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My Favorite Mistake: Helen Thomas Talks About The Mistakes She Could Never Make

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"My Favorite Mistake" is a new biweekly series in which writer Seema Kalia interviews various luminaries about the one mistake that taught them the most.

We asked journalist Helen Thomas to be our first interview subject for this column so we could learn something about her professional past that was particularly memorable - something that might have left such a significant imprint that it informed how she did her work as a reporter from thereon.

She, being Helen Thomas, questioned the entire premise of the interview. Stating, in short, that as a political reporter, she simply isn't allowed to make mistakes:

Helen Thomas: I don't have any mistakes to tell you about.

Seema Kalia: You don't have any recollection of any time you didn't do something well?

No, not that I know of. I don't say I'm perfect, and I do say I've made mistakes, but nothing that's colossal.

The spirit of this interview is really to explore the role of mistake-making as part of the growth of people who are really successful at what they do.

No, no, no...you're looking for something else; you want people to flagellate themselves.

There are many people I'd like to see flagellated in Washington, but you are not among them.

Well, I can't think of any [mistakes] that would be earth-shaking. Everybody makes mistakes. I don't know any reporter that hasn't done some Monday morning quarter-backing and wondered if they could have done something better; should they have asked a different question? But one thing about our business -- one thing about journalism -- is if you make a mistake, you're finished. Your mistake is on the front page and you don't have a job the next day. That's the way I've always seen it, and that's how it happens. I think we pay a higher penalty for our mistake than anyone else because it's so glaring when we do.

Do you think the political figures would do better to admit mistakes sooner, like when they make them?

I think they know that. I think most politicians would definitely expose missteps in their past, put it on the table. They would be considered very courageous and they'd go on from there. [And] I think it eases the pain; it's out there so it isn't a great exposé. Then it's left to the judgment of people. And people are usually forgiving, if it isn't a monumental mistake.

Is the American public too forgiving of its public figures?

Not in my opinion. You can forgive, but you don't have to elect them. [Laughs.]

Well, election is probably the favorite form of forgiveness for a politician, isn't it?

I'm sure that would weigh in for a lot of them [laughs]. I wish we knew more about our leaders as they're going in [to office] rather than coming out. I think we should have known more about the President and so forth. You need to know more. Much more.

Well, whose mistake was that?

It's ours. It's our job to probe.

What would you say to a young reporter who, in their exuberance, published something that turns out to not be true?

If it isn't too earth-shaking, then I would assure them, "This is what you did wrong..." and give them a second chance. But I don't think you get another chance if you make a mistake involving a big story.

Do you think technology is changing that? That a good reporter will always find a venue because there are so many media outlets now?

No, but I do think it is kind of sad when everybody who owns a laptop thinks they're a journalist and doesn't understand the ethics. We do have to have some sense of what's right and wrong in this job. Of how far we can go. We don't make accusations without absolute proof. We're not prosecutors. We don't assume.

So if there's this amateur league of journalists out there, trying to do what you do...

It's dangerous.

What makes it dangerous? Isn't more information always better?

Not necessarily. Not if it isn't true. It could be out there and it could really muck up the whole picture. I'm not trying to suppress information; I'm just saying you have to be very careful.

My advice is simply try, as best you can, to only write the truth and try to check everything, and I think you just hope for the best. And, certainly, if someone gives you a story, I think you have to look a gift horse in the mouth. You have to find out why they're peddling it to you.

Always question why anybody does things. That's probably good advice for anybody.

Come back every other Wednesday for more installments of "My Favorite Mistake".

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