ISSUE 1820 Friday 19 May 2000
End of an era as doyenne of press corps quits UPI
THE front-row of the grubby White House briefing room may never be the same again: Helen Thomas, the scourge of presidents since 1961, has resigned from United Press International and will no longer play her traditional role as the opener and closer of presidential press conferences.
Her tough and unapologetic grilling of commanders-in-chief from Kennedy to Clinton always opened briefings and her curt "Thank you, Mr President" always signalled their end. She arrived for work at 7am each morning and was usually last of the heavy-hitters to leave.
The 79-year-old daughter of Lebanese immigrants did not say so in her brief statement on Tuesday, but friends confirmed that she had quit UPI because of its takeover, announced the day before, by the media arm of the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies.
Her departure, more than the announcement of UPI's fifth new owner in 18 years, signals the end of an era. It is as if a butterfly has finally struggled free from its cocoon, fluttering off for a brief incandescent finale of life elsewhere and leaving behind an empty shell. Sam Donaldson, ABC television's own veteran point man on the South Lawn, said on hearing the news: "The White House will probably survive. But UPI cannot. Helen is and was UPI."
All the time that Thomas, a woman for whom the word feisty was probably invented, strode in the footsteps of chief executives, pestering them with her consistently relevant and acute inquiries, the wire service for which she worked was slowly expiring. Although older, UPI has eternally been the bridesmaid to AP, the Associated Press. Prettier perhaps, and with more bravado, but in the end perhaps a touch too flighty and less reliable than its younger sister and bitter rival. For many years, the contest was intense.
United Press Associations was founded by EW Scripps in 1907 to cover news from around the world and in 1935, the renamed United Press became the first major American news service to supply news to radio stations. In 1958, UP merged with William Randolph Hearst's International News Service to become UPI and service particularly the evening papers of the Scripps and Hearst empires.
But the slow decline of evening papers was mirrored in UPI. In the late 1960s, it still had 6,000 employees and 5,000 clients in print and broadcast media. Last year, it had 110 full-time staff and of its 400 surviving newspaper clients, a fair number were university publications.
Industry analysts say it was beaten by an overly rigid management structure that could not compete in a fast-changing atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s, when organisations like the New York Times and Knight-Ridder were starting up their own news wires. On top of that, there was a sneaking overall impression that UPI was a little less respected, sometimes reckless with the facts and simply not the strongest of a strong bunch.
The latest takeover, following nearly 20 years of crisis followed by catastrophe, is far from the first time that the agency has had controversial owners. Two of the four men who bailed UPI out when Scripps, having failed to interest Reuters in a takeover, sold the loss-making agency in 1982, had strong links with the Baha'i faith and no readily apparent means of financial support. Just weeks before, the Unification Church had established the Washington Times, and in that atmosphere, the new owners of UPI spent a good deal of energy denying that there would be religious interference in news coverage.
UPI went bankrupt for the first time in 1986 and was sold to a Mexican publisher who spoke very little English. Then in 1988 it was taken over by an information technology company which subsequently crashed. UPI staff, among whose number Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley had been honoured to serve, became accustomed to lean times.
In 1963, the UPI's legendary Merriman "Smitty" Smith had beaten off his AP rival, literally, to be the first to break news of the assassination of JFK. In 1991, its chief correspondent for the Gulf War was sent to Saudi Arabia with an advance of $200 and a gas mask he bought himself in an army surplus store.
There was a second bankruptcy in 1992 which almost saw UPI snapped up by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Eventually, UPI was bought in an auction by Ara Group, a Saudi investment firm run by a brother-in-law of King Fahd, which also owns ANA, the Arabian News Agency and Spectrum radio in Britain. More rocky years followed with a dwindling client list, the sell-off of its remaining radio contracts to AP in 1998 and attempts to concentrate on the dissemination of news on the internet.
In Jan 1999, Arnaud de Borchgrave, the former editor of Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times took over as chief executive at UPI and it now seems clear that he was involved in brokering a deal between his old bosses and his new. Concerns about the independence of a Moonie-owned media outlet may well arise again, although they are seldom voiced nowadays with regard to the Washington Times.
Soon after founding the agency that became UPI, EW Scripps said: "I have made it impossible to suppress the truth or successfully disseminate falsehood." Those who have loved UPI will be watching to see if that remains the case.
©Copyright 2000, The Telegraph (United Kingdom)
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