Bob Schieffer and Helen Thomas share a laugh with reporters at a WSU press
conference today.

 

Photos by Becky Phillips, WSU Today
 
 
 
Even as newspaper presses across the country are shutting down, the need for trained, professional journalists is as great as it ever was, according to Bob Schieffer and Helen Thomas, the two veteran journalists who will each receive the 2009 Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum.
 
Thomas is being honored for her achievements in print media, while Schieffer is being honored for his work in broadcast media.
“It’s hard to imagine what this country would be like without journalists,” said Schieffer, who became a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the 1960s, joined CBS News in 1969 and went on to a 40-year career at CBS that included working as a national political correspondent, news anchor and moderator of the public affairs program, Face the Nation.
A free and vigorous press is the difference between a democracy and totalitarianism, he said. There must be a forum for independent, factual reporting that goes beyond the government’s official version of events to help people understand what is really going on.
While the role of journalists has always been to be a “watchdog” of the government, Schieffer said that these days, mainstream media are forced to spend most of their time and resources being a watchdog of the Internet, batting down false rumors that can easily take on a life of their own.
“Our main responsibility now is checking out things that pop up on the Internet,” he said.
Schieffer said he remains confident that there will always be a place for journalism, but the challenge now is to create a business model where journalism can be profitable again. “No one really knows where it’s all going or what the mix (between print media and online content) is going to be.”
Thomas, who was the White House correspondent 
for United Press International for 57 years, said the loss of daily newspapers is “intolerable to me.” Newspapers are engulfing, she said, and readers end up reading far more than they intended, about a greater range of topics and issues, creating a much more educated population.
“Without educated people, what do you have?” she asked, “a bunch of followers.”
Thomas herself has been a trailblazer for much of her career. Starting as a copygirl at the Washington Daily News in the 1930’s, she moved to UPI in 1943 and eventually joined the White House press corps in 1961, where she has covered every U.S. President since John F. Kennedy. In 1972 she was the only female journalist to accompany President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China. In 2000 she left UPI and now writes a syndicated column for the Hearst Corporation, but continues to be the first lady of the White House press corps.
Thomas said she believes there are certain qualities a successful president must have, including integrity, a sense of humor and the ability—and desire—to inspire and motivate the country. Presidents need to understand that they are public servants first and foremost, she said.
“Kennedy was my favorite because he understood his role,” she said, and then recited a litany of programs that Kennedy initiated, from creating the Peace Corps to landing a man on the moon. On domestic issues she also liked President Lyndon Johnson, she said, and quickly listed several of his major accomplishments as well. “But of course, Vietnam was his denouement,” she said. “That ended his political career.”
For his part, Schieffer said his favorite president was Gerald Ford. Not only was he a honest, decent man, he said, but Ford was fun to be around. “He was the only president that I’ve traveled with who you could actually tease and he’d tease you back.”
Thomas and Schieffer spoke with reporters in Studio A of the Murrow Building early Tuesday morning before the official start of the Murrow Symposium, an all-day event featuring workshops, panel discussions, and various opportunities to talk with media professionals.
Previous Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award winners include Don Hewitt, David Fanning and Frontline, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Eric Severeid.