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Breaking News - Brian Thompson
03/05/2009 - By Teja Anderson
New Jersey reporter Brian Thompson
Waiting for Brian Thompson, the celebrated New Jersey reporter for News 4 New York, to finish making us some tea, it was hard not to notice his incredible view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was easy to see why this veteran reporter chose Monmouth Beach, with its close proximity to a virtually unspoiled stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, to call home – especially given his love of the water, referring to it as his “mental therapy.”
In his past 10 years with NBC, Brian Thompson has broken multiple stories – most notably the news that then-New Jersey Governor James McGreevey would resign in the midst of a sex scandal. However, Thompson is certainly not considered to be a sensationalist. In reality, he is a bit old fashioned, evidenced by the fact that in his comfortable living room there is a turntable and stacks of actual vinyl records (it seems he likes jazz – Sarah Vaughn, in particular) and a collection of Scottish heritage books laid out on his coffee table. The truth is, Brian cares about the people in his stories and is a collector of the information they impart to him. His close friends consider him to be a gentleman and a Renaissance man…embracing all knowledge and always being careful not to exploit his subject.
Being trustworthy and sensitive to one’s material are certainly advantageous traits to getting inside information in the news business. A year after 9/11, Thompson was the first and only reporter to listen to and air the New Jersey police recordings of the attack on the World Trade Center, a story later nominated for an Emmy Award. Brian was also the only TV reporter to be present at New Jersey’s first gay wedding and, in 2005, he earned a New York Emmy Award for his work on WNBC’s political series “What Matters.” He has been cited six times by the Associated Press for Best Coverage by a New Jersey-Based Correspondent, and was awarded the first Environmental Journalism Award by the NY/NJ BayKeeper for a pair of reports on an illegal development on the edge of New York’s Harbor. But it was the departure of Governor McGreevey and his replacement by acting Governor Richard Codey that led to one of the most significant stories of Thompson’s career – a 45-minute sit-down interview with the First Lady of New Jersey and Governor Codey regarding her life-long struggle with depression.
Living In- The Jersey Shore was lucky enough to turn the tables on this tenacious and talented reporter, and have him sit down for an interview. Always on call, we were occasionally interrupted – once by the buzzing of Brian’s Blackberry® as he got word of the breaking news that Former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie would seek the Republican nomination for Governor of New Jersey.
LIJS: Gosh, do you have to get that?
BT: Don’t mind me (checks it quickly without missing a beat)…it’s just more on the Christie story. I’m all yours.
LIJS: Great, so where did you grow up?
BT: I grew up inMadison,Wisconsin.My college career was bifurcated; I ended up going to a small school in NorthernWisconsin called Lawrence University, and then when my parents moved to Florida I finished off at the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Broadcast Journalism.
LIJS:Are your parents still living?
BT: My mother just passed away last year and my father died years ago from lung cancer; he was a heavy smoker.
LIJS: I know you don’t smoke, but tell us one trait that you did get from each of your parents.
BT: Appreciation of money from my mother. Some people might say I’m a spendthrift, and let’s put it this way…I’ll still pick up a penny. I think from my Dad I got two traits that really stand out to me; one was an intellectual curiosity and the other one was cooking. I love to cook!
BT: Yes, I make a great chili, and I also make a very mean hollandaise sauce, among other things.
LIJS: Do you have any siblings?
BT: Yes, my older sister Cammie. She was a teacher in Colorado; she just retired a couple years ago. She’s a wonderful person. In fact, she got my name because she came first, my parents were going to name me Cameron for my father’s Scottish clan, but instead she got stuck with Cameron and she’s hated it ever since. That’s why she goes by Cammie. When I came later, I got Brian.
LIJS: So how did you end up as a reporter in New Jersey? I understand that you started out in the south somewhere.
BT:Yes, I spent roughly 16 years in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had a wonderful time there really. I basically became their lead political reporter. That station…it was a CBS affiliate…sent me all around the world, quite frankly, but I also covered races like Jesse Helms against Hunt [and] Helms against Harvey Gantt – the first black man to run for any significant statewide office. He was really the first significant black candidate. I had a ball down there and then met my now ex (Brian was married to Lori Stokes, who is also a television reporter, currently anchoring for ABC’s Morning News in NYC), and we ended up inWashington.Well, Baltimore and Washington. I did DC for 5 years…a great gig. I worked there for stations around the country. I was the Washington correspondent for about 20 stations, so one day I’d be at theWhite House, the next day I would be at Capital Hill, the day after that I might be at the Supreme Court. I covered theAnita Hill testimony against Clarence Thomas. I was sent to Houston to cover Bush Senior’s election night loss to Bill Clinton. They also sent me to Normandy to cover the 50th anniversary of the Dday invasion, and to Hawaii to cover the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the end ofWorldWar II.
LIJS: You got to do all that in a period of five years?
BT:Yes. They also sentme to Bosnia-Herzegovina to coverAmerica’s involvement in the Balkan conflict.
LIJS: That sounds a little dangerous.
BT: I didn’t dodge bullets like Hillary Clinton did (laughs), but I did hear bullets in the hills as we were driving to our hotel, which had one light bulb on and had bullet holes in the doorway.
LIJS:Was that the scariest assignment you have ever been on?
BT: The two scariest events in my life were actually the ride to the hotel fromTuzla, the old Soviet Air Force base there that theAmericans had taken over about a month earlier.We had to take a taxi which was a beat-up old VW“peace van,” except, of course, they never knew peace back then; the driver decides that on a road that was a lane and a half wide, that if he went fast enough physics would narrow the van so that we could get by anAmericanArmy convoy that was coming back.
LIJS: Ooh! Like the Knight Bus in “Harry Potter” that squeezes…
BT:Yes, exactly. But unfortunately it didn’t work that way and at the last second he takes it into a ditch; we are at a 45 degree angle. I’m riding shotgun, so I thought okay, I’ll get out and leave the door propped against the embankment and that will keep the van from rolling over and crushingmy photographer and producer. So, just as I step out of the van I remembered that an American soldier had recently lost his leg to a land mine and that there were still an estimated 5, 999,900 land mines left in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and I froze and then got myself very gingerly around the van and up onto the road. Other than being in the eye of Hurricane Hugo, that was the scariest moment of my career.
LIJS: So obviously Hurricane Hugo was the second most terrifying.
BT: You will see on my wall, when you leave, a satellite image of when Hugo came across Charleston, South Carolina.
LIJS:You were right there, reporting when Hugo struck?
BT: I was right there. It was still hurricane force when the pure eye wall came across. Of course, the eye itself is relatively calm, but by the time it ended, several hours later you are thinking in terms of…well I was thinking in terms of “I really don’t care whether I live or die.”
LIJS: It was that dramatic?
BT:Mentally you are beaten down; you just want it to end and you don’t care how it ends. I mean I know we all have a survival instinct in us, and obviously I survived, but one part of my mind told me anyway that I just wanted it to end, and I didn’t care how. That was scary.
LIJS: Was that your most difficult story to report then?
BT: Yes, that and the aftermath. I mean you are in an area without power, without food. My ultimate sacrifice was with my photographer about 8 or 9 days later. There was still no power, no running water at the motel where we were camped out. I take that back – they had running cold water. No restaurants were open or anything like that. We had provisioned up and my ultimate sacrifice was our last meal, We were down to the dregs of our food; we had a can of Underwood Deviled Ham®, a package of hotdog buns, and a half jar of peanut butter. I offered my photographer the choice. I so wanted him to take the peanut butter, and he so quickly took the deviled ham (laughs wryly).We had been eating peanut butter for 5 days straight!
LIJS: Have you ever lost it on air…emotionally or otherwise?
BT: Yes, yes I did…at the sentencing of Charles Cullen, the nurse. Some people called him the “Angel of Death.” We wrestled with that and decided that “Angel” was not the right word to describe him. But I had covered most of that story over the 3 to 4 years that it played out. I was there when all of the families were allowed to make their statements to the court before the judge pronounced a sentence on Cullen. It was extremely emotional to hear people talk about how his acts had destroyed and devastated their families. So in my live shot that night after I play about a minute and a half or so of their testimonies…a sound bite here, a sound bite there…I came back out to my live shot and I summed it up by saying; “It is clear that Charles Cullen will rot in prison for the rest of his life…”
LIJS: What was so bad about that? It seems justified considering what he had done?
BT: For a reporter to use that kind of terminology about prison, so obviously an analogy to rotting in hell, was wrong. But I couldn’t help myself. I was editorializing.
LIJS: Really, I thought it was powerful; you just gave me goose bumps…
BT: (laughs) I gave myself goose bumps. I choked up on it.
LIJS:Were you reprimanded?
BT: Yes. Reprimanded is maybe a little strong. I was advised that perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so emotional.
LIJS: It must be so hard to have to stay non-biased for some of your stories.
BT: In that one it was. The other emotional experience I had, that I’ve always choked up about even in the retelling, was after Hugo. I went to this little fishing village called McClellanville, SC, 15 miles north of Charleston. It’s right next to the ocean, and they had a storm surge come through after the hurricane and their evacuation place was the local school house; but the whole village is on a flat piece of land. It was a one story school and, they were in the middle of this one classroom and the water was rising and there were about 150 people in there, and they had little kids with them. They climbed up on the desks and furniture, but the water kept rising. And finally, you know those drop ceilings with the panels? As the water rose above their waists, they were breaking through the ceiling tiles and putting their kids up in the rafters where the trusses were. The water kept rising and it was up to their shoulders, but they had no way of knowing when it was going to stop. I could not do that story stand up without crying, so I finally said, “Look, the hell with it. That is the real emotion.” So I cried in the stand up. That was the most emotional story I’ve ever done. Luckily the water did stop at their shoulders.
LIJS: I know you have received many awards for your reporting, including some Emmys.
BT: Yes I have. And it’s nice to be honored and everything, but you don’t really do it for that. You just go out every day and you get charged up by what you are doing and you get excited. It’s kind of like this Chris Christie stuff today…breaking news…and that’s what gets you going in this business; it’s not about some honor that you get…
LIJS: How often do you pick your own stories, or are they mostly assigned to you?
BT: You are expected to come up with stories on your own; you are expected to know what else is going on in NewJersey that the newspapers are reporting on. It’s probably a 50/50 split as far as what they assign you and what I come up with and say I want to do. For TVthey can only take one or two stories a day from New Jersey as a general rule.
LIJS: What are your sources…the internet… radio?
BT:Well, I read all the New Jersey papers online and use the internet, of course. I read roughly six New Jersey papers every morning and I listen to WNPR public radio primarily in themorning for news; and at night [it’s] WNYC or I listen to jazz. I love jazz.
LIJS: Do you have a “Deep Throat” or any secret contacts anywhere?
BT: Not quite as good as the #2 guy at the FBI, but I have my share, yes. Of course, I can’t share them with you…
LIJS: Really? Not even one? Do they have code names?
BT: No, they don’t have code names, but that’s how I broke the McGreevey story.
LIJS:Yes, one of the biggest coups of your New Jersey career! Do tell.
BT:Well, my desk in NewYork got a phone call at 30 Rock (NBC) the night before. “McGreevey is going to resign tomorrow because he is being sued for sexual harassment by Golan Cipel.”My desk didn’t have a clue what that meant being in New York, so they called me up. Of course, I knew who he was and what it all meant. I made some calls to confirm this, but I couldn’t get anywhere. The next morning I was on a plane to Wisconsin to visit my mom who was in a hospital there after a stroke. They called me to come back to New York; so when I land in Madison, I call my mom. I tell her, “I am here in Madison, but you won’t see me for several hours, and I’m sorry.” So I work the phone and after about an hour and many, many phone calls I finally get the right source who gives me an ironclad confirmation. They put an anchor on the set who said, “Brian Thompson is live via phone,” and we went on the air; it was about two hours before his announcement.
LIJS: How exciting! Can you ever picture yourself doing anything other than what you do?
BT: Hmmm. Yes…teaching. If I had another career, it would be as a college professor. You know, Monmouth University is a great little school. Some place like that.
LIJS:Would you like to teach journalism?
BT: I would teach communications. To work with kids and to get themto try to understand this brave new world of communication we have now with the Internet. They have to understand that it is a multimedia world; it’s not just that you will be working in television or for a newspaper, and you are not just working for a “dead tree” or a broadcast signal, but you are now competing with 500 other stations as opposed to just four stations. Kids need to understand that.
LIJS: Tell me about your kids. You have two beautiful daughters, Nicolette andAlexandra.
BT: Nicki is in 8th grade. She is a starting player on her travel basketball team. She loves basketball, and wants to go to Princeton. I told her, and I think she now believes, that someday she will be the CEO of a major American corporation. Alex wants to be an actress. She is captivated by the lights of the stage. Movies, theater…that’s her goal. She is a junior in high school, but I don’t think she has picked a college yet. She is toying with several, but she wants to go some place with a strong theater program.
LIJS: So, neither of them wants to be news reporters like their parents?
BT: No, I guess not.
LIJS: But it’s such a glamorous job (we both laugh)!
BT: Yes, the glamour of television. I obviously didn’t get into this job for the glamour.
LIJS:What?!You don’t travel with an entourage? Do you at least have hair and makeup people?
BT: No. I do have makeup in the car. I rarely use it, but I do have it. I don’t have an assistant. I no longer have a bureau chief. Times are tight. How do I put this? I don’t mean to be holier than thou, but I never got into this business to be recognized, to be famous as a TV anchor. I got into it because I love news. I love news and I love the people that I come across. I like to “absorb” from people.My goal is to learn something new every day. If I don’t, then I consider my day a waste; and not just one thing…many things.
LIJS: Well you’ve chosen a good field to learn new things all the time.
BT: Absolutely. But it’s not just about learning information, it’s about learning from people. Whether it’s from a politician – learning something about politicking from a politician, not just an about an issue – or whether it’s from somebody you work with day in and day out, like say your photographer; if you learn something about what makes those people tick, I think that makes you a better person when you try to understand how other people’s minds work, how they live. Everyone has something new to teach you, some new thing for you to absorb. But the one thing that you won’t find in my home would be pictures of me with famous people. As much as I enjoy interviewing significant people, I love talking to anybody because I learn from everybody.
LIJS: Well, I have certainly enjoyed interviewing and learning from you. Thank you.
BT: You are certainly welcome.
LIJS: One last thing, do you have a motto?
BT: Yes, from Robert Burns, in Scottish: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” Translated, that means “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”
Favorite Restaurants: Sally Tee’s in Monmouth Beach and Bistro Olé and Moonstruck in Asbury Park
Favorite Music: jazz
Favorite Movie: Casablanca
Pet peeve: people with closed minds
Three people you’d like to have dinner with: Winston Churchill, James Harris, and Jimmy Carter
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