WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, who had the front-row seat at White House press conferences for nearly 40 years, is hanging up her daily presidential notebook now that her long-struggling employer UPI has been sold to a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myong Moon.
Thomas, 79, has scribbled down the jests and denials of every president since Kennedy, remaining with the wire service as it struggled for financial survival during the last 20 years.
It was purchased this week by News World Communications Inc., which is controlled by Moon’s Unification Church. News World Communications also owns the Washington Times, a D.C. newspaper with a staunchly conservative editorial page.
Some Washington insiders said frankly Tuesday that with Thomas’ departure, UPI loses its most valuable asset. “The White House will probably survive,” ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson told Reuters, “but UPI cannot. Helen was and is UPI.”
Thomas, dean of the Washington press corps, by tradition kicked off news conferences with the first question.
Thomas’ long years in the White House have made her one of the most famous print journalists in the country. She has made cameo appearances in Hollywood portrayals of the White House, including “Dave.”
“This room will not be the same without Helen sitting in the UPI chair,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Tuesday. “I know she’s been there for longer than I’ve been alive and knows more than I’ll ever know about this business, about this building, about this town.”
Although the Washington Times is well-known for its conservative approach, UPI reported that its parent company plans to operate the wire service “as an independent newsgathering operation, while upgrading its capacity with new technologies and distribution practices.”
UPI once had a client base of 5,000 newspapers, but the for-profit wire service struggled in the last couple of decades in competition with Associated Press, a nonprofit service operated as a cooperative.
In one of the biggest scoops in its history, UPI was the first to report the assassination of President Kennedy. However, the quality of its journalism grew suspect in later years. One turning point in the wire service’s history came when it was forced to retract a story that 2,000 people died in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. In the wake of the retraction, the New York Times canceled its subscription to UPI.