It’s almost a decade now since he suddenly left us, this extraordinary journalist and mentor to so many over his life. I thought of him again this past week, looking at an old photograph taken in Italy, a place he knew and loved, and then remembered the words I’d written as his epitaph:
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 his Sandpoint office, 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 the Ceausescu government of Romania fouled up his Fulbright scholarship. Typical Compton – he wasn’t going to just quit Europe; instead, he found a job at the English language Daily American, writing, making friends, teaching himself Italian out of a dictionary and the local papers. He laughed later and always about his fractured Italian grammar. And had another laugh after discovering that the Daily American was 40% 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, though Harvard the Madrona dog was a close second.
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 story (no video tape in those days). 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., 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.” They 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 Stephanie Koontz and myself about our memories of the 1960s (I had covered for radio 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 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 it on – 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 writing dream.
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. 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….”
Jim was 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 Compton stories making the rounds after his sudden passing, two more linger:
— one day leaving the TV station late, his Porsche stalled at an intersection; a hooker immediately jumped in to offer services. 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/PI 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, a profound inspiration.
Wonderful story, Mike. I didn’t know Jim well but very much liked and respected him. KING was quite a team in the day. You, Jim, Jack Hamann, Lucy Mohl, Diana Wilmar, Nye, and so many other terrific reporters/commentators. thanks for this!
Thank you, John – it was a good time. I’m always grateful to have been part of it.
Great story/recollections, Mike. I didn’t know Jim well – only as a citizen activist. But as an observer I was impressed with his professionalism and his sense of humor.
Strippergate still infuriates me. The ultimate “Tempest in a Teapot”, so much furor over a discussion of 7 parking spaces and $7 sandwiches. Seattle lost some really good City Councilmembers who could not refuse a meeting with a former, popular, two-term governor, then in his 90s. The great irony is that it was truly shoddy “journalism” (if one can call such breathless sensationalism “journalism” at all) that took out the best in journalism.
Did we learn anything from this?
After I was seated on the City Council in 2004, I was assigned to sit to Compton’s left. He was helpful to a newcomer and, in fact, de supplied perception and fun during full Council meetings on Mondays and thru long budget hearings. As a silly diversion, we began writing a detective novel — he’d write a page and then I would write the next and so on. We murdered one person and implicated others. But, alas, we finally quit, concerned that we’d be outed although we never were.
I’d love to read those chapters, Jean! All gone now?
Mike, Jim wisely decided we’d better destroy those chapters. Threw mine in the fire and I believe he did the same. About the most damning thing was that the body of the murder victim was discovered in the mayor’s private bathroom.
Jim Compton may have been a great journalist—I don’t know because I never saw his work.
He was, however, a politician who made terrible, ethical errors. He was also combative and downright nasty in his interactions with reporters, including me, who asked him tough questions.
He took about ride on Paul Allen’s private plane, breaking ethics rules. Compton was fined and had to recuse himself from certain votes regarding Vulcan, Allen’s development company.
He broke other ethics laws by engaging in ex parte communications with lobbyist and former Governor Al Rossellini about zoning changes wanted by Frank Colacurcio,Sr.,?a serial sex offender, head of a local criminal gang and key figure in the systematic bribing of police in earlier decades.!The lobbying included touring the site in question.
Compton took thousands of dollars in political contributions from people he didn’t know who lived in states other than Washington. As it turned out, these strangers were associates and employees of Colacurcio, who was engaging in a felanious scheme of giving many people money to pass along to Judy Nicastro’s, Heidi Wills’ and Compton’s campaigns.
Compton voted in favor of Colacurcio’s requested zoning changes.
These offensives and lapses in judgment related to Colacurcio were known as Strippergate, a sophisticated effort by Rossellini and Colacurcio to bend City Hall to the prostitution and stripper magnate’s will. If Colacurcio had succeeded, it is obvious that more corruption would have followed.
While both Wills and Nicastro credibly pled ignorance about Colacurcio, Compton had no such alibi. He was at KING when the station helped expose Colacurcio’s involvement in police corruption.
Moreover, at the time of Strippergate, Compton was warned by other council members, including Jan Drago and Peter Steinbrueck, to return the tainted donations (eventually, after months of public pressure and media coverage, he, Nicastro and Wills all did) and keep far away from Colacurcio and his lobbyists.
Sadly, Jim Compton sullied his own reputation by engaging in a number of unethical actions.
And there you have it: breathless sensationalism. Colacurcio did own a stripclub. The one needing parking spaces because neighbors did not like the fact that those attending said stripclub were parking in front of their houses. So, a simple change to zoning would provide 7 parking spaces to the strip club. “Let’s take a tour, we’ll have lunch”, and that, my friends, is the bottom line. All the other words about Colacurcio are simply irrelevant to this simple zoning change, George’s puritanical BS notwithstanding.
Jim’s ethical lapses as a journalist and then as a city council member were a grave disappointment. He heard from me during those moments, as he did more vociferously from the late, great, outrageous Don MCGaffin.
Don and I were dismayed, watching Compton take shabby contributions and “freebee” Junkets. Most egregious was Jim’s acceptance (and the fact he convinced management to allow him to do so!) of a fancy trip AS A JOURNALIST – payment arranged by the METRO staff empire, then busy crafting what was to become the Regional Transit Authority – AKA Sound Transit. The “Metroids” in those days could always arrange a lovely junket or three for small-town (essentially volunteer) electeds who then dominated its unconstitutional “Council” to curry favor. They did it for Jim and the “credibility” he projected on the air.
In Compton’s case – that paid-for trip (by either our tax dollars or METRO contractor $$) allowed him to film and broadcast his laudatory visit to a rail transit system in an un-democratic nation as an example of how nifty this sort of thing would be for Seattle’s metro region.
Jim arrived in the King TV newsroom at a bizarre moment. What had once been an astounding profitable family broadcast business was in chaos. Jim initially brought a welcome news-reporting perspective to Seattle’s chaotic political/economic/ethical scene.
In that era, I was a pioneer/on-air journalist in the King TV-Radio newsroom where women were definitely not welcome. A few years later, Mike James came over from King’s radio news staff at my recommendation when I went on unpaid-maternity leave (oh yeah, bad old days – I was advised I was lucky then I wasn’t fired).
Mike was the only one there who had any ability to take over that developing “beat” – urban affairs. When I returned to King TV News, Compton arrived, and the entire news operation was a total mess. Lots of dedicated journalists exited, including me. Jim went to Europe, Mike too, and both returned to King under the more stable Ancil Payne management. But as Jim evolved as a journalist and eventually as a local politician, he again was willing to cut ethical corners. It was a tarnished record. Very Sad.
A thread like this – a remembrance of someone we admired and worked with – is probably not the place to re-visit Strippergate, so I’d simply say that when we sum a life in parting we look for the whole, and not those moments Jim himself certainly regretted – and the whole of Jim’s life was admirable and well- lived.
Several of the those contributing here, including myself, know and worked on the Colacurcio story but it’s hardly the sum of Jim Compton.
I leave it there noting only that none of the three council members caught in the scandal actually knew that Colacurcio was the source of those straw contributions to their campaigns. I won’t speak for the others, but will state firmly that Jim, someone I knew as friend and colleague for almost 40 years, would have rejected such a contribution — had he known.
He was one of the best TV Journalists.
A sample of hiss work here.
Ken Jones Photog/Editor
I enjoyed rowing past his boat near the Locks.