Getting to the source by Juliet Crichton

Who has the sources to get the latest on al Qaeda terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia? The inside story on the U.S. government's discovery that al Qaeda had more hijackers ready for potential action on and after Sept. 11? How about the latest on the arrests of three civilian contractors--and the increased security--at Guantanamo Bay's prison camp, wThomashere hundreds of suspected terrorists have been held for questioning?

For one, Pierre Thomas (communication '84).

Thomas, who has covered the U.S. Justice Department and law enforcement issues for ABC news programs since late 2000, reporting on "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" and contributing to "Good Morning America," "This Week," "Nightline," and ABC News special events, has cultivated the sources to get the scoop--no easy feat, especially when Washington politics and the federal government are concerned.

But then, Thomas has been around. He moved to ABC from CNN, where he was the network's Justice Department correspondent for three years, breaking news on terrorism, cyber-crime, the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin, the capture of the railway killer, and the Elian Gonzalez case.

Thomas's stories for ABC have been no less significant--the anthrax attacks, the Robert Hanssen FBI spy scandal, the Oklahoma City bombing-missing FBI files controversy, and the Chandra Levy disappearance. And Thomas was a chief contributor to ABC News' team coverage of the September attacks and their aftermath, coverage that won the network's news division a coveted Peabody Award and a DuPont Award. In fact, as the towers crumbled, it was Thomas who was at the anchor desk with Peter Jennings and John Miller.

"With some bit of sadness," Thomas says, "I am proud of the work I was able to contribute to the Sept. 11 network coverage. In the most difficult of circumstances, that story reminded a lot of us why we do this sort of work. When I was covering that story, it was done for a noble reason: to inform people about that horrific event in a measured and accurate way."

A native of Amherst County, Va., now residing in Northern Virginia with his wife and one-year-old son, Thomas was a long-time print journalist, first with The Roanoke Times and then with The Washington Post, a gig he landed by writing to then-Editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame.

During his tenure at the Post, Thomas initially covered local Virginia politics, police, and courts for the Metro section. Impressed with Thomas's work, Bradlee moved the young reporter to the Metro investigative staff and eventually to the National staff, where Thomas first began covering the Justice Department and law enforcement.

"I did essentially grow up at The Washington Post," Thomas says. "I developed sources in law enforcement--over time covering the FBI and the local police. If people know you're serious and will take the time to be knowledgeable in a subject, that always helps. You have to meet people, tell them what you're doing, what your reporting style is. You have to show people over time that you're not only there to play 'gotcha' when there's some problem, but that you're interested in covering all the things that relate to them. Then you have to make your pitch about your journalism values, that you're going to give them a chance to respond to stories, that you're going to do fair, balanced reporting."

The approach more than worked, and Thomas took the lead on a number of major stories at the Post, including the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the FBI's role at Ruby Ridge, reporting that led to increased recognition and visibility.

Thomas acknowledges that the justice beat typically requires a reporter to unearth stories, and to some degree he relies on his sources for story ideas. "Talking with people, you learn about trends, policies, or investigations coming up that may be important to your beat," he says. "Having multiple layers of sourcing is important in terms of making sure you have the proper context. You want to talk to people at various levels to get the most complete picture of a situation. Justice stories are typically very complex nuance pieces that require a lot of work."

Thomas is clearly up to the challenge. In 1991 and in 1992, he won the Mort Mintz Investigative Award, named for the former Post reporter and chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Thomas was also part of the investigative team whose work on illegal gun use in the Washington, D.C., region was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1991. In 1993, he was named a finalist for the Livingston Young Journalist Award, and in 1994, he received the Pass Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency for his article "Beyond Grief and Fear." Moreover, after a decade in the newsroom, Thomas was so valued that Post publisher Don Graham tried to convince him not to leave the paper when CNN called in 1997.

With that kind of support and recognition, why did Thomas choose to go into broadcast journalism? "I was intrigued by the notion of bringing the style of journalism I had developed at The Washington Post to television," he says. "I think, given my low-key personality, a number of people were probably a bit surprised that I had opted to go on camera."

Nevertheless, Thomas has achieved similar success and visibility on television, garnering praise for his careful and articulate presentation of powerful stories. In the 13th annual study on the most visible network news correspondents--released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in early 2003--Thomas, who reported 70 stories in 2002, was ranked 27th, one of only two African Americans to crack the top 50.

Thomas's transition from paper to screen, albeit surprising to some, was ostensibly a natural one for the veteran journalist who continues to see his role "as simply informing the public as fairly, accurately, and aggressively as possible on every story."

Even so, Thomas admits that being before the camera introduced an entirely new set of concerns. "When I first began appearing on air," he says, "I used to fret over how I looked and sounded, even apologizing to family and friends if I had embarrassed them.

"So much of your print training is focused on wordsmith--writing the story. In television, there's a whole other component of how you look, how you sound, and how you track a story, which is equally important in terms of making sure the viewer gets the point that you make. This was very different for me. Psychologically and intellectually, it was learning how to gear up after the writing process is over and focusing on how to vocalize the story and track it with the proper tone that will fit the piece."

Although Thomas arrived at Virginia Tech thinking he'd study computers and business, a little soul-searching resulted in a change of plans: "I remember walking around the beautiful campus and mulling over life after college. I decided that any job I would do, I would have to work hard to be a success, so I might as well pick something that I enjoyed. I loved pursuing information and talking to people, so journalism fit that profile."

And a good fit it's been.