Reporting from Real Life

NBC’s Anne Thompson ’79 has made a career covering fast-breaking stories on the ground as they’re happening, peerlessly.

Author: Matt Storin ’64

Storin Notredamemagazine112019annethompson03 Photography by Beowulf Sheehan ’90

NBC correspondent Anne Thompson ’79 was in New Orleans in April 2010, trying to get a handle on the tragic explosion on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that took the lives of 11 workers. But there had been no immediate signs of a major oil leak. The folks who worked in various businesses lining the Gulf Coast assured Thompson and her crew that they knew there’d be no major environmental impact. Thompson recalls one saying, “If BP says nothing’s wrong, then nothing’s wrong.” She was getting ready to head back to New York, but with a good reporter’s instincts decided to wait another day in New Orleans.

“And I went back to my room at like four in the afternoon, and I had a Blackberry at that time and my Blackberry lit up. . . .” A major leak had developed.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill would continue for months — even years at a lesser level — and is considered the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Thompson was on the scene for five months, and for three of those months had the lead NBC Nightly News story on every night but one. That year, she logged more on-air time than any other NBC reporter. “I finally beat Andrea,” she says, referring to her good friend, Andrea Mitchell, the network’s chief foreign affairs correspondent. The reporting required Thompson to become expert in oil drilling, and quickly. For that she credits BP’s detailed daily briefings. “It was like going to a seminar for 45 minutes, and you could ask any ridiculous question,” she recalls.

“And every day, you’re just, like, living The Amazing Race. I was either on a boat or in a helicopter . . . and the people down there I just fell in love with, because they are so passionate about where they live. Those waters mean so much to them.”

One month, she and her crew lived on a houseboat, sharing cooking duties. “I had a wonderful crew. It was kind of like Notre Dame. It was me and five guys.”

With that story, at a time when climate change was increasingly in the news, Thompson rose to greater prominence as the network’s chief environmental affairs correspondent. She also often leads coverage of the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, which means numerous trips to Rome. But at 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC’s headquarters in New York, she is regarded as the first person to call on late-breaking news.

Clare Duffy Swift, a close friend and NBC producer who has spent weeks with Thompson on assignment, says, “She’s like an old time movie star. She shows up ready” for the camera.

Katie Boyle, the Nightly News senior producer, adds, “If a big story breaks at 4 p.m., the first thing we say is, ‘Is Anne in the building?’”

Thompson could be characterized as both warm and guarded at the same time. That’s why when I first got to know her, back when we both served on the advisory board for Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy about 15 years ago, my ears perked up one morning as we were getting ready to meet. It seems that Thompson, Dan LeDuc ’83 and two of our other colleagues, who will remain anonymous, had been closing bars from the Morris Inn to Niles, Michigan, until nearly dawn.

On the one hand, this proved that my quite proper and very professional advisory board colleague was more fun than I imagined. But I now realize that, true to form, she and LeDuc, then an editor at The Washington Post, and their two drinking buddies had spent most of the time talking about the news business. And she arrived at the day’s meetings, in LeDuc’s words, “perfectly coiffed and in a new outfit.” Ready for the camera.

Anne Elizabeth Thompson was born 62 years ago in Indianapolis. Though that makes her a native Hoosier, she mostly grew up in the suburbs of Boston. Her father, Bill Thompson ’47, taught as a business professor at Notre Dame for a time. The family connection to Notre Dame was powerful. “I always wanted to go to Notre Dame, even when it was all men, because my dad went there,” she says. “I think it made him who he was.” Thompson’s younger sister, Mary ’85, says their mother, Betty, recalls Bill waltzing around with baby Anne when sounds of the “Victory March” came over the radio during football games.

The Thompsons and their four children moved several times. After Anne’s sophomore year of high school, they transplanted to Brussels, Belgium, for Bill’s work. Although Anne entered Notre Dame just three years after the University began admitting women, she did not find the experience of being in a small minority as daunting as some of her pioneering classmates did.

A survey of YouTube clips reveals a number of interviews Thompson has done with vivid empathy for others who cope with cancer. Typical of her professionalism, she doesn’t include her own story.

She bounced around academically for a bit, majoring first in philosophy and eventually in American studies. There she fell under the influence and encouragement of Professor Harry Kevorkian ’76M.A., also the WNDU-TV news director, whose advice to Thompson and a generation of Notre Dame-trained future journalists was both practical and theoretical. Immediately after graduation, Thompson began work at WNDU, an NBC affiliate, then owned by the University and located on the current site of Geddes Hall. She had done some radio work as an intern but had no television experience. Veteran newscaster Mike Collins ’67 gave her a brief test in front of a camera and then hired her. “Which was amazing, because I didn’t know how to write a TV story. I didn’t know how to do any of this,” she recalls.

With the help of some mentors, and by closely watching Chicago’s WBBM-TV, she learned the trade. Her career took her to St. Louis for nearly three years and Detroit for 11. In 1997, NBC hired her to work in its Chicago bureau. Four years later she moved to the network’s New York headquarters, and she’s now in her 22nd year at NBC. “I still feel like the new kid on the block,” she says.

On a mild, late summer evening in Manhattan, Thompson and I met at Maialino in Gramercy Park for an interview. Thompson knows pasta from her time in Rome, so after we both order her favorite entrée — Tonnarelli a Cacio e Pepe — we settle in for two hours to discuss her life, her career and the state of broadcast journalism. One topic we can’t avoid is the history of sexual harassment in the TV industry — and all industries — that Thompson and other professional women have lived through over the past four decades.

“I think the tough thing for women of my age, as we watch these stories coming forward in the last couple of years, is that I thought we were all done,” she says. In her earlier years she’d thought these incidents were “just a phase of women entering the workforce. And now I can’t tell you how discouraging it is to see that those stories still go on, despite ‘Me Too.’” She adds emphatically, “Time’s up.”

Early in her career, she felt women were powerless to speak up. The “flip side” of today’s horror stories is that they provoked lots of discussion “about what is appropriate behavior and not — and not just among women, but men and women.

“I hope it’s encouraged women,” she says, “particularly young women who have endured this kind of ordeal, of the need to speak up — that someone will listen. Because back in the day, no one was listening. If you spoke up, it was tantamount to killing your career, because who’s going to believe you? He was always more powerful or valuable.”

Her first NBC assignment in the Chicago bureau was the anticipated delivery of septuplets by an Iowa woman, Bobbi McCaughey. Thompson packed a bag and got over to Des Moines for the impending births, but they were less impending than predicted. “We were down there for 29 days!” she recalls. She had only one warm coat for the chilly November weather. Don Imus, whose Imus in the Morning radio show was then simulcast on MSNBC, teased her about that — a reminder of how important appearances are on television. Thompson, who looks remarkably younger than 62, knows that getting older can be especially perilous for female TV reporters. “It’s not an easy business,” she notes of the ageism that can prematurely end a career. “It’s a very, very difficult business.

“TV news is very subjective. It’s who likes you a certain moment, and it can change without warning. And when it does change, you have to — you have to have something. You’re not always going to be 35. You’re not going to have a face without wrinkles and bags.”

Clare Duffy Swift, the producer who was an on-air correspondent for a time, echoes this view of television, yet she admires the way Thompson puts up with the scrutiny and just goes about doing her job.

The next morning I met Thompson at 30 Rock. Our first stop was Starbucks, where she was greeted by the barista like a rock star and insisted on picking up the tab. After a brief tour of the broadcasting studios on the third floor we stopped at Katie Boyle’s desk in the middle of the newsroom, where Victor Limjoco, Thompson’s story producer for the day, joined us.

Thompson’s story for that night would be a new study by British scientists advising that two naps a week are an antidote to heart attacks. (Most viewers of TV news are above the age of 50, and, according to the Pew Research Center, almost half of the network news audience is over 65, which is why the nightly broadcasts often feature medical stories and the commercials administer a heavy dose of pharmaceuticals.)

Boyle outlines the foundation of how they’ll approach the piece, including a possible interview with Arianna Huffington, whose startup company, Thrive Global, provides in-town napping facilities. It will be Limjoco’s job to plan the taping, the graphics and other details, but the writing remains the province of the reporter.

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While we are conversing in the newsroom, Thompson thinks out loud, riffing off Shakespeare: “To sleep, perchance to dream — for your health.” That line will open her report eight hours later, when it airs for one minute and 13 seconds. She does secure an interview with Huffington and ends the piece with, “Turning off the world to recharge, even for a few minutes.” The following night, Thompson holds a spot at the top of the broadcast with a story she’d been working on for days: the severe health dangers of vaping by teens.

Thompson would not have you think she has achieved her high station in TV news by herself. She credits mentors and supporters going back to WNDU where Dave Anderson, an assignment editor, taught her the basics of writing a TV script. At NBC she reserves special praise for longtime Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw — “I truly believe he is why I’m still at NBC,” she says.

A few days later I ask Brokaw about this. “I think that’s a little bit of an overstatement,” he says. “She came to me one day and said, ‘Am I in trouble here?’ And I said, ‘Why would you be in trouble?’ She said, ‘You don’t know?’ And I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I have cancer.’ And she pulled off her hair piece. I almost fell over.”

Later Brokaw made “a couple of discreet phone calls” to confirm his instinct that Thompson was decidedly not in trouble. Her bosses knew she was having a personal challenge with her health, but they wanted her on the air.

By this time, in 2006, Brokaw was two years out of the anchor chair, but remained a towering figure at the network, where he still holds the titles of contributing anchor and special correspondent.

He says of Thompson, “Everyone in the building has a high regard for her, both professionally and personally. She brings intellectual maturity to what she does. She really knows what she’s talking about and cares about it.”

Thompson also has warm praise for Andrea Mitchell, “my soul sister,” and former Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who, along with his wife, Jane, saw Thompson through her cancer bouts.

She has twice battled breast cancer and won. The first diagnosis, in 2006, registers as the greatest challenge of her life. “I just was truly rocked. It just knocked me off my feet, and the news kept getting worse and worse and worse,” she recalls. Her first instinct was to tell no one. But she eventually confided in her sister, Mary, and her younger brothers, Bill and Jim. “I didn’t want to tell my mother, but eventually I had to,” she says of Betty, now 97. “It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. The ability to snap you into sharp relief. And all of a sudden, what you want, what you don’t want . . . it’s very, very personal.” Doctors detected a different form of breast cancer in 2015. In both instances, Thompson underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

‘My job,’ says Thompson, ‘is to get as close to the truth every day as humanly possible before I go on there, and I do everything I can to do that, but I’m not going to pull punches or slant a story. This isn’t about me or my opinion. It’s about truth, and that’s what I’m dedicated to.’

Possibly reflecting her professional training, Thompson relays all of this in a matter-of-fact way. “It becomes a blessing because . . . it makes you appreciate things so much more, and I also had no idea how much I was loved, really,” she says. “I mean my, my siblings have always been my best friends, Mary and Bill and Jim, but they were extraordinary.”

Mary, who accompanied her sister to every chemotherapy session, says, “I rarely saw her have a bad day, and she said, ‘I’m going to get through this and I’m going to work as I get through this.’”

Anne Thompson has bragged to friends that she’s “an expert” in cancer. Her friend and fellow TV journalist Kelley Tuthill ’92, also a cancer survivor, says that when Thompson decided to go public with her journey, “she saw the power that she had to help other people.”

A survey of YouTube clips reveals a number of interviews Thompson has done with vivid empathy for others who cope with cancer. Typical of her professionalism, she doesn’t include her own story. She does on occasion reflect on her own faith and the role it plays in her life. You can watch a year’s worth of network television news without seeing expressions of faith. But on one Today show broadcast Thompson said, “My faith has always been a very important part of my life. I hope it always will be.”

Ironically, she mentions that she had never wanted to be the NBC reporter most frequently assigned to Catholic stories. But after the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2001, she recalls, “I knew I could help. And so I just raised my hand.” This led to her being the lead reporter on Pope Francis and his travels. Swift, her producer on many of the trips to the Vatican, says, “Whenever we go to Rome, you know, people here think we’re like yukking it up, going out to dinner every night. And it’s like, no, you’re filing for nine hours.”

Swift adds, “The reality is that you’re finishing at 12:30 in the morning, maybe get back to the hotel, and it’s minibar peanuts and, like, red wine that I picked up from like the grocery store.” She marvels at Thompson’s ability to deliver her on-air reporting without hesitations in the flow of her voice. “She’s an absolute pro at that,” she says.

Thompson’s style on camera is confident and authoritative, which is true of many correspondents. But more than most, she underscores her points with evocative facial expressions and uses her hands to convey understanding with the people she interviews. It might be a shake of the head, a slight widening of the eyes or raising both hands to emphasize a point. When you see it, you know you are watching a pro who has honed her craft.

Mary Thompson, a broadcast journalist for 26 years, 16 of them at NBC’s business channel, CNBC, would occasionally be assigned a camera-sound crew that had worked with Anne. “As soon as they found out she was my sister, they would have the highest praise” for her, she says.

Thompson does not often report political stories. In three hours of chatting over two days, we never discuss politics or the centerpiece of most daily news cycles, President Trump. But she did mention biased reporting, emphasizing the importance of trust between her and her audience. “I don’t want to ever do anything to compromise that trust. My job is to get as close to the truth every day as humanly possible before I go on there, and I do everything I can to do that, but I’m not going to pull punches or slant a story. This isn’t about me or my opinion. It’s about truth, and that’s what I’m dedicated to.”

It’s logical that a prominent alumna might be invited to join the University’s Board of Trustees. But Thompson says, jokingly, “I’m thinking they’ll never have another journalist on this board.” Translated, she means she’s perhaps a bit blunter in expressing herself during board meetings than some other members. Board chair Jack Brennan laughs when I relay her comment. “I’ve had the privilege of leading lots of boards and building boards. You need different points of view and . . . different ways of coming at issues.

“Anne is one of the most delightful people I know,” he says. “I don’t always say that about reporters, no offense. She’s obviously worldly, kind and engaging and, you know, just tremendous fun to be around.” Apparently, Thompson hasn’t changed much from those late night trips to Niles.

Says Thompson, “It’s probably the best experience in my life. . . . I love it from an intellectual point of view. It makes me use different muscles.”

Probe a bit deeper, and Thompson adds some nuance. Both she and Brennan acknowledge that she might express herself differently than those board members who come from corporate backgrounds. “I’ve been still learning how to get my point across more effectively,” she says. “Lord knows I’m not shy, and if I see something that is not right . . . or if I think something is fabulous, I’m going to talk about it.” She notes that newsrooms are less political and, well, blunter than most boardrooms.

Thompson chairs the committee that oversees the undergraduate experience at Notre Dame, dealing with all the issues that fall to the Division of Student Affairs. Although she says it’s not a “glamorous” committee, she relishes the responsibility. “We’re always there with alcohol, mental health, sexual issues to deal with.”

Thompson has never married. Dan LeDuc attributes this to the job. “She’s the ultimate career woman. She lives out of a suitcase.” (Indeed, she has a bag of technical equipment in her office and a packed bag of clothes in her Upper East Side apartment, in case of a sudden need to hit the road.)

“I think, unlike many women, if I have a biological clock, I never heard it ticking,” she says. By all accounts, she’s devoted to her four nephews and a niece, her brothers’ kids, sometimes taking one or more on international trips.

“I love the energy of the city,” she says. “I never feel alone in the city. The only time it ever really gets to me is at Christmas, strangely now. And that’s because I work in Rockefeller Center and they put up the Christmas tree. Everybody’s enjoying Christmas, and I’m just trying to get my coffee.”

Matt Storin worked as a journalist for four decades and was editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001. Between 2002 and 2014 he served two stints at Notre Dame as an associate vice president for communications and was an adjunct professor of journalism.