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So What Do You Do, Ann Compton, President of the WHCA?

An ABC correspondent discussing going from covering the President to inviting him to dinner

- April 23, 2008
Ann Compton is currently serving a one-year term as president of the White House Correspondents' Association and led the way in planning this year's Apr. 26 dinner. Compton has covered six presidents for ABC News and eight presidential campaigns. Compton was also the president of the Radio TV Correspondents Association twenty years. Ann shared an Emmy Award for her coverage as the only broadcaster aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001. Ann lives in Washington, D.C. and is the mother of four children. Still, the only thing that's ever impressed her husband, Dr. William Hughes, was when she was Number 12 Down in the Sunday New York Times crossword in March 2007.

Name: Ann Compton
Position: White House correspondent for ABC News
Resume: First assigned to this job by ABC in 1974, after Watergate. Compton claims she was 11 at the time.
Birthdate: January 19, 1947
Hometown: Glencoe, Illinois
Education: B.A. from Hollins College, Virginia
Marital status: Married, 29 years
First section of the Sunday Times: Front page
Favorite television show: Grey's Anatomy
Last book read: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, to her 4 year old niece
Guilty pleasure: Sleeping past 5:30 a.m.

Tell us a little bit about what the job of White House Correspondents' Association president entails. What are your primary responsibilities?
I was stunned to discover how engaged the WHCA has become with WH operations. Some weeks I spend hours on selecting charter aircraft for press travel with the President, consultations on upcoming domestic trips, complaints about access and coverage at the White House and that's before you start stressing over the spring dinner.

Why did you decide to pursue this position? What have/are you hoping to accomplish during your tenure?
Blame Steve Scully of C-SPAN who asked me to run... I cannot say no to him. He did all the heavy lifting of remodeling the press briefing room. But we are going to quintuple the amount of cash tuition grants to journalism students because the annual dinner has become so successful.

Is it a fairly competitive position to get? And is it challenging to keep so many reporters satisfied and in sync?
Some years the June election is a crowded race, sometimes not. The term on the board in three years so reporters have to believe they will be on the WH beat that long in order to run. As for satisfaction -- put 50 reporters in one room and you will get 80 opinions. Satisfaction is not always possible.

Some of the highlight moments over the last seven years certainly have been the President's effort to surprise us.

When did you start preparing for this year's dinner and what were some of the first things you needed to accomplish to assure a successful one?
I started obsessing about the dinner nearly two years ago. Two big factors -- can you find an entertainer who will live up to the best expectations? And, will the President come? I arranged for the entertainer on Super Tuesday. President Bush had already told me he would attend. Vice President Cheney is coming, too, which is not typical to have both of them at one dinner.

How much do you work with the White House on this? Do they get excited about the dinner or is it more a chore for them?
The White House staff actually has no role -- this is totally a journalists' affair. The junior staff unfortunately tends to get overlooked on invitations -- which we have tried to correct and get as many to the table as possible. The President can be forgiven for thinking this isn't really something he wants to do every year. But some of the highlight moments over the last seven years certainly have been the President's effort to surprise us.

President Bush's administration frequently gets knocked for being anti-press. What's been your experience?
Are there some things you'd like to see the White House do differently with regards to press relations? Every president I have covered has been anti-press, to an extent. All I ask of these, and future administrations is straight answers and appropriate access to decisions and events which affect the lives of Americans.

How do you think Craig Ferguson will walk the delicate line of poking fun of the president? Will he be more polite or prodding?
I know a lot has been written about how we as journalists try to pick someone who will not offend (Imus was not a WHCA dinner, remember). Truth is I went looking for someone fresh and even outside the box. During the writers' strike I started TiVo'ing Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show because believe me I don't stay up that late. I found him enchanting. And when his producers told me he was about to become a US citizen, that cinched it -- who better in this season to feature at the dinner than a first-time, uncommitted voter?

What do you say to the charges made by some news organizations that the annual dinner has become too cozy, too bloated and too Hollywood-centric?
Cozy? The old days were cozy, with reporters and campaign advisors drinking late into the night. Bloated? Hey, call it successful. In recent years we haven't come close to meeting demand for tables, and we are the largest press dinner of the year with 2800 seated guests. And the more Hollywood guests, the more requests for tables the next year. Only regular members who cover the WH, and news organizations which cover Washington and are associate members, can purchase tables. No lobbyists, corporations, foreign governments, or um, blogs.

Have you tried to change the minds of news organizations that have pulled out of the dinner ( The New York Times, for instance)?
The New York Times is the only regular member of the association who made it a policy this year not to purchase a table, a decision I respect and did not challenge. The bureau chief did, however, write to say the Times will continue to be engaged, support our scholarships at the same level it did before, and a NY Times staffer is on our board and will be at the head table.

What role do you see this dinner playing in Washington's Press/Politician dance?
I don't really think the dinner itself has a role -- and that's why the angst over relationships with sources kind of puzzles me. I promise the next presidential press conference will not show any traces of lingering dinner comity.

Has online journalism changed this event's profile? In good ways or bad?
That's a great question. Online journalism is changing us. Our news organizations push us to file for our dot-com operations. The question I have is how will the WHCA adapt to engage something like Google, which is a tremendous force, run by very talented people, and clearly our paths converge. Since Google does not cover the White House, how can Google and the WHCA strike up a working relationship? We should.

Patrick W. Gavin is editor of FishbowlDC.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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