Jim Compton: A man of talents that he shared generously

His work stands as an inspiration to anyone aspiring to the public service of great journalism.
Jim Compton in an undated photo

Jim Compton in an undated photo TheComptonReport.com

When I heard Jim died, I thought  — after the shock — about his dream, his dog in Rome, his fractured Italian, the efficiency and focus of the office he had in Sandpoint, the old marine work boat he loved, and how whatever he did had such a defining quality. Nobody did journalism quite his way, because there was only one Jim Compton — a mentor, a brilliant thinker and writer, a friend over many years, an inspiration to a generation of television journalists.

A short life list: Jim established the first D.C. political bureau for a local TV newsroom; covered wars, politics, and culture as a network correspondent based in London and Cairo; returned to KING-TV in Seattle as a probing documentarian/commentator; had a too-brief career in politics after a very human mistake, and had just finished a book he'd dreamed of writing for years.

The Rome story: Jim found himself there in 1970 after arriving in Romania on a Fulbright scholarship and discovering that the Communist dictator Ceausescu's government had fouled up the arrangements. Typical Compton — he wasn’t going to just quit Europe. Instead, he found a job at the English language Daily American in Rome, writing, making friends, teaching himself Italian out of a dictionary and the local papers. He would always laugh about his fractured Italian grammar. And he had another laugh after discovering that the Daily American was 40 percent owned by the CIA.

Rome was also the dog, Gimlee. Somehow Gimlee had survived the trip from Seattle to Romania to Rome as the most joyful terrier, requiring only a daily walk down via della Stamperia to the Trevi Fountain. Jim had other dogs, always, but there was only one Gimlee.

We met each other at KING-TV in the late '60s. I’d just come over from the radio newsroom to join an expanding TV staff with zero clue how to put together a TV film (no videotape in those days) story. Jim was my mentor, my guide, the bright light in the newsroom who’d figured out the puzzle of two strips of film projecting simultaneously to make a single image on a black-and-white TV screen. In a few days in any newsroom, you know the one with the talent, the gift, the way to find and tell a story that means something. Jim was that one. And he shared, always.

There were years when Jim was gone — the fizzled Fulbright, setting up that first Seattle TV bureau in D.C. for KING, working as an NBC correspondent abroad. But he always talked about coming back to Seattle, always argued that good journalism would have more impact locally. And he did come back, to KING-TV, making good on his argument with a string of documentaries and his signature program “The Compton Report.” The work won prizes, Emmys, national recognition, lots of hardware — but the point for  Jim was making a difference, practicing journalism as substance. About things that matter.

I remember his perfectionism and focus especially from a long ago “Compton Report” recording. Jim was interviewing author and Evergreen State professor Stephanie Coontz and myself about our memories of the 1960s (for radio, I had covered Haight-Ashbury, the Helix years in Seattle, Monterey Pop, etc.). We answered his questions two, three, four times until we’d given vivid answers that met his standard — to be interesting. That was Jim; getting it right by insisting on it.

I always thought he’d make a great Seattle mayor, and Jim confided that ambition to some of us during his time on the Seattle City Council  — 1999-2006. Alas, I’d argue, the 2003 “Strippergate” affair — having an inappropriate lunch with an old friend to discuss a strip club rezoning — hung on him like a blanket and took a mayoral run off the table. I wanted him to take a shot at the mayor's office — he had such gifts. (This week, a former staffer at the City Council remembered his remarkable presence: “What a relief it was hearing his wise and coherent proposals.”). But Jim loathed the sense that his integrity was in question. He left the council to take on that dream — writing.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Friendship with Jim Compton, or even an acquaintance, always exposed you to the sorts of adventure Mike James writes about. Jim and I worked together in Portland at the King Broadcasting station, KGW-TV, and again when he opened the King Bureau in Washington, D.C. Memories of restoring an old brownstone in Northwest Portland before it became The Pearl; sharing his townhouse in D.C. while he recovered from back surgery and I handled the bureau; subsequently staying at his London flat while he advised me on a reporting trip I took to Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon. Jim lived and worked at a fast pace, never a dull moment.
Most of all, I remember him as the best broadcast reporter—and far-and-away the best interviewer—I encountered during that era in television news when we set the pace at King and local news in general amounting to something. Jim was a relentless interviewer, as viewers of the Compton Report will attest; he was always prepared and always asked the tough questions. It made him a star for NBC and his reporting from Beirut in 1982 was clearly the best of the network coverage.
I’m not sure there is room in today’s local TV newsroom for people like Jim—or Mike or myself for that matter—we worked in an era where reporters were valued as highly as on-air personalities, and allowed to undertake documentaries and special reports that took time and money to prepare.
Jim brought all his skills back to Seattle after his network reporting and King’s audience was the beneficiary. Ancil Payne, who was highly influential in all our careers, called me when Jim wanted to return home from his London base. Was it too risky a hire, he asked, Jim was a major national news figure and would get restless and be gone. I’d recently spent time with Jim in London and assured Ancil that Jim was done with that scene and really wanted back to the Northwest, permanently. As usual, Ancil made the right decision—it had been his first choice all along.
We all benefitted from that.

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, Jim Compton and Mike James and Floyd McKay are all fine examples of an era of TV news and public affairs reporting that has passed away. It's dead and gone. No local stations do any public affairs broadcasting anymore, even the cheap-to-produce Robert Mak report, talking heads in a studio, even that is gone.

All we get are endless newscasts full of fires, crashes, and bad weather; any visual drama gets airtime, no matter the news value. And because most public affairs topics don't have compelling visuals, they get ignored or mentioned only in passing.

Today's TV reporters (using the term loosely) need their GPS app to find City Hall. Sad.

Posted Fri, Mar 21, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Sad but true. Raising a pint to JC - cheers.

Treker

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 3:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Floyd is so right about Ancil Payne, a voice I still miss. It was a time - all of it.....

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course Jim was incisive. He was a Reed College graduate.
Seriously, what's to be done with the (small) band of us who wallow in nostalgia for how TV news reporting used to be? I guess wrote touching remembrances, like Mike James has done.

Posted Fri, Mar 21, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

What can we do beyond writing remembrances when the stars pass on? Couple thoughts --

The new media, the stuff that's killing comprehensive daily newspapers and print media generally, prevents any possible return to the glory days of TV news that we so fondly remember -- the Dorothy Bullitt era at KING. Hopelessly lost to the bean counters.

The most we could hope for would be an hour-long weekly program on local cable, something like what Robert Mak was doing but with sharper questioning. Long enough to get more in depth. Engage civic critics along with the journalists, like we see here on Crosscut from time to time. The talking heads format does not have to be tedious or boring.

But what cable channel? Can't use the Seattle Channel; as a municipal property it can't do anything even remotely controversial. Very doubtful that Gannett would give up an hour a week on KONG or NWCN.

How much does it cost to buy an hour of cable time, like an infomercial? Imagine what we could do, an infomercial worth watching, one that doesn't cause brain damage!

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh hell, oscarb is Abe Bergman

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 11:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow... look at what just writing about Jim Compton can do to you.

s_calvert

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

When Mayor Greg Nickels appointed me as the City's Chief Technology Officer in 2003, Jim Compton chaired the Energy and Technology Committee. He welcomed me with open arms. He was a visionary and collaborator. I miss him.
-bill

Posted Thu, Mar 20, 9:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Times have changed, and standards and individuality evaporated. Shame.

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