.  But like Strom Thurmond, who lasted very long in the US Senate, I am not sure what she actually did for all that time.

I remember Thomas in the White House - both when I worked there and when I saw her on TV.  I think the Taranto characterization is about right.

I had an aunt who was also a groundbreaker in journalism - she was the first female sports writer.  In the last two decades of her life - there were a lot of awards.   When you went to visit her in her home town in North Carolina - she was a local celebrity.   But what my aunt valued most was the opportunity to report sports.  She was addicted to scores and games and players.   She did not much care for her rep.   In one sense my aunt spent her working life covering small news - but as one oft repeated story about her commented she was important because she made small accomplishments a bit bigger.   So the kid who scored in a high school basketball game could get some recognition in the local paper.  For an African American kid in a southern town - getting your name in the paper for an accomplishment was important.  I cannot tell you how many people came up to us when we were out and pulled a wrinkled up news story that she had written that the rest of the world had forgotten.

Thomas played on a bigger stage but I always got the feeling that she was impressed with her status.  She played a lot of inside baseball in a town where inside baseball skills are valued by many.

My aunt's accomplishments were often accompanied by mention of her gender.  But the real demonstration of her accomplishments were not because of her gender but in spite of it.   One cannot make the same claim about Thomas.

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