ABC News Radio White House Correspondent Ann Compton celebrates her 40th anniversary at ABC News today. First hired by ABC News in 1973, she became the first woman assigned to cover the White House on a full-time basis by a network TV news organization. She was among the youngest to receive the assignment. “The age 40 may be the new 30, but 40 years on the job is not the new 30,” Compton told FishbowlDC in a phone interview Monday afternoon. Still, any way you look at it, it’s impressive, and her anniversary is getting quite a reception. President Obama commemorated the occasion by presenting her with a cupcake during a rare off-the-record visit to the press cabin just before landing from Russia on Friday. Now we take a moment to delve deeper into a Washington journalism career that has spanned more than four decades. Let’s hope she has big secrets to disclose.
1. How far have women in journalism come, really? When I came and was the first television reporter assigned full-time here, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I went around to aides office just to introduce myself…they could remember who I was because I was the only one wearing a skirt. Every pooler on Air Force One is a woman. Every seat is filled with a woman. In a lot of ways the gender barrier has been well broken here.
1 a. Looking back to when you started, what was the first “big” story you were assigned to? When I arrived at the White House, Vietnam was coming to an end and I remember sleeping here in a booth overnight. The press room didn’t lock overnight because at any moment that last helicopter could take off from the American embassy in Vietnam. It was a time of tremendous drama. That was the most important [story]. I came at a time when we didn’t have email or 24 hour a day newscasts. What I miss the most is we had hours during the day when we could go out to report. We were not tied to a keyboard. One of the losses is the time to report has been shrinking even though time on the air has expanded.
2. Please name one thing about the age of new media that you like and one think you don’t much care for. Here’s my favorite like: I can sit in my kitchen on Skype and, while I can’t claim I am at the White House, I can still get on the air with breaking news and not even put my shoes on. My greatest worry about new media is there are no more standards journalistically with which I grew up about checking a second source, perfecting your script, and being confident of your material before you rush on the air. We publish too quickly without enough time for the kind of safeguards and standards that really define good journalism.
3. Journalists, as a species, seem to cuss a lot. Do you? I never cuss. Now that I may be among the oldest journalists of the press corps, I find the younger ones have more elegant vocabularies, certainly greater skill with words and phrasing. I find myself quite outclassed. I don’t read a lot of tweets. Maybe it is within the White House gates that there is less cursing. I think I don’t hear that much cursing. Then too, maybe there are words that I just don’t recognize.
4. What delights you about journalism and do you think it still exists? All of us in some way are gossips. We love to share what we know and I still find in journalism that spark of excitement of sharing what I’ve just found out. I still delight in being able to tell people, ‘Wow, listen to this!’
5. If you could change one thing about how the White House operates toward the media what would it be? The one thing I would change above all others in terms of coverage is I would open the President up to more coverage to when hes’ actually doing his job in the Oval Office. Let the pool see him talking with leaders. This President closes the press off to any coverage, and instead hands out still pictures or posts the video on whitehouse.gov. It’s different than every one of his predecessors. I think it is disgraceful that this administration thinks it can hand out pictures and video and news and not let a White House press pool in to cover him making the decisions that affect the country. He’s the first to have the techniques [of new media] and he’s the first to shut the White House press corps out.
6. Briefly, please describe White House Press Sec. Jay Carney. Jay Carney comes to his briefing prepared to explain the company line on policies, but sometimes he fails to truly answer the questions reporters ask. Jay is both intellectual and personally engaging and, in many ways, still a journalist at heart. Of all the press secretaries I have covered, Jay Carney understands better than any press secretary I have covered what journalists need and want. But in this job, he can’t always deliver. He works for the President and has to serve the best interests [of the administration], but no press secretary before him has understood what Americans need. I think most reporters do like Jay immensely on a personal level. Any press secretary, when he or she is in front of the podium, is a professional figure where likes and dislikes don’t matter. Credibility and candor is what we’re looking for.
Photograph on first page by Pete Souza.