Lee Thornton, who in 1977 became the first black woman to cover the White House regularly for CBS and later taught journalism and was an administrator at the University of Maryland, died Sept. 25 at her home in Bethesda. She was 71.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her sister, Marilyn Thornton.
Dr. Thornton, whose degree was in radio, television and film studies, began her career in academia before entering broadcast journalism in the early 1970s. She joined CBS News in 1974 and, from 1977 to 1981, covered the Carter White House.
In “Women of the Washington Press,” a book by journalism scholar Maurine H. Beasley, Dr. Thornton described herself as “fourth in line” among the White House correspondents and was often assigned stories about the first lady.
In the newsroom hierarchy of the era, she said her reporting was often relegated to the weekend news report. Nevertheless, it was a demanding job that required “physical health and stamina to meet unbelievable demands,” she told Beasley, “such as working six nights a week for six months with two overnights (midnight to 8 a.m.) each week.”
Dr. Thornton worked for the CBS affiliate in Detroit before joining National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program in 1982 as a weekend host. Two years later, she became a
Washington-based reporter, producer and news anchor for the American Business Network, a cable news network run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
She began teaching journalism at Howard University in the 1980s and took a sabbatical in the early 1990s to produce public affairs shows at CNN, including “Both Sides With Jesse Jackson.”
In 1997, she joined the University of Maryland’s journalism school to teach broadcast reporting. She created, wrote, produced and hosted “Front and Center,” a show that aired on the school’s cable station, UMTV. She was interim dean of the journalism school in 2008-09 and later served as interim associate provost for equity and diversity at the university.
After retiring in 2011, she returned to work at the graduate school’s ombuds office, which handles confidential consultation and informal resolution of problems that might arise between students and faculty. Shortly before her death, she endowed a graduate fellowship at the university.
Frances Lee Thornton was born in Leesburg, Va., on Nov. 14, 1941, and raised in Washington. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1959 and from the former District of Columbia Teachers College.
She received a master’s degree in rhetoric and public address from Michigan State University in 1968 and a doctorate in radio, television and film studies from Northwestern University in 1973.
Early in her career, she was a speech improvement teacher in Washington public schools. She also taught public speaking classes at Michigan State, among other jobs in higher education. She was an anchor for an Avco broadcasting station in Cincinnati before CBS hired her.
She was a past member of the board of governors of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’s Washington area chapter and past president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Washington-area chapter.
Besides her sister, of Washington, survivors include her mother, Betty Thornton of Bethesda.
Dr. Thornton told author Beasley that she had experienced a “male-dominated corporate culture in newsrooms that leaves women and minorities and minority women at a distinct disadvantage. I tried appeasing it, fighting with it, bargaining with it and in the end resigning myself to it. But newsrooms aren’t alone in this — by a long shot. I’ve found the same thing to be true in academics and in government.”