Former ‘Dateline NBC’ correspondent concerned about future of watchdog journalism

Tuesday, September 9, 2008 | 6:46 p.m. CDT; updated 9:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — Before shopping at a new supermarket, Lea Thompson searches for its health-inspection report online.

She's met too many people who became sick due to improper food handling.


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She regularly accompanies family and friends to car dealerships.

They trust that she'll uncover any hidden charges before they get the bill.

Her husband and three daughters grow irritated when she spends extra time reading labels at the store.

She's learned the terminology and knows much of it is deceptive.

"I can spot fraud and scam artists," Thompson said. "I've talked to a lot of them and know their tricks."

After reporting on consumer, health and business issues for more than 30 years, Thompson has investigated most of what she encounters in a day. She will talk about computerized reporting techniques and other investigative methods Thursday at a session during the MU Journalism School's centennial celebration. The session is called, "Watchdog Reporting and New Forms of Investigative Journalism."

Her work for "Dateline NBC" and WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., has spurred legislation, product recalls and company reforms that made shopping safer for Americans. Yet she worries that watchdog reporting is diminishing at a time when consumers are incredibly vulnerable.

Fewer people in government and private agencies are eyeing the marketplace, she said. Investigative journalists are declining in number as media companies face cutbacks and buyouts.

"If we are not vigilant, people are going to get hurt," Thompson said. "As businesses find themselves in trouble, everyone feels the heat. They start to cut corners and get involved in shenanigans."

Thompson's trip to Columbia will be a journey back to the beginning. Her mother, Cornelia Rice of Dyersburg, Tenn., met her father, Steve Hopkins of Chicago, on the "kissing bridge" in front of Walter Williams Hall in the 1930s. Both were students in the MU Journalism School.

The couple later moved to Wisconsin, where Hopkins became publisher of the Marshfield News-Herald.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thompson entered the New York advertising world at J Walter Thompson, now JWT, the largest U.S. ad agency. But she soon fell in love and moved to Washington, D.C., with Durke Thompson, now her husband and a Maryland circuit court judge.

Thompson landed a job writing editorials at WRC-TV. A mentor persuaded her to consider on-air work.

"I said, ‘Good heavens, no,' It's not something I ever wanted to do," she said.

But she smoothly transitioned to the news department and began doing consumer reports, which grew popular as the public demanded reliable information on credit cards and mortgages.

"I thought anything was in my beat as long as it affected the human condition," said Thompson, who co-headed the station's investigative unit and headed its consumer unit.

Her investigative pieces led to a weekly, half-hour magazine show, "Byline: Lea Thompson," before she moved to "Dateline NBC," where she was a chief correspondent from 1992 to 2007.

Thompson has won every major broadcasting journalism award, from the Emmys and Peabody Broadcasting Awards to lesser-known tributes, such as "Most Readable Lips on TV" from the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

"I think every journalist starts out wanting to make a difference," she said. "I suppose the stories that you remember, the ones you're most proud of, are those that saved lives or brought about such significant change that they can't be ignored."

Likewise, her favorite people to interview aren't presidents or politicians. She prefers the harder interviews, the ones with people who have suffered unimaginable tragedies.

While investigating the DPT vaccine, a shot against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, she spoke with parents who were convinced that the vaccine had led to their children's medical problems. While her reporting brought about a safer vaccine, Thompson is prouder that the investigation brought together the mothers who founded Dissatisfied Parents Together. The organization, now known as the National Vaccine Information Center, is a clearinghouse for vaccines.

She left "Dateline" last year and began freelancing for Retirement Living TV, a network catering to the 55-and-older audience.

"It felt good, because networks don't care much about senior issues," she said. "I had an awful lot of stories that I hadn't done (at NBC) because of that."

She transferred her hard-hitting investigative style to pieces that focused on financial, health care and consumer issues that matter to older Americans, said Elliot Jacobson, the network's vice president of programming and production.

"Her approach is universal," he said of Thompson, whom he first met at NBC.

"At times, she's helped us find the right lens with which to address (issues) and inform our audience."

Jacobson described Thompson as being warm, yet frank and to the point.

"Because she is such a professional, and we have very young teams working here, she has been able to share and educate," he said. "She has a willingness to help people starting out in the business, which I greatly appreciate."


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