May 7, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In defense of Andrea Thompson

Let me take care of the full disclosure right off the top. I am married to the television news director who hired former “NYPD Blue” actress Andrea Thompson to work as a reporter in Albuquerque, N.M. I’m also a former TV reporter. During my 15 years in local news, I was so rabid about ethics that one colleague dubbed me “the conscience of the newsroom.” I have stayed out of the great ethics debates since I quit to stay home with my children six years ago, but I cannot resist coming to the defense of Andrea Thompson.

The pious people who protested Ms. Thompson’s hiring in Albuquerque a year ago are howling again as she moves on to CNN. Most appear to have judged Ms. Thompson’s fitness to report without having a solitary conversation with her or viewing a single minute of her work. My opinions were formed after doing both.

But she was an actress.

Oh, heaven help us. We elected a former actor to lead the free world (twice!)-one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century-but an actor cannot become a journalist? Once you’ve acted, you can’t change careers? Or is it the insulting argument that viewers are too stupid to differentiate between Thompson’s former career as an actress and her new job in news? If Mike Wallace were starting out today and we used the same standard, we would miss out on a great and distinguished career.

Are there other professions or endeavors that should disqualify people from the news business? Perhaps we should ban beauty pageant participants. A beautiful woman who parades around in a bathing suit in a “degrading” contest can’t ever be taken seriously as a journalist, can she? Diane Sawyer’s “past” would pose a problem.

Anyway, didn’t I see Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” acting in a Woody Allen movie last year? Now, that blurs the line between entertainment and news. Thompson made a clean cut from Hollywood. She’s not trying to be both an actress and a reporter at the same time. The detestable proliferation of infotainment and tabloid news should be blamed on ratings-driven content choices-not the past lives of reporters. I assure you Thompson’s reporting has not been frivolous.

But she’s a high school dropout.

I certainly don’t encourage anyone to drop out of school, and I value higher education, but if we apply this litmus test, then ABC would need to find a new main anchor. I wonder, if Peter Jennings had been born a knockout blond woman, would his lack of a high school diploma have been more of an issue?

While critics seem eager to pin the bimbo label on her, Thompson devours multiple newspapers every day in a quest to stay informed. In contrast, I recall my days in local newsrooms where too many reporters brought nothing but a hangover to the morning editorial meetings, having failed even to scan the headlines of the local paper. Most of these reporters came out of broadcast journalism schools with one goal: “to be an anchor.” They apparently didn’t like the long-shot odds of waiting tables in Hollywood while trying to break into acting on TV, so they pursued fame in TV news instead. Andrea Thompson gave up a successful acting career to pursue her love of news.

During her first week in New Mexico, the state was in the midst of a horrible wildfire season that had already consumed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos. Thompson started digging online and found an unpublicized fire retardant that could save homes from wildfire disaster. Too bad her work ethic didn’t arrive here earlier! She went on to break a number of exclusive stories over the past year as a tenacious street reporter with no special privileges (and no time in the anchor chair).

But she bared it all.

Personally I wouldn’t even consider taking my clothes off in front a camera (and I’d never be asked), but this is a choice Thompson made during her 20-year modeling and acting career-a choice she has to live with now in the Internet age. Thompson makes no apologies for her “artistic decisions.” Whether her nudity qualifies as art or not, why is this relevant to her being employed as a journalist? She isn’t posing nude now. Where are the media defenders of freedom of expression?

Should we start digging up the past “moral lapses” of all journalists so we can try to drive the “sinners” out of the profession? Let’s go after anyone who’s ever used drugs, driven drunk, consumed pornography or cheated on a spouse, a test or income taxes. That’ll clear out the newsrooms so quickly, I’ll have my choice of jobs when I return to work. Oh wait, I’ll be blackballed too. Perhaps Jesus will come back and report the news for us.

But she has only one year of experience.

At last, an argument worth pursuing! Why has the only legitimate question about Thompson’s network hiring been buried under salacious headlines about nude photos? I guess today’s reporters employ such tactics on everyone else-why not each other?

Is Andrea Thompson ready for CNN Headline News after one year reporting in Albuquerque? Although she is going to the strictly formatted, TelePrompTer-driven Headline News and not CNN, where ad-libbing about breaking news is required and [where], I believe, experience does count! However, I don’t discount life experience. In fact, I laugh when I think about the series of reports I did on “The Child Care Dilemma” when I was a childless, 20-something reporter in Lexington, Ky. If I were to do that same series now, it would be a thousand times better-not because of my 15 years in broadcast journalism but because of my seven years as a mother. I think it stinks that CNN chose to discard reporters with decades of journalism and life experience, but that doesn’t justify a smear campaign against Ms. Thompson.

Truthfully I don’t know if one year of local news experience combined with 41 years of life experience will be enough for Ms. Thompson to succeed at CNN. But I for one will be rooting for her to make it, because I’ve witnessed her passion for news, for being fair and for getting the story right. And that’s more than I can say for all the so-called journalists who have judged and stereotyped a woman they’ve never met.

Shawn Smith Salamone

Albuquerque, N.M.