In Jessica Dean’s first week as a Washington correspondent, CNN threw her to the wolves.
Or at least to the Wolf.
Dean, a Little Rock native who cut her teeth on Arkansas TV news, made her debut on the network Oct. 12 on Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room.”
“He was wonderful; Wolf’s just excellent, the standard-bearer for CNN,” Dean told Arkansas Business last week, settling into into her new job in an office next door to correspondent Dana Bash.
“She’s a CNN superstar, and now we’re neighbors,” said Dean. New neighbors at home, too; Dean and her husband, fellow Arkansan Blake Rutherford, have moved to Washington from Philadelphia, where Dean was a five-year anchor for KYW-TV.
“We have made the move, actually, as of this week,” Dean said. “You know how it is when you start at a new place; you’re trying to find out where everything is.” Dean has experienced it before, and sees parallels between her current leap and her market-climbing transition from Little Rock, where she once interned for Arkansas Business Publishing Group’s Little Rock Soirée magazine, to Philadelphia’s Channel 3 in 2013.
“We moved from a place where I was born and raised and seemed to know everybody to a bigger place where I knew hardly anyone,” Dean said. “But after a bit, we made great friends and there were exciting and important stories to tell.”
Dean traveled to Rome in preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015. She covered the visit, both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2016, a presidential debate and of course election night and Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. She followed the Philadelphia Eagles to their Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots in February “just for something different, and it was incredible.”
Now she’ll be in Washington at an unprecedented time, part of a grinding 24-hour news cycle from the center of what is now all too often a political sideshow.
She’ll also be working for a network, its proud heritage notwithstanding, that the president has singled out repeatedly as the bearer of “fake news” on just about any report he doesn’t like.
(Disclosure: What the president calls “fake news” is hardly ever fake.)
“There will be no shortage of things to talk about [in the new job],” Dean said. “There’s a lot of information pouring out of Washington, and I’ve talked to many colleagues about this; it’s a crucial time for covering our democracy.”
It’s a complex and painstaking job in the online age. “We have to help people, our viewers, get the facts and information they need to sort through the rush of events,” Dean said, adding that you can practically see the Capitol from the door of her bureau. “We’re right here, and it’s on us to get things right. Our job is to report fully, fairly and with the truth always in mind no matter how many things come at you.”
Dean’s whole life seemed scripted to prepare her for the CNN role — growing up in Little Rock, going away to Los Angeles at 17 to get her broadcast journalism degree at the University of Southern California, and coming home in 2006 to learn all facets of newsgathering. She got her start at KNWA-KFTA in the Fayetteville/Fort Smith market, reporting, shooting footage, editing. Then it was back to Little Rock to KATV, an ABC affiliate, serving as a reporter and anchor.
At KARK, the NBC affiliate where she made her last Little Rock stop, Dean teamed with Bob Clausen on the anchor desk. “Tornadoes, murders and politics,” she told an interviewer in those years. Clausen is still senior anchor on Channel 4; Dean’s successor, Ashley Ketz, is his partner. “I still love Bob,” Dean said. “I just heard from him. He sent me congratulations.”
KARK News Director Austin Kellerman called Dean’s departure a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to serve nearly 3 million viewers in Philadelphia.” There, she anchored newscasts with fellow Little Rock native Chris May, who is now back in Arkansas as KATV’s anchor.
From Washington, Dean is ramping up for next month’s midterm vote. “My first week was getting settled in to be able to do the work logistically,” she said. “Now we begin focusing on story lines and how I can best play on the team. This is an important election, with a lot of consequences across the board.”