Helen Thomas quits UPI over sale
The Freedom Forum Online
WASHINGTON Helen Thomas, the grande dame of American journalism and for decades the public persona of the beleaguered wire service United Press International, said today she would leave UPI because of its sale to the news affiliate of the Unification Church.
Thomas, who will turn 80 on Aug. 4, made her announcement in a brief statement read to reporters by one of her colleagues at the White House. She did not make herself available for additional comment.
"I do not intend to stay," said Thomas, who, as senior White House correspondent, has earned the privilege of closing all presidential press conferences with the words "Thank you, Mr. President."
"United Press International is a great news agency. It has made a remarkable mark in the annals of American journalism and has left a superb legacy for future journalists. I wish the new owners all the best, great stories and happy landings."
Thomas did not address the assertion by Arnaud de Borchgrave, UPI's chief executive officer, after the sale announcement that she would remain with the company. In an interview with the Associated Press, de Borchgrave, a former editor in chief of The Washington Times, which is also owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, flatly stated, "She told me 48 hours ago that if I stayed, she was staying."
However, individuals familiar with UPI and the parties involved said Thomas never made such a statement and in fact had been moving personal materials out of the White House press-room area occupied by UPI for the past week.
"It's got to be a terribly wrenching decision for her. She's been there for so long," said Ron Cohen, a former top UPI executive who left the company in 1986 and now works for Gannett. "Her loyalty to the company has never been questioned, through thin and thinner. She's always been there fighting for it. From what I hear, this is the final straw."
As the highest-profile news holding of News World Communications Inc., The Washington Times maintains a staunchly conservative editorial policy at the direction of Rev. Moon. However, a spokesman for News World Communications said UPI would continue to provide an independent news report.
"UPI will maintain its editorial independence and build on its reputation for honest, fair-minded reporting that has made it an essential and respected news agency for generations," said Larry Moffit, special assistant to the president of News World Communications.
According to The New York Times, de Borchgrave said he never was put under pressure to change or slant news stories during his years with The Washington Times.
"Not once in all my seven years as editor in chief was I given any suggestions of any kind," de Borchgrave told The New York Times in an interview.
UPI has been owned by a company controlled by the brother-in-law of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia since 1992. When it was sold to the Saudis, the company had about 500 news employees around the world, said Steve Geimann, a former executive editor of UPI who now works for Bloomberg Business News. Now, according to a statement released about the sale, the company is down to 157 employees, roughly 100 of whom work in the Washington bureau.
It was unclear whether the remaining individuals were regular employees or whether they were essentially "stringers" who rewrite news from other outlets for distribution on the UPI wire. It was also unclear whether UPI still had any domestic clients. The wire service has refused to discuss its client base for some time.
News World Communications provided little information on its plans for the 93-year-old wire service which, in its heyday, was AP's main competition and served as the training ground for such legendary journalists as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, Harrison Salisbury and Westbrook Pegler.
Another legendary Unipresser, Merriman Smith, then UPI's chief White House correspondent, won the company its greatest coup in 1963 when he informed the world of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy well ahead of the rival AP. That scoop, which came because he was sitting in the front seat of the wire car in the presidential motorcade and refused to yield the phone to a frantic AP White House reporter, won Smith a Pulitzer Prize, one of 10 claimed by UPI.
The UPI of today bears no resemblance to UPI in its halcyon days. Virtually every domestic bureau has been closed, with reporters who still work for the wire service being forced to file from their own homes and put in the position of repackaging others' news rather than doing any original, independent reporting with the exception of Thomas and a few other UPI Washington correspondents. The news service has gone through two bankruptcies, a court-forced liquidation sale and countless owners since its founder, E.W. Scripps, put the company on the sale block for the first time in the early 1980s.
Among the former owners of UPI are Douglas Ruhe and William Geissler, two individuals active in the Baha'i religious sect; Mexican publisher Mario Vazquez-Raña and venture capitalist Earl Brian, who was subsequently convicted of federal bank fraud, conspiracy and lying to auditors for financial manipulations while he was in control of the company and another firm, the Financial News Network.
Along the way, the various owners have laid off workers, fired managers and sold off portions of the company, including its photo library and the once legendary UPI broadcast division. UPI's pension plan has been placed under federal protection.
"I don't think outside of Washington it has any kind of reporting presence, although maybe there is some kind of information-collecting presence," said Cohen, who chronicled the trials and tribulations of his former employer in a book, Down to the Wire. "My understanding is if a plane crashes in Boston, [the UPI reporter] covers it from his home by looking at the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald Web sites and TV. He wouldn't go out and actually cover it."
UPI's employees were informed of the sale officially yesterday in a staff meeting, but the possibility of a takeover by the Unification Church had been rumored for more than a week. Employees all received their final paychecks from the old owners yesterday and were informed that all would need to reapply to the new owners if they hoped to continue to work for the wire service.
Geimann said he believed the purchase was made to "provide a distribution vehicle for the contents of The Washington Times. Looking at the announcement and all I know from reading the newspapers, their interest is in the name 'UPI,' which does still have a reputation and caché after 93 years. But also to have access to various communications channels and access to all the major news venues here in Washington and around the world."
Other than its Web site, Geimann said, The Washington Times does not have a distribution system to deliver news to areas beyond the Washington area. "What you're looking for is the ability to reach a large audience geographically with news distributed quickly," he said.
UPI through its various owners has never been profitable and has lost millions of dollars since the Saudis took it over in 1992. In that sense, UPI and The Washington Times have something in common. The Washington Post reported today that the Times had been a money-losing venture since its inception in 1982 and had lost $1 billion by 1997.
Without Helen Thomas, however, it is unclear whether even deep pockets can keep the wire service afloat, let alone bring back a semblance of the respect it once enjoyed.
"It's been a sad story for the past decade watching what was once a great journalism institution scrapping for news all over the world, getting some scoops and getting beat," said Geimann. "It's been said to watch its slow, sometimes agonizing decline."
Cohen described the sale as "prolonging the agony."
"I don't have any idea what they (News World Communications) could possibly do with it. It doesn't seem like there's enough still there on the bones to be able to resuscitate the patient."
In a story about Thomas that appeared on the UPI wire, de Borchgrave said, "It is with great regret and sadness that I announce Helen Thomas' resignation from UPI after 57 years of dedicated service. Helen is truly a legend in her own time, a brilliant reporter I have known and admired since I first met her in 1961."
The UPI story said Thomas "planned to pursue other ventures."
Thomas, who received a lifetime achievement award from the White House Correspondents Association in April 1998, has been reporting on presidents since the Kennedy administration and has traveled the world with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.