It’s easy to get sentimental when long-standing TV personalities bow out of the shows that made them a household name, whether it’s an entertainer like Johnny Carson or a news man like Ted Koppel, who just pulled the curtain on a 26-year career as host of ABC’s “Nightline.” His timing seemed perfect: after the retirement of Tom Brokaw, the self-immolation of Dan Rather, and the cancer death of Peter Jennings, the loss of Koppel’s nightly presence drew on fond memories of the so-called glory days of TV news. An era is finished.
Koppel is especially beloved in journalism circles as a symbol and a spokesman for substance in TV news. Saying goodbye on “Good Morning America,” Koppel declared, “I think the mission statement would be that our responsibility is to tell people what's important, not to stick our finger up in the air and test the winds to see what the public thinks is, is important.”
That’s a hugely important point. Today’s news has become infotainment, with the focus on Nielsen-ratings bait like missing girls in Aruba. Not one network is immune from the pull: business is business. Koppel’s “Nightline” resisted that tug (yes, there was the occasional exception) with the mission to go beyond the headlines and into real substance, something sorely lacking in the McNews era.
A lack of hard news – with substance – has been a constant complaint about the press. In the Clinton years, we conservatives fussed that the Clinton scandals were constantly buried under an O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, or the JonBenet Ramsey murder mystery. Liberals today might feel similarly: what is more important than a serious analysis of Bush’s war on terror? Answer: Aruba. Is it any wonder, when you try to talk politics today with young people, you just wish they knew who the president was?
So by all means, it’s right to praise Koppel for being pro-substance. But once the superiority of substance over fluff is established, let’s not assume that all substantive journalism on public issues equals fair and balanced. The wave of nostalgic tributes to Koppel and his farewell interviews never touched on his biases, or his worst journalistic mistakes.
For example: several “October Surprise” shows charging that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign deliberately delayed the release of American hostages in Iran for political gain, a story which crumbled under scrutiny. Or Koppel using anonymous sources during the 1996 primaries to charge candidate Pat Buchanan’s brothers beat up Jewish kids in their neighborhood, and that Buchanan’s father listened to anti-Semitic Father Coughlin radio broadcasts. He had to retract that. Or sending a crew to Vietnam to interview communist leaders to denounce the Swift Boat vets for opposing the candidacy of John Kerry. You can even argue Koppel had low moments of fluff, like the five shows devoted to Tonya Harding’s knee-whacking job on fellow Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.
But this was his goodbye party, so the negatives were overlooked. Instead, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” had an all-“mainstream media” panel to offer heartfelt hosannas to Koppel, with former ABC colleague Jeff Greenfield (Koppel was “not a showboat,” with “a wonderful BS detector”), Philadelphia Inquirer TV writer Gail Shister (“the beauty of Koppel was that less was more”) and former Boston Globe TV writer Mark Jurkowitz (Koppel and Jennings were “both smart...both urbane and cool....both very knowledgeable about the world”). The only negative issue with Koppel was how his ratings declined, in part because of his spotty record of attendance in the last few years.
Some went too far. Koppel gave two long interviews to public broadcasters before he retired from ABC. He appeared on “Charlie Rose” on PBS, where the two late-night interviewers schmoozed over their interviewing styles, and how much they love peacemaking and hate racism. Rose could only vaguely ask Koppel if he had any regrets or low moments of “Nightline,” touching briefly on how they had supposedly failed to question the Iraq war aggressively enough before it began. He then led Koppel through what he would have done if he were President Koppel. Yikes.
On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” interviewer Terry Gross fawned all over Koppel (her attack interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly stands in jarring contrast once again). She discussed how tough he was on embarrassing figures, almost straw men, both recent (FEMA director Michael Brown), and ancient (disgraced Arizona governor Evan Mecham). Gross played a triumphant clip of Koppel shaming Brown for being out of the loop. Gross couldn’t find a tougher interview, a more difficult controversy, for Koppel to discuss. Only his slam dunks were the subject.
Oh well. Let’s overlook those, and overlook the demerits. All in all, Ted Koppel did a fine job, and “Nightline” was a real contribution. Godspeed with his retirement.