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Pioneering White House journalist Helen Thomas dead at 92

Helen Thomas, a longtime White House reporter who was a pioneering force in the industry for women, has died aged 92. Famous for her tough questions and honest opinions, her career spanned 10 presidential terms.

Thomas died Saturday surrounded by her friends and family in her Washington apartment after a long illness, the family said in a statement.

She was known for her tough questioning of presidents and press secretaries for both Republican and Democratic administrations. She refused to conceal her strong opinions and became a formidable fixture of the White House press.

Washington press fixture

The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas broke a number of barriers for female journalists during her career covering the White House for United Press International (UPI) and later Hearst newspapers. She started her journalism career in 1943 and began covering the presidential beat in the 1960s, when she was one of just a handful of women in a male-dominated Washington press corps.

Thomas became the first female White House bureau chief in 1974 and was the first female officer of the National Press Club, an organization that once barred women members. She also successfully paved the way for women to attend the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, with then-President John F Kennedy, at her urging, refusing to attend the event unless it was opened to both genders.

During the last 10 years of her career Thomas moved from UPI to become a columnist at Hearst. She announced her retirement in June 2010 after comments she made about Israel and Palestine, including Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine," were captured on video and spread around the internet.

She later expressed her regret over the comments and in 2011 started writing for a free weekly Washington-area newspaper.

'Thank you Mister President'

Thomas was long associated with the ritual ending of White House press conferences, delivering the famous line: "Thank you, Mister President."

"What made Helen the 'dean of the White House Press Corps' was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account," said President Barack Obama in a statement.

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, the former Secretary of State, called her "a pioneering journalist" who added "more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling."

dr/jm (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)