Ann Compton Reflects on Career, Media, and Politics

For the annual Lowell Lecture, the veteran journalist discussed her 40 years of reporting from the front lines of history.

Full lecture video: Media, Politics, and Public Discourse: Rebuilding Trust in the Digital Age

by Christina Nagler

The pardon of Nixon. Iran–Contra. The fall of the Soviet Union and the Boston Marathon bombings. In a 40-year career as an ABC News reporter and White House correspondent, Ann Compton covered these and many other landmark events.

At Harvard Extension School's annual Lowell Lecture March 29, she spoke to the value of a free press, weaving in her own experiences to reflect on the state of politics and media today. 

Speaking to a record number of attendees, Compton opened with a parody of recent headlines, including President Trump’s confusion between tax reform and Final Four brackets and the preemptive naming of Judge Judy as a Supreme Court Justice.

From there, Compton discussed how reporting has changed over the years, comparing the “shorter and more shrill” style of today’s media coverage—largely a consequence of 24-hour news cycles—to the more thoughtful style of years gone by.

Lowell Lecture 2017 with Ann Compton

Charting a Consequential Career

As the first woman to cover the White House for network television at 27 years old, Compton had a front row seat to history-making events for four decades, from the Ford to Obama administrations.

As a cub reporter for the local CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va., Compton received a call from ABC News to be a network correspondent in New York City. There, she learned the art of writing and reporting, often crafting scripts for four to five newscasts a day.

She quickly ascended the career ladder. By 1974, she had become ABC News’ White House correspondent, covering thousands of miles and current event milestones, one of which she recounted in detail.

Interested in Journalism?

On her 28th anniversary as a White House correspondent, Compton was traveling with President George W. Bush on a routine trip through Florida.

That evening over dinner, New York Times correspondent and past Belfer Center Fellow David Sanger playfully asked Compton, “Why are we here?”

She said, “David, because something might happen. We travel with the president just because.” The next morning, September 11, 2001, the course of modern history careened.

By now, the story is well known. At 9:07 a.m. on September 11, then-Chief of Staff Andy Card interrupted President Bush’s visit to a second-grade classroom in Sarasota, Fl. Compton recorded the time in her reporter’s notebook. The interruption of a presidential event was unprecedented, and so were the events to follow.

For the next 10 hours, Compton—along with an AP reporter and the CBS camera crew—traveled with the president on Air Force One. During several refueling and security stops, they reported continuously on behalf of the White House via her clamshell flip phone.

For her colleagues on the ground and the public-at-large, Compton recalls ”the importance of getting everything exactly right, in a calm and clear way.”

She went on to praise Andy Card and former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer for maintaining the “independent voice of the press.” The decision, she said, allowed “the world to see and hear from the White House and show that the American government had not been brought to its knees.”

Gaining New Perspectives

During the 2016 campaign cycle, Compton took a new role as an Institute of Politics fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“This was the first campaign in four decades where I wasn’t on the press bus, in the press pen, or with the candidate on election night,” she said. “Instead, I spent this election with 18- and 19-year-old first-time voters. I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to spend election season here in Cambridge.”

Compton held weekly open-door sessions to discuss campaign policy, tactics, and rumors with her undergraduate students, many of whom marveled at how “everything they had been told was likely to happen didn’t actually happen.”

Intersecting and Evolving Media and Political Landscapes

The question of how the media misread the 2016 election was raised during the Q&A, to which  Compton addressed three fundamental ways in which the media and politics are changing:

The immediacy of digital media is affecting journalistic precision. “Journalists have long used their writing skills to artfully, engagingly, and accurately tell stories,” she said. “We no longer have the time to perfect a story, to call one more source, to polish our language; that time has disappeared due to the pressure to publish right now.”  She suggested that time pressures make it harder to incorporate and reconcile details that contradict a journalist’s expectations, helping to perpetuate an incomplete view.

The proliferation of “fake news” as a means to discredit unpopular issues is intensifying the public’s confusion and distrust of traditional media outlets. Of this development, Compton says, “Many in public life are succeeding brilliantly by blurring what should be a very distinct line between what is true and what is not. If [voters] don’t want to believe it, then [public figures] simply call it fake.”

Thanks to a highly fragmented media landscape—in which both citizens and public figures have joined the messaging fray via social media—fact and opinion have become “hopelessly intertwined.” The seeds of shorter, faster, editorialized reporting took root in the 1980s, with the introduction of CNN, USA Today, and conservation talk radio.

By 2000, the segmented approach to news had bloomed, with media consumers actively seeking “political comfort zones” through increasingly partisan outlets. Today, the well-chronicled media echo chamber has contributed to a “deepening partisan chasm” that has extended beyond media consumers to Washington operatives.

To help rebuild the trust of the American people,  Compton advises the press to avoid “Tweet-length headlines and catch phrases” and practice discipline in reporting “clearly and accurately, with a sense of fairness and responsibility.” Compton was quick to remind the audience that “it’s not about us, the reporters, but rather the Americans who sent these men and women to Washington to run our country.”

Looking Ahead

Compton closed with advice for today’s media consumers and the next generation of citizens.

To be able to discern fact from fiction and understand the broader context, the public must engage a variety of news sources. Furthermore, Compton spoke about the rising generation, saying that she hopes they will “run this country with a deeper sense of fairness than the generations that have preceded them” and that “creative leaders will find ways to make their point [in ways] that do not trample—physically or emotionally—the people that they disagree with.”

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