One-on-One with Helen Thomas

11/17/2011 08:02 am ET

NS: You've been a legendary journalist but even more, an outstanding leader for women. As the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, do you view the role of women in journalism any differently from that of men?

HT: Actually no. I really don't. I think that there was a barrier as there was a barrier against women in all the professions--medicine, law, and so forth. We had to buck that. But now I think that women are really big in journalism and in fact taking over.

NS: But was it hard for you at the beginning? You are now in your fifth decade, so was it tough to get called upon?

HT: It was a man's world in all these professions that I named. It wasn't a question of being called on. I'm in your face. I don't let them get away with that. But you did have to exert a little more pressure in the sense of asserting yourself.

NS: At the National Conference on Media Reform you said that the White House press corps has lost its way. Can you explain that?

HT: I do think we could have made a stronger stand, asked more questions and been more skeptical in the run-up to the war. There was no smoking gun or mushroom cloud or anything else that the White House tried to peddle--weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, threats from a Third World country to the world's only military superpower.

NS: What led to that cowing and not asking those critical questions?

HT: 9/11. Fear of being considered unpatriotic, un-American. The war on terrorism. We had to be whole hog with the administration on anything they proposed.

NS: Do you think that people have started to awaken from this?

HT: Oh I do. We are coming out of our coma. Reporters are getting tougher.

NS: You said at the NCMR gathering in Memphis that reporters gave up their one weapon. Is it the search for truth?

HT: That and also the skepticism that every reporter should have. The saying goes, if your mother says she loves you, check it out!

NS: Where do you get your ambition and fearless qualities as the dean of women journalists?

HT: I was born with outrage in my adrenaline. I never lost it.

NS: Outrage at what?

HT: At injustice. My parents immigrated to this country, they assimilated, and they believed in education, but I could see so much injustice around, racial injustice, women's injustice. I think it's a worthy cause to fight against that.

NS: The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a survey in 2005 that found men are quoted twice as often as women by news organizations. Women consume news in lower numbers than men. How might we increase women's involvement in creating their own stories?

HT: It isn't a question of putting women ahead of men. What's really important is that women share their influence, that they are there and that they care. There is more recognition but they still don't hold the top positions. If you look at television on Sunday, the White House in the middle of the week every week sends down a silver platter to the networks who they want on the air and who they want promoting their point of view and it's usually a man. The only woman they really put forth is Condoleezza Rice. The men obviously prevail but to me it isn't man versus woman. It's war and peace. It's important issues. And women are just as capable of discussing them. Maybe more so.

NS: So what you are saying is don't let your gender hold you back.

HT: Absolutely!

NS: What is the most important role of a journalist today? Has it changed since your first decade in the profession to your fifth decade?

HT: No, it's still the search for truth, the Holy Grail. What other reason would you have?

NS: What's the most important advice would you give a woman who wants to pursue the truth as you have in your career?

HT: You pursue it but you don't always get it (laughs)! It (journalism) is the greatest profession in the world. It's an education every day. It's the constant search to make this a better world. It's a public service. You can't have a democracy without an informed people. I not only glamorize it but I put it on a high pedestal. Anyone who aspires to it should want it and go for it.

NS: Any regrets you have in your great career? An interview you would have liked? A question you would have liked to ask?

HT: Well you always can Monday morning quarterback. You always say, why didn't I make this question tougher or why didn't I put it a different way. You always do that and you always hope you'll do better.

Helen Thomas is the author of several books, including Front Row at the White House; Watchdogs of Democracy? and Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President. She's covered the presidency since 1961. President Nixon once told her: "You always ask tough questions, tough questions not in the sense of being unfair, but hard to generalize the answers." She writes: "Maybe that's why it took so long to get an answer from him about Vietnam."