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Hollywood and Journalism

A Sultry New Reporter For the Nightly News

By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: May 21, 2000

WHEN Andrea Thompson, who plays the empathetic blond detective on ''N.Y.P.D. Blue,'' leaves network television to become a reporter for CBS's Albuquerque affiliate beginning Memorial Day, she will fulfill a childhood dream -- even as she ignites a debate on the professional values of TV journalism.

Not that this has exactly deterred her.

''All the important moments of my life were defined by what was going on in history,'' said Ms. Thompson, whose husky voice and sex appeal have for the last four seasons endowed Detective Jill Kirkendall with a sultry presence. ''Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Iran-Contra; those events held a much bigger place in my life than did TV entertainment.''

But when, at 15, she told her mother she wanted to be a photojournalist, ''My mom thought I was going to go off and get myself killed,'' she said. Mother encouraged daughter to follow her into modeling instead. Ms. Thompson then went into acting, starring in ''Falcon Crest,'' ''Babylon 5'' and ''JAG'' before taking on her role in ''N.Y.P.D. Blue.''

Still, her dream never died. And, she said, ''The things you listen to when you're 15 are different from those you listen to when you're 40.'' So she decided to give up her acting job in favor of one in the equally frantic world of journalism.

This will not be the first time a television performer has crossed over into nonentertainment programming. David Hartman and Kathie Lee Gifford traded on their fame to become talk show hosts; other actors have delivered their lines as news anchors at local stations. And Leonardo DiCaprio recently accompanied President Clinton on a White House tour for ABC News. But Ms. Thompson is thought to be the first successful television actor to leave the profession to become a beat reporter.

She has signed a three-month contract with Albuquerque's KRQE, and her ultimate ambition, said her personal manager, Arlene Dayton, is to become an international correspondent, like Christiane Amanpour of CNN and CBS.

Ms. Thompson's move has kicked up something of an ethics firestorm among news professionals. It smacks too much of TV news ''pimping'' for ratings, concludes Ed Cray, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. ''It's exactly like casting movies, looking for the Clark Gable-Carole Lombard combination that will make our news sing,'' he said. ''Albuquerque will be agog for about a week. And then viewers will drift back to their favorite stations.''

Scotti Williston, a visiting lecturer at the Columbia University School of Journalism, concurred. ''TV news has become too celebrity-driven,'' she said. Ms. Thompson's transition ''is all part of the journalist putting on the cutesy outfit to tell the story, or of correspondents giggling with Jay Leno. I can't take them seriously next time. Meanwhile, whole continents are not covered. We're pandering to the audience instead of informing them.''

David Laventhol, the former publisher of The Los Angeles Times and the current editorial director of The Columbia Journalism Review, disagrees. Although an actor who becomes a journalist ''is unusual,'' he said, ''she shouldn't be disqualified because of this.''

''If she wants to be a journalist, then presumably she will adopt journalistic values,'' he said. ''If she does a good job, then great.''

Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of the CBS newsmagazine ''48 Hours,'' met with Ms. Thompson, reviewed her ''demo'' news tape and found herself impressed. ''Someone with a passion for something, who wants to make a change when life is comfortable,'' she said, ''ought to be applauded. The odds are so stacked against you in print and TV that it's those with passion who survive. It's not Woodward and Bernstein; it won't topple a presidency. But it's pretty good.''

In some ways, Ms. Thompson's personal story is as dramatic as any she may cover. One of her earliest memories, at age 3, is of President John F. Kennedy's assassination: ''I remember my mom sitting in front of the black-and-white console TV, pregnant with my second brother. I came into the room and I remember Cronkite taking off his glasses and almost losing it on air.'' She was referring to the CBS news anchor's announcement that the president had died. Then, she recalled, amid ''great racking sobs,'' her mother went into labor.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, Ms. Thompson saw ''the whole nature of news coverage change.'' ''It was the first time we saw bodies and blood on TV,'' she said. ''It was terribly shocking at that time.''

Her father, she said, was an often violent alcoholic who received electroshock treatment for mental illness; he left the family when she was 11, and Ms. Thompson then helped her mother raise two younger brothers and a sister. The family moved through half a dozen cities in the United States and Australia.

''It was an early lesson for me: men don't stick around, so you had better grow up to take care of yourself,'' she said.

Her distrust would be reinforced by two divorces, a broken-off engagement to the father of her 7-year-old son, Alec, and a relationship with a costume designer that ended in his being jailed for stalking her. Facing repeated death threats, Ms. Thompson moved four times. When she went camping with Alec last year, she considered it a breakthrough. ''A year earlier, we were afraid to go to the grocery store,'' she said. ''Now, at least we got back part of our lives.'' Ms. Thompson wrote of her experience with stalking as part of a public awareness campaign by the Los Angeles district attorney's office (her message can be read on the campaign's Web site,

Ms. Thompson believes her history and her 20 years of acting experience will make her a better journalist. ''I may know more about human nature than most people do,'' she said. ''I might even dare say I can ask better questions because I'm more oriented to the emotions -- how an experience affected your life.

''If nine homes are consumed by a fire, that is the least important part of the story. The most important part is the families within. Where will they go; what will they do?''

Ms. Thompson's efforts to become a reporter started in earnest a year ago, with weekend flights to San Francisco to study with Jack Hubbard, the associate director of Stanford University's News Service. Not that Mr. Hubbard exactly encouraged her. In fact, he said, ''I did everything I could to discourage her, because this is such a crazy business.''

''But she said, 'It can't be any harder than what I'm doing now.' And she thought journalism still has a lot of integrity.''

So Mr. Hubbard had her ''take eight stories from the A.P. or the front page of The New York Times and write them out in 75 lines, which is a five-minute radio broadcast.'' He also taught her how to shoot a story.

''A good TV reporter has to understand that the camera is a writing instrument,'' he said. ''You tell a tale in pictures, using the copy like captions. Charles Kuralt was a master at this. He knew when to let someone talk, when to let the pictures run and when to step in himself.''

Back on the set of ''N.Y.P.D. Blue,'' her colleagues noticed differences. Kim Delaney, who plays Detective Diane Russell, saw Ms. Thompson constantly writing news copy during down time. James McDaniel, who plays Lt. Arthur Fancy, initially found himself surprised by Ms. Thompson's interests. ''Most actors don't have much to say about the workings of the world,'' he said. ''But she's very different.''

Dan Salamone, KRQE's news director, says he hired Ms. Thompson because even though The Associated Press named KRQE station of the year for New Mexico in 1999, it remains the third-rated station in Albuquerque. ''We need more than critical praise, and hope Andrea helps bring in more viewers,'' he said.

Ms. Thompson thinks her fame will help in other ways: ''It's definitely going to get me interviews I wouldn't get if I were just another reporter in Albuquerque.''

Joseph Hanania's most recent article for Arts & Leisure was about stereotypes of Jewish women on television.

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