Helen Thomas: New Press Room, Same Old Answers?

By: Joe Strupp

White House “dean of correspondents” Helen Thomas, whose time covering presidents dates back to John F. Kennedy, said the renovated press area is cleaner and better, but presidential responses to reporters are not.

“It is state of the art, high-tech and the air conditioning is better, I hope the answers will be,” Thomas told E&P Monday, just days after the press corps returned to the White House following nearly a year out of the building. “All we need is better answers. The spin is greater, not better. We are running on empty.”

Thomas says she has a desk and phone, and is grateful that she has been able to retain her front row seat, thanks to the White House Correspondents Association Board, which voted to keep her there: “It was a very kind gesture.”

Thomas, who spent 57 years with United Press International — including 39 as White House correspondent — before becoming a Hearst columnist in 2000, also said she is “crying a river” over UPI’s recent cutbacks, which included elimination of the beat she held for most of her career. “It is so sad,” she said.

UPI, which announced it would cut 11 positions as part of a refocus, laid off current White House correspondent Richard Tomkins with no plans to replace him, as well as U.N. correspondent William Reilly, closing that bureau for good. “Some of the greatest reporters that have ever hit this profession came from UPI,” Thomas said. “UPI was a great wire service and its contributions to journalism were tremendous.”

Thomas’ comments followed last week’s first press briefing in the redecorated press area, which underwent months of renovation and rewiring while the press corps was relocated across the street to temporary quarters. Thomas said she appreciated that President Bush called on her first during the event, but said that does not make up for a continued failure to adequately answer reporters’ questions about many important issues.

“What is the approach to the press? There is so much truth that is hidden,” she said. “I would still like to know why we are in Iraq. No one can stand up and say, ‘this is the reason.'”

Thomas, 86, joined UPI in 1943 and began covering the White House in 1961, continuing when she joined Hearst as a columnist. She admits little need for the many technological improvements, such as the installation of Internet connection lines under each chair in the press room. She also says there are actually fewer desks for reporters than before with so much more room devoted to equipment and storage.

“It really has tightened up,” she says of the space. “More reporters really don’t have a desk and a phone, but everyone is accommodating. They usually have an office somewhere else.”

But Thomas says the most important thing is that the press is back in the White House, a move some believed was not assured when the renovation began last year. “There has always been suspicions that we would not be back,” she admits. “No presidents want us. But I didn’t think they would have the nerve to keep us out.”


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