Ted Koppel blames national divide on partisan cable, print journalism in Redondo Beach talk
by Kevin Cody
In the late 1990s ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel received a phone call from ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jenning.
“Peter asked if the bean counters had been in touch with me. I said I had just gotten off the phone with them. They wanted to know how many times this year we had used a story from our Moscow bureau,” Koppel told Jennings.
The former Vietnam reporter and recipient of just about every major journalism award recounted the conversation last month during his talk to Distinguished Speaker Series subscribers at the Redondo Beach Performing Art Center.
ABC’s accounting department subsequently determined that ABC was using approximately one story a week from its Moscow bureau, which cost $2 million annually. That worked out to about $40,000 a story.
Shortly after the phone calls from accounting, the Moscow bureau was closed, along with the Paris, Rome and Bonn bureaus. The number of ABC foreign correspondents was cut from roughly 35 to 5.
“A panel of yahoos is cheaper,” Koppel explained, referring to the commentators who have largely replaced reporters on broadcast and cable news.
Koppel proposed a strategy for keeping informed by asking the audience for a show of hands of people who listen to right wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“I think you’re doing the right thing,” he said of the 10 people in the 1,300 seat auditorium who raised their hands. “I wish more of you listened to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, because you need to know what your fellow Americans are thinking.
“Over 20 million people listen to Rush Limbaugh every week and the rest of you don’t have a clue what he is telling people.
“A Stanford study found that interracial marriages are more common than marriages between a Democrat and a Republican.”
The audience laughed until Koppel silenced them with a quote from the 1930s cowboy philosopher Will Rogers.
“Will Rogers, the John Stewart of the 1930s, said, ‘We’re all ignorant, just about different things.’ It was his way of saying, don’t reject your fellow Americans just because they have different points of view.
“That’s what we are doing these days. As soon as someone hears you are for or against Trump you are pegged.
“I worry that in a system like ours,” Koppel continued, “if we don’t find a way to communicate with people with different political opinions that we won’t be able to deal with crises. Bad things will happen.”
“How do we undo the damage?” he asked. “I think we need universal service for 18 year olds. Two years in the military, Vista, the Peace Corp. Any social program where people from different parts of the country focus on a common task.”
Over 80 percent of the audience raised their hands when he asked if they agreed with him on universal service.
Koppel traced the decline in journalism standards not to President Donald Trump calling respected news sources Fake News, but to the Federal Communication Commission’s 1987 decision to abandon the television and radio Fairness Doctrine.
“Under the Fairness Doctrine, a left wing guest had to be balanced with a right wing guest,” Koppel said. “In 1987 resident Ronald Reagan eliminated the Fairness Doctrine. That was also the year Rush Limbaugh began broadcasting.
“Ten years later Rupert Murdoch saw Limbaugh’s success and created Fox News.
“Within a few years Fox was making $1 billion a year. MSNBC looked at Fox and said, if they can do it on the right, we can do it on the left. So they did.
“Ted Turner is a brilliant man. When he founded Cable News Network (CNN) in 1979, his idea was to offer in depth news 24 hours a day. Viewers could watch the news when it was convenient for them, not when it was convenient for the TV stations. It hasn’t worked out that way,” Koppel said. “Cable owner have concluded that rather than giving you news journalists think you ought to have, they will give you news you want to have,” he said.
Koppel has been a prophet in the desert lamenting journalism’s decline on both the right and the left, since he left Nightline in 2005.
Two years ago, on the Bill O’Reilly Show, Koppel told the conservative Fox News commentator, “You have changed the television landscape over the past 20 years. You took it from being objective and dull to subjective and entertaining.”
Koppel was even more direct in his criticism of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity last March during a CBS Good Morning America program on partisan news.
“You think I’m bad for America?” Hannity asked Koppel.
“Yeah, in the long term.” Koppel answered. “Because you’re very good at what you do… and you have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”
In a 2010 Washington Post column, Koppel wrote, “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic.”.
“Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.”
Today Koppel told his Distinguished Speakers audience, news organizations on both the right and left are convinced the news people want is about the Trump presidency.
“The president of CNN and the chair of CBS both said Trump is great for business. The news and Trump have a symbiotic relationship. Imagine if we have a Pence presidency. Oh God, how boring.”
“I once asked a New York Times reporter to appear on Nightline. He went to his executive editor Abe Rosenthal to ask for his approval. Rosenthal said, ‘Sure. Just don’t come back to the New York Times.’
“The premise was if you are a reporter for the Times, you can’t be expressing opinions on Nightline.”
“It’s fun to appear on television and yell and scream. But that’s not reporting.”
Koppel said the separation between news reporting and opinion has eroded not only on cable and news, but in newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post.
“I genuinely believe journalists need to be reminded we are dealing with factual reporting and to leave opinions to the opinion page. We need to restore the old standards and exercise more discipline.
“The purpose of journalism is to lay out the facts and let readers make their own decisions,” he said.
Ironically, Koppel’s Distinguished Speaker talk exemplified the dangers of mixing news and entertainment.
Despite the seriousness of his talk, the conversation in the theater lobby following his talk was all about penises.
Koppel had spiced up his talk with five penis jokes. One about John Wayne, one about Bill Clinton, one about Henry Kissinger, one about Charles de Gaulle’s wife Yvonne and one about Winston Churchill.
The only funny one was about Churchill.
“During the 1940s, the men’s room in the House of Commons was in the basement. Instead of individual urinals, there was one long trough,” Koppel recounted. “One day, when Labor Party leader Clement Attlee unzipped his trousers next to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Churchill shuffled away, down the trough. At the sink, when they were washing hands, Attlee asked Churchill if he had done something to offend him. ‘Not at all,’ Churchill answered. ‘It’s just that whenever you see anything big you want to nationalize it.’” B
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com