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The Andrea Thompson Threat To Journalism

by Steve Chapman

Besides being a game show host, Mike Wallace did peanut butter commercials
Journalists who work in the print media regard TV news as journalism of, by and for the stupid, and broadcast reporters reciprocate by thinking of newspapers as make-work for homely people. Andrea Thompson, recently hired as an anchor by CNN Headline News, is not too dumb to figure out that she is best suited for a visual medium.

Thompson, 41, used to play Detective Jill Kirkendall on "NYPD Blue." Her arrival at a network that has been getting rid of battle-tested reporters did not go down well with many people who think it casts doubt on CNN's professionalism.

A high school dropout, Thompson has no experience in the business, unless you count her recent 11-month stint at a TV station in Albuquerque, N.M. There, the New York Post informs us, she once grew so angry with problems she encountered on a story that she kicked a wall. That report caused shock in the ranks of professional journalists, who have never seen a colleague getting testy on deadline.

But disgruntled ex-employees of the network have had particular fun with their anti-CNN web site, where students of the press can find steamy photos of the statuesque Thompson during her acting days. Back then, she appeared nude in an arty photography magazine as well as movies like "Manhattan Gigolo" and "A Gun, a Car, a Blonde."

The Wall Street Journal said, "We always assumed CNN was up against Brian Williams and the networks. Looks like it thinks its real rival is Canada's 'Naked News.'" A TV critic at The Washington Post sneered, "Isn't it comforting to know that CNN's background checks aren't better than those of the producers of 'Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?'"

Truth is, I have always suspected that CNN anchors are naked under their clothes. And if someone had to unearth erotic shots of one of them, it's a relief to know Chuck Roberts was never seduced into baring all for Black and White magazine.

Thompson gets no credit for abandoning acting so she could learn a new trade, covering stories about dog bites in the nation's 50th biggest media market -- where her news director described her as "one of our best reporters." Apparently there is no web site where you can see Thompson exposed as a journalist out on assignment.

Some press critics feel that CNN is sacrificing journalistic standards in a shameless effort to boost ratings. "Her experience is shockingly thin," lamented Robert Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Warned S. Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, "CNN may gain viewers as they lose respect."

You could almost forget that TV has a longstanding practice of trying to make the news appeal to the eye. Peter Jennings is where he is partly because of his patrician elegance, Tom Brokaw is where he is partly because of his boyish looks, and Dan Rather is where he is partly because ... well, actually, I've never been able to figure out why Dan Rather is where he is. But turn on any news program and you'll notice that the TV networks rarely hire anyone who looks like 10 miles of muddy road.

Nor should they. If you're going to watch someone tell you what's going on in the world, it doesn't cost you anymore to gaze upon someone who's pleasant to look at than someone who's not. And if you have no interest in what the newsreader looks like, you might as well be listening to the radio. Saying that the networks shouldn't pay attention to their anchors' looks is like saying newspapers shouldn't worry about their reporters' writing skills.

A facility with words makes a newspaper more inviting to readers, and appealing appearances make a TV news show more likely to draw viewers. CNN, keep in mind, is competing less against The Economist and The New York Times than against whatever happens to be on HBO or ESPN. If it takes a pretty face to get Americans to pay attention to the crisis in Macedonia, that's a price worth paying.

Keep in mind that Thompson is not going to spearhead the investigative unit at CNN. She'll be an anchor on Headline News, which is about as spontaneous and unpredictable as an evening with Dick Cheney. Her main task will be to sit in front of a camera and read aloud words written by someone else. You don't have to be a savvy newshound for that. Heck, an actor could do it.

All the print journalists and press critics might want to pause before casting stones at Thompson. True, they may not have participated in threesomes in racy movies. But many of them have, like her, done something sordid that intelligent people have every reason to view with suspicion and contempt.

They've appeared on TV.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor May 7, 2001 (

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