Is TV News Doing Its Job?
There is much about today’s television news that Ted Koppel does not find cool. Clueless cable TV anchors, opinionated broadcasts and unfiltered blogs and Tweets masquerading as journalism all trouble him. It’s reasonable criticism from a man who honed his craft during the golden age of network TV broadcast news anchored by iconic figures such as Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
At age 26, Koppel became the youngest full-time correspondent ever hired by ABC News, for which he covered Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the Vietnam War and numerous other historical events over the years. His thorough reporting and tough questioning became a hallmark that viewers came to expect and defined him as a journalist. As the anchor and managing editor of ABC’s Nightline over a period of 26 years—roughly 6,000 programs—he was the longest-serving news anchor in broadcast network history. After leaving the program in 2005, Koppel served as managing editor of the Discovery Channel, where he produced 20 hours of documentaries on global topics. These days, he’s part of an all-star lineup on Rock Center with Brian Williams, a weekly TV news magazine, a commentator for NPR and a contributing columnist for The New York Times and The Washington Post.
During his distinguished career, he has remained stalwart in his conviction to uphold the highest standards of journalism. Koppel, who occasionally retreats to his place on Captiva Island, talked with Gulfshore Life about the state of TV news during a phone interview. With his familiar baritone voice and articulate delivery—mixed with wry humor and an affable manner—he laid out his case.
Gulfshore Life: A poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University in November showed that FOX News viewers are less informed than people who watch no news at all. Has the proliferation of similar broadcast outlets dumbed people down?
Ted Koppel: I think what’s made news less useful in terms of conveying hard information is simply the fact that (a) there has been this proliferation and (b) the proliferation was caused by the need to attract audiences, now that the pie has to be sliced in so many more pieces [because of cable TV and other viewing choices]. Instead of going out and gathering news and delivering that in a factual and objective fashion, the various outlets are trying to find different groups of people to whom they can appeal with a particular take on the news. What [News Corp. chief] Rupert Murdoch and [FOX president] Roger Ailes found in particular was that there was a genuine hunger among the American news consumers for news with more of an editorial slant in the conservative direction. Well, they got it, and FOX has been hugely successful. I’m familiar with that survey and what it doesn’t point out is that FOX has made many hundreds of millions of dollars doing what it’s doing and become so successful that it has encouraged others to follow that same path.
GL: Are audiences making the distinction between hard news and opinionated broadcasting?
Koppel: Viewers have to ask themselves a fairly simple series of questions: If you are going to any other professional in your life, whether that’s a CPA or a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist, are you going to go to the man or woman who tells you what you want to hear, or are you going to go to the man or woman who tells what you need to hear? We have more of a tendency these days to go with the expert who tells us what we want to hear. But it doesn’t take a great deal of reflection to realize that sooner or later that’s going to rear up and bite you in the place where it hurts. I’m inclined to think that as the situation gets worse, and by the situation I mean the various international crises in which the United States has a greater or lesser stake—the economic crisis, the housing crisis, the employment crisis—as each of these things bites a little harder, I think there is a larger segment of the population that is starting to say ‘You know, I’m really getting awfully tired of news coverage in which everyone is telling me what they think I want to hear.’
GL: Where can people go to get an accurate contextual news report on TV?
Koppel: Well, ironically I find myself turning more and more to broadcasting outlets from outside the country, to the BBC for example. When it comes to news in the Middle East, right now I’m getting far more news from Al Jazeera than I’m getting from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, any of those folks. FOX, they’re not covering it. Last night’s news—you and I are talking on Valentine’s Day—was pretty much taken up with certainly a sad event [Whitney Houston’s death], and I consider it to be obviously a news story that needs to be covered. But is the death of a popular singer, as great as she may have been, two days after the event, still the most important issue in the world? In other words, should that be the lead? And my answer to that is no. I fully understand that there’s a public appetite to know what happened and to grieve with the family, but that’s not as important as what’s going on in Syria or in Greece or in our own housing crisis.
GL: You began your career when broadcasts were anchored by pioneers like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. How does the current lineup of major network anchors match up against those earlier ones?
Koppel: It’s not a question of the anchors so much, whether it’s Diane Sawyer or Brian Williams or Scott Pelley. These are all very professional, good reporters—men and women who have paid their dues over the years. But they are now dealing with news divisions that are thoroughly eviscerated as far as the kind of foreign coverage that we used to have 30 years ago. [Then] you had perhaps 30 or 35 foreign correspondents for each of the networks. And they would be based in a country or region that they covered. We have invested 4,500 dead [in] Iraq, all of the 30,000 wounded, over $1 trillion. There is nobody over there right now to keep the American television viewer apprised of what’s going on. If the only way you can get that kind of information right now is by watching Al Jazeera, that says to me that the American television news industry is not doing its job.
GL: Do we still need the nightly news?
Koppel: I think so. The fact of the matter is that there clearly is still a huge appetite out there for it. I don’t know what the current ratings of the three evening newscasts are, but I suspect that you still have somewhere between 20 and 30 million people watching the [networks’] evening newscasts. That’s 20 or 30 million people who still feel that the best way to get sort of a thumbnail summary of the most important things that have happened that day is to watch the evening newscast. Unfortunately, what’s happening is that [network newscasts] are being subjected to huge pressures to maintain the biggest audience that they can so that the ad rates remain as high as they possibly can. And the perception is that the way that you draw in the audience is by doing human-interest stories … when a pop star dies, or gets busted for doing too much coke, or whatever the crisis of the moment may be. [The network newscasts] give that the kind of attention that you would normally give to the falling of government, or the beginning of a new war. I understand why they do it; I don’t have to like it.
GL: The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert are comedy shows, but, in a way, don’t they help educate audiences about current events?
Koppel: I used to make the point, and to a certain degree still do, that both Stephen and Jon [Stewart]are the equivalent of great editorial cartoonists at a newspaper. And I used to say if you took the best [Paul] Conrad cartoon or the best Herblock [Herbert Block] cartoon and slapped it on the front page of The Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post but had no print around it, no stories around it, people might not get the cartoon if they didn’t understand the background of the story. Satire requires a certain foundation of knowledge. If you don’t know the background of the story, you can’t get the humor in the satire. And I think to a certain degree that is true and remains true of Colbert and Jon Stewart. Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that Stephen has done more than any journalist out there to draw attention to the absolute outrage of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court and the enormous negative impact that that is having on our election process. He has done a really brilliant job, and he’s done it all through humor. It just wasn’t a very sexy story to us until the campaign made it sexier by producing all these nasty television ads.
GL: Social media are capable of breaking news instantly, around the clock. Is that a sound source of information?
Koppel: It is one thing to talk about the social impact, the capacity for drawing crowds of like-minded people together. In that respect [social media] are not only useful, they are unbelievably powerful, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. But you’ve got to be very, very careful because there’s a huge amount of information that is constantly being churned out by people using the social media, but it’s being left up to the consumer to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s reliable, what’s unreliable, what’s true, what’s false. And the reason I keep hammering away at this single theme of saying we really do need reliable, trustworthy, objective reporters, you’ve got to be able to trust professionals, because raw material being slung around the world at the speed of light, is no substitute for good journalism.
GL: Some cable news outlets like CNN seem to employ anchors who assume an attitude or personality. Does that diminish the seriousness of TV news journalism?
Koppel: I once had a conversation with a former president of CNN, and suggested to him that there were literally dozens, if not scores, of retired or semi-retired television correspondents out there who had done years and years and years of service as correspondents. I said, “Why don’t you put a dozen of them on your anchor desks during the day?” I get it; during the evening you want to have your Wolf Blitzers, your Anderson Coopers, you want to have your stars on. But during the day, you’ve got people on the anchor desk who clearly haven’t a clue what they’re talking about or what is being said to them.
GL: What’s it like now working with some of your fellow legendary journalists at Rock Center with Brian Williams?
Koppel: It’s a great gig. I’m enjoying it hugely because I don’t have to work all the time. I work when I’m free to do so, and I get to do a little bit of NPR, I get to do a short amount of lecturing, I get to spend time with my wife and family, and periodically either they will call me or I will call them and say, “Hey, how about doing something on this?” and I go off and then spend a couple of weeks doing that, and feel that my journalism battery has been recharged, and then I can go back to relaxing again for a while.
GL: You have a place on Captiva. What do you enjoy about Southwest Florida?
Koppel: It is quiet, it is beautiful, there are lots of wonderful birds and great wildlife, and I’m someone who is not happy unless he gets in at least two or three hours of reading a day. And to be able to read on a Southwest Florida beach with the sea doing whatever the sea is doing, that’s a pretty good way of spending a day. It’s seductive, and I can understand why people want to do nothing but that, but I can’t live that way. I come to Southwest Florida to unwind. If I were to unwind totally, you would just find loose spools of Ted all over the beach, and you’d never be able to put me back together again.