By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON, DC — An unvarying element about covering the White House is that each day takes on its own distinct character. One of the most enviable industry assignments demands a unique blend of consistently superior reportage and the ultimate in stamina. Those earning that beat based on impeccable credibility and trustworthiness are truly the best of the best.
Matchless in this highly complicated endeavor on multiple levels has been Chicago native Ann Compton, who began covering the White House nearly 40 years ago (12/2/1974). After spending over four decades with ABC News, the national correspondent will retire in about three weeks (9/10).
Compton arrived at the White House after a four-year stint covering local news and thought the only thing she had in her favor was that some people at the then-Gerald Ford White House were as new at all that as she was. Rather than hunting down the most senior person in each office, she chose the number two since she was ABC’s junior White House team member. If anything, being the first woman assigned to cover the White House fulltime by any network was — in Compton’s opinion — an advantage since the President could not miss seeing her. The most challenging things early on were her age (27) and inexperience; however, Compton did not view going through pregnancies in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1985 as setbacks.
In an extensive interview several years ago that I conducted with Compton for Inside Radio, she opined that, “The most exciting time to cover the White House is when there is a change in political power — when one presidency is giving way to another often with a change of political party [or] when a president completes his second term. I love that new time because it is full of ideas, change, and substance. You really are on the crest of new ideas coming forth.”
Tragic events 13 years ago summoned the breadth of expertise Compton garnered in her professional career. On September 10, 2001, President George W. Bush flew to Florida to give several speeches on education. It was a routine trip and only a few of Compton’s colleagues went along; parenthetically, on that day, she celebrated her 28th year with ABC. Other press members complained there was no reason to be there that particular Monday because Bush’s speeches were “not newsworthy.”
In eerie foreshadowing, Compton reminded them, “We do it — just in case — something could always happen.” Indeed, they stood as the President was in the classroom and saw the look on his face when his chief of staff whispered to him about the three attacks. “I had always known there was a ‘Doomsday’ scenario,” Compton remarked. “The military had a plan to protect the line of succession in our government and keep it functioning according to the Constitution.” Especially when breaking news is of this vast magnitude it is imperative broadcasters suppress their emotions, with Compton stressing, “The clarity of your words must paint a picture. You don’t think how it affects you internally.” At day’s end (Tuesday, 9/11), Compton was safely in the White House waiting for the President to address the nation. When she got back to her little chair, she opened her laptop. The first email was from her oldest son who was in college. The message said one of his fraternity brothers was on the 93rd floor of the first World Trade Center tower. “Suddenly, the day had a human face for me,” recalls Compton, a 1988 National Mothers Day Committee “Mother of The Year” and wife of Washington physician Dr. William Hughes. “I sat down and cried. It was the first time all day emotions came rushing out.”
Broadcasting DNA exists in Compton’s makeup — her father was in broadcasting sales. When in high school, Compton volunteered to clean the dishes so her parents could watch the 10:00 pm news. She would listen to music in the kitchen as Chicago’s WLS-AM played “the top three pop hits between 10:00 pm – 10:15 pm.” A Drama major at Roanoke, Virginia’s Hollins University, Compton “loved” theater; stagecraft; literature from the Greek era to Shakespeare to modern contemporary drama; and directing/acting. Never though did she envision it as a career. Each student was required to do a one-month internship and she did hers at CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV. She learned to do a little bit of everything including live programming in the morning and she watched how they did a 12:00 noon newscast. There was an exciting gubernatorial election in Virginia that year and Compton fell in the love with the way the news operation worked. The phone rang on February 12 of her senior year in college. The general manager of the station offered Compton $100 a week as the cub reporter when she graduated. “The ink began to run through my veins because it suddenly dawned on me that was what I wanted to do.” It also meant not pursuing graduate school, but Compton explained that, “Most of us in the front lines of journalism in my generation – people like Sam Donaldson and Ted Koppel — did not go to journalism school. We got great, broad liberal arts educations and then went right to work.”
The former chair of the governing board of the Radio Television Correspondents Association contends writing a radio report is harder than doing a television piece, since “radio has to be short” and sometimes you have to imply. “You only have your words in radio and you have less time — it is a skill,” Compton emphasized. “Those of us doing it learn every single day. When you go into radio shorthand, you must be extra sure it is fair and accurate and does not cater to pre-conceived notions or pop fantasies about stories. It is very easy — especially in scandal stories — to paint someone as a criminal. Your eyes and ears are on two separate, but parallel, tracks.” White House press corps members writing/filing reports are highly competitive, but certain camaraderie does exist. “We are grumpy, tired and frustrated,” Compton conceded. “We live in a very small bubble. A bond exists here, so there is collegial cooperation.”
Compton was not out “to sabotage or frustrate” her colleagues. Of course, she did not share her information with the competition. “I want to write better than they do and have more complete details, but this is not an atmosphere where you stomp over bodies.” In a memo he sent last Friday afternoon (8/16) to the Radio Division, ABC News Radio vice president and general manager Steve Jones addresses the subject Compton has previously hinted at but Jones has managed to avoid. “She told me how amazing it was being a new grandmother and suggested that perhaps it was time to transition to the next phase of her life,” Jones writes. “I listened, smiled and told her we’d chat again, hoping she’d change her mind. But, by the spring, it was clear to me that Ann was ready to leave the job she has loved so that she can spend more time with the people she loves — her wonderful family. “We [will] celebrate Ann’s career in a setting that will let her friends and co-workers offer tributes and recollections about one of the most amazing women in journalism and one of the greatest friends and colleagues I have had the pleasure to work with. For now, though, Ann has asked that she be allowed to continue reporting from the White House without distraction.”
Countless exemplary skills Compton has honed and constructed to a rarified dimension contributed to her extremely well-justified November 5, 2005 induction into the Radio Hall Of Fame — appropriately enough held in her beloved Chicago. Being introduced by Paul Harvey made the moment even more remarkable. Compton’s “date” for the evening was her father, Charles Compton, then 88 years old. The two proudly walked through the cocktail area and were stopped by a Wisconsin radio station sales manager, who Charles Compton talked to years ago about Ann’s broadcasting career. “To have my father recognized in that huge ballroom was just flabbergasting and the neatest moment,” she recounted. Admitting she is not a strategic thinker, Compton — who turns 68 next January — is content dealing with the here and now. In light of Compton’s announced retirement, a quote contained in that interview from several years ago seems apropos: “I have never sat down and asked what I want to do in my next job.”
TALKERS managing editor/West Coast bureau chief Mike Kinosian can be emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com.