I met Helen Thomas briefly in Toronto in 1988 at a Ronald Reagan press conference during what was then known as the G7 Summit. To be honest, it wasn’t so much a meeting as being given a very public dressing-down by the legendary White House correspondent.

At the time, I was the Canadian correspondent for New York-based Fairchild News Service and was covering the summit for half-a-dozen Fairchild trade papers. The summit was attended by the world leaders – Ronald Reagan (U.S.), Margaret Thatcher (U.K.), François Mitterrand (France), Helmut Kohl (West Germany), Ciriaco de Mita (Italy), Noboru Takeshita (Japan), Jacques Delors (European Commission) and host Brian Mulroney (Canada) – not to mention hundreds of government officials and international media.

Because I worked for an American news service, I was able to score entry to President Reagan’s June 21 Toronto press conference. I was both excited and optimistic when I arrived early at the Royal York Hotel. The president’s podium had been placed at one end of the meeting room facing rows of chairs set up for the media. I noticed that the front rows had been reserved for specific journalists, their names written on sheets of paper placed on the chairs.

Not quite grasping the pecking order, I marched to the front of the room fully expecting my name to be on one of those chairs. As I walked along the rows, I saw placeholders for Sam Donaldson (ABC News)… Terence Hunt (Associated Press)…. Helen Thomas (United Press International)…. It finally dawned on me that I’d be sitting at the back of the room with the rest of the hacks.

I don’t remember much about the content of the press conference, other than the fact that everyone stood up when Reagan entered the room, he was very charming, and after taking several questions from the White House press corps he made a special point of taking questions from the local media. (Read a transcript of the June 21, 1988 press conference.)

As soon as the press conference ended, the media was in full flight. While some ran out to find a hotel telephone so that they could call in their stories, the rest of the crowd scrambled toward the back of the room where the press office had just put out piles of official statements and backgrounders.

Having sat so close to the back, I easily pushed my way through and grabbed a copy of each handout for myself. But as I walked away, Thomas – who was still trying to get near the pile of papers – loudly admonished me for not getting copies for her, too.

It’s common courtesy, she loudly explained, that if you get to the handouts first, you’d pick up several copies and pass them out to your fellow journalists. That was how it was among reporters covering the president, she scolded.

Helen Thomas, Michael Foley Photography
Creative Commons photo used courtesy of Michael Foley Photography

I had no idea who this elderly, gravelly-voiced woman was, and why she’d decided to single me out. I didn’t know that, at the age of 68, she was an icon who’d blazed a trail for women in journalism; that she was the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association; and that she’d covered every presidency since John F. Kennedy (and would end her career under a cloud of controversy in 2010 during the Obama administration). She was the dean of the White House press corps – perhaps she wanted me to acknowledge that?

To be fair, I’m not entirely sure Thomas meant to admonish me. She was a legendary straight-shooter who, as President Barack Obama said in a statement yesterday, “never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”

Perhaps she was offering a helpful lesson in press corps etiquette; you know, showing the ropes to a newbie. In a tribute, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, remembers Thomas this way: “To younger colleagues, she was the opposite of that woman who had made every president since John F. Kennedy squirm. She went out of her way to offer advice and help.” (What Helen Thomas taught us)

My encounter with Thomas was brief. She showed me an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera she said she always carried in her purse so that she could take personal photos of the presidents and of the important events she witnessed over her long career.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no recollection of what I said to her during our conversation.

What’s more important is that I heard what she had to say. Journalists are very competitive; they want to be first at everything, whether it’s breaking a news story or grabbing handouts. I like to think that Helen Thomas was making a point about common courtesy and looking out for colleagues – even when you consider them to be your competitors.

Helen Thomas died July 20, 2013, at the age of 92 after a lengthy illness.

Read one of the many obituaries online:

CNN: Pioneering front-row journalist Helen Thomas dies at 92

New York Times: 50 Years of Tough Questions and ‘Thank You, Mr. President’

CBS News: Remembering Helen Thomas

Main image is a Creative Commons enhanced photo used courtesy of Glenn Dettwiler

24 thoughts on “Why Helen Thomas Gave Me a Good Scolding

  1. I used to work as a Globe reporter in Toronto….surviving in the D.C. press corps would have demanded a special kind of ferocity. Too bad there isn’t any there now.

  2. Beautiful post. What an incredible woman and a great story you have about her. I have a sneaking suspicion she has always been trying to teach lessons with her no-nonsense ways.

  3. I appreciate your blog on Helen Thomas. Over the years she became into herself. Hubris does not become anyone. I am afraid that she became enthralled with herself.

  4. Lucky to have met the journalist icon in person even if only briefly. Usually highly outspoken people like her, sound imperious. I think she was just trying to inform a newbie like you. Treasure that.

    There is someone in mannerisms like her in my life….except she’s just abit older than me…maybe 8yrs. 😀 I learned long ago that she means usually well. Then stuff like that rolls off your shoulder.

  5. ~ Wow, what an encounter! See, it made you remember her! It goes to show that everywhere we go or in everything we do, we could learn a thing or two and in your case, that was that incident. 🙂 Btw, who knows the next time around, you’d be the next Helen Thomas — in a friendly way of course. 🙂 Congrats on being FP! Cheers! – Bliss, The Lurker’s List

  6. Watching old clips of her on Meet the Press, grilling President Ford’s press secretary, was pretty neat. She was a firecracker.

  7. I sent her a note a couple of years ago after watching her performance at a press conference. I basically asked her why she does not retire. I should have saved the exchange but did not. I was frankly thrown by how viciously she responded, to what really was just a question. Most of the tributes I have read, include many references to her acerbic style.

  8. Cheers to you for your great memory and passing the lesson on to us. I think this applies to any meeting we would attend. Good reminder no matter the level of influence.

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