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.
Crosscut archive image.

Jim Compton in an undated photo

His work stands as an inspiration to anyone aspiring to the public service of great journalism.

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.

One of my last e-mails from Jim contained the galleys of “Kill The Chief,” the book he’d always wanted to write about Chief Captain Jack and the almost forgotten Modoc War in Oregon. He wanted friends to read it, to give him feedback, but not of course to edit or make writing suggestions; that was his purview alone, but he wanted a reaction, some engagement with you about the content. That latter — talk about real things — was beyond anything else his great love and why it was always exhilarating to engage with him. At any time.

Politically he could be hard to nail. A Democrat, surely, but as likely to savage misinformation and misjudgment on the Left as harshly as any from the Right. Facts and results mattered more than any dogma. He was, though, without doubt, a champion of the forgotten, a scourge of injustice, and you can catch that mood in a single passage from the Captain Jack book:

“The hanging of four Modoc Indians—including Jack, their chief—was a spasm of federal rage at a ragtag band of natives who had eluded and humiliated an army force that numbered a thousand troops….”

He felt as one with that “ragtag band” and had planned to revive another long-time passion — documenting for television the tragic diaspora of the Roma — the gypsies — in Europe. It frustrated him to the core that the subject was a hard sell even to public television (“No one cares about them,” he would hear). His passion for their story, for those lost and forgotten people, told you everything about his heart.

In all the stories making the rounds this week, two more linger:

  • One day leaving the TV station late, his Porsche stalled at an intersection; a hooker immediately jumped in to offer services to the erudite, brainy and very surprised Compton. It took all of Jim’s considerable verbal, intellectual, and tactical skills to get her out of the car.
  • Another time, during the Seattle Times/P-I newspaper strike of 2000-2001, he brought cheer and containers of coffee to the picket lines every day.

And that’s the place to end — with the memory of his heart, his integrity, his passion for truth, his compulsion to fight injustice, for getting the story right. His was a demanding standard; you might not match it ever, but it remains, for anyone aspiring to journalism at its best, as a profound inspiration.

Thank you, Jim, for all of it.


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