Miller Center welcomes long-time White House correspondent Compton

Former ABC reporter talks presidency, media

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Former ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton delivered a lecture at the Miller Center Tuesday evening as part of its annual American Forum program.

Douglas Blackmon, executive producer and host of American Forum, interviewed Compton about her life and career.

“She’s got a remarkable story to tell, and there’s no one better to bring that story out than Doug Blackmon,” said Former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles, director and chief executive officer of the Miller Center.

Compton began her full-time reporting career with WDBJ TV, a CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia. ABC News assigned her to the White House as the first female White House correspondent in 1974. She announced her retirement in September of this year.

Baliles first met Compton when she was covering the state legislature in Richmond.

“She arrived in a burst of energy,” Baliles said. “She covered the news; she didn’t make it. She gained the respect of legislators at the state and federal level.”

At the lecture, Compton spoke to the role of the media in the presidential administrations she observed during her 40 years as a White House correspondent.

“When I cover the White House, I am the ABC foot soldier,” Compton said. “I have to know every nuance, every little quote the president says. I tell people that I don’t see the forest; I don’t see the trees; all I see is the bark.”

Compton said she never passed judgment or offered an opinion on the events she covered.

“I never grade presidents; that’s for the voters to do,” she said.

Compton said the media is an influential part of a presidential administration, but she also stressed the importance of keeping a relationship between the government and the media professional and respectful.

“I don’t think it can ever border on friendship,” Compton said. “It has to be respectful, but I think reporters now are a little more eager to be a little more feisty with the president and push a little harder. It’s still a professional relationship, and that professionalism, you just have to maintain it.”

Compton was the only television reporter on Air Force One directly following the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“They didn’t want to scare the kids, but it was clear something terrible had happened,” Compton said. “We flew for hours in Air Force One, and we watched the first tower fall, and then the second, and we knew we weren’t going home.”

Compton emphasized the importance of President George W. Bush’s visibility during such a trying time for the nation. In these moments, she said reporters can play a crucial role in that visibility.

“Presidents often want to go into the scene of a nightmare to show solidarity,” Compton said. “Those are the moments that you look for as a reporter to help the American people visualize in a caption what the president was going through at that moment.”

In addition to her personal career, Compton commented on how journalism has changed since she entered the field, particularly with the popularization of the Internet and cell phones.

“When you put the tools of journalism and the means to publish in their hands, and you give them a national or international audience, you have now made citizen journalists out of untrained [witnesses] to history,” Compton said.

Compton said the emergence and growth of what she calls “citizen journalism” has its benefits, but is not a complete substitute for traditional journalism.

“I think while the tools of journalism are in the citizens’ hands, it can be wonderful during important information, but it also doesn’t come from anybody with any journalistic training or any requirement to be accurate or objective,” Compton said. “We try to make sure that what we put on the air has some verification behind it.”

Compton’s lecture is expected to air on local cable stations in January.

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