Ted Koppel’s misguided nostalgia

October 27, 2011

Ted Koppel, my favorite media punching bag, has stepped back into the ring for another beating.

After exile from ABC News to the BBC and the Discovery Channel, Koppel is now joining Brian Williams’ forthcoming NBC News magazine program Rock Center as a special correspondent. How special? Koppel has never been shy about proclaiming how great he and his peers were during the alleged “golden age” of broadcasting and how much everybody else sucks today. But the preening soundbite he delivered today in the Associated Press about the modern media’s failure sets a new standard for the 71-year-old newsman who anchored ABC News’s Nightline for 25 years.

Koppel states:

Instead of giving the public what it needs to hear, we’re giving the public news that it wants to hear, and one of these days the public is going to turn on us and say, “Why didn’t you tell us about those important things that were going on?”… They’re not going to like the answer and we’re not going to like the answer. We’re going to say we gave you what you wanted.

Read it again and see if it doesn’t remind you of some father bawling his kid out for spoiling his supper with a Snickers bar. Koppel is essentially saying that the press is failing its audience by giving them what they want instead of what they need—that is, the sort of news Koppel and his fellow media giants (Walter! The Brothers Kalb! Harry Reasoner! Chet and David! Arnold Zenker!) beamed to the nation’s TV sets as recently as the 1980s.

Evidence that Koppel is reading from an internal teleprompter comes from this Pullman, Wash. talk late last month (PDF):

The first thing we have to do is get back in the business of giving the American public what they need to hear—and what they need to hear is nonpartisan news about issues of real importance. … That means giving them less of the candy news that they’ve been getting over the past few years.

More evidence comes from a September talk in Tulsa, when Koppel speaks about his Nightline years:

Back in those days we believed we had a mission. … Our mission was to tell you at the end of the day what we thought you needed to know. We didn’t give a lot of thought to what you wanted to know…

It’s an industry where we no longer give you [what] you need to know but what you want to know—and that can be mindless trash.

Koppel’s consistent nostalgia for the old days must not go unchallenged. No thinking person would trade the current mediascape—which gives us instant access to newspapers around the country and around the world, from the BBC and Al Jazeera, to the Reuters, AP, and AFP wires, and to narrowcasting websites of all sorts— for the ancient one in which the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the newsweeklies, CBS News, NBC News, and to a lesser degree Koppel’s also-ran, ABC News, ruled the news universe.

Koppel can only think that journalism has lost its “mission” if he spends more time on TMZ.com than he does on the Guardian. The rest of us who care about news are feasting our way through an endless, high-quality banquet.

The source of Koppel’s news angst isn’t hard to locate. He pines for the 1980s because that was the high-water mark of the now-displaced “media regime” in which he held power. I lift the phrase and the analysis from After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment (Cambridge University Press), a new book by Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini.

Williams and Delli Carpini explain how technology and the end of the Cold War “have destabilized the media regime of the mid-twentieth century, challenging the premises of which the Age of Broadcast News were based and accounting for current debates over the eroding boundary between news and entertainment.” It isn’t the first time that a media regime has toppled. Williams and Delli Carpini provide history lessons tracing earlier media displacements—the rise of the penny press in the 1830s, for example, and the development of the halftone print in the 1880s, which made newspapers more visual, and the later triumph of broadcast journalism over newspapers. Somewhere in history’s dustbin a 110-year-old newspaper guy is making the same complaints about Walter Cronkite that Koppel is making about the current scene.

What Koppel and the 110-year-old guy are really bellyaching about is not the demise of journalism but their own relative demise. People paid attention to Koppel not because his work astonished them but because he was one of very few choices on the TV dial. As Williams and Delli Carpini point out, “by 1980 the average American home received ten television signals, national and international news remained almost entirely the purview of the thirty-minute (including commercials) evening broadcasts of the three national networks.” Nightline began broadcasting in 1979 with a very sensationalistic title, The Iran Crisis—America Held Hostage, and Koppel took the reins shortly after its debut.

The proliferation of cable TV in the 1980s and the Web in the 1990s shattered what Williams and Delli Carpini call the hegemony of broadcast news, and one of the casualties is Koppel. He yearns all these years later for the mass audience he didn’t earn with the quality of his work (which I will confess was high) but which was an accident of technology and regulation.

After Broadcast News attacks the foolishness of people like Koppel who insist on a set-in-concrete distinction between news and entertainment. Comedians, talk-show hosts, and satirists are better equipped than professional journalists to refute the fictions that clog the news stream, Williams and Delli Carpini maintain. “[T]he line between news and entertainment is inherently blurred and contestable and never fully maps the boundaries between politically relevant media forms. It was only the regulations, institutions, norms, and practices that came to define the broadcast news media regime that made such distinctions seem natural,” they write.

One excellent example of this blurring offered by Williams and Delli Carpini is the work and career of CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow, who in the early 1950s investigated wrong-doings with his See It Now program at the same time he was chatting up celebrities (Brando, Bogart, Monroe, Sinatra) on his Person to Person broadcasts. Koppel must know all about how news and entertainment aren’t enemies, that they can co-exist and even feed symbiotically on one another. After all, when he made his pissy comments at WSU-Pullman, he was there to receive the 2011 Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcast Journalism.


“The true poem is the daily paper,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1852, according to Williams and Delli Carpini. But where did he write it? I can’t find it in Google Books. If you know, send its GPS via email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed doesn’t come close to poetry. For that, follow @tricialockwood. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: ABC news anchor Ted Koppel holds a farewell gift, a miniature statue of Walt Disney character Donald Duck after the final taping of his ‘Nightline’ show at the ABC studios in Washington November 22, 2005. Reuters/Jason Reed


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I have two words to say in defense of Ted Koppel’s charges: Iraq War.

Posted by doggydaddy | Report as abusive

So Koppel is merely a cranky septuagenarian who doesn’t understand new-fangled media? Weak. I also notice that you didn’t take the time to learn what he was talking about–not that it stopped you from slamming his reputation.

Posted by whiterockfan | Report as abusive

Wow Jack. You sure know how to write a snappy lead. And the analysis isn’t bad either.

Posted by Tobe | Report as abusive

I think you have an interesting take, though I get the same sense of “Sour Grapes” towards Ted Koppel as ou seem to suggest he has against the current media.
It leaves me wondering what your true motivation is/was for writing this article.

Posted by ellfin | Report as abusive

There ought to be a way to measure network news content over the ages.

Murrow’s Person to Person (a favorite program in my callow youth) notwithstanding, were the nightly broadcasts of John Cameron Swayze, Murrow, Huntley & Brinkley, and Cronkite “newstricious” (sorry)than those of those of Williams, Courick, and Pelley?

Looking at it the other way around, was the American public better informed in during the golden era of few channels and news giants or not?

I see an opportunity for a foundation grant.


Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive

Sorry Jack; but Ted Koppel is correct… Just because the access and technology are better does not mean journalists are any better. HOWEVER, PBS does offer the closest thing to a classic news broadcast. Non-biased delivery of the news without regard to ratings and celebrity status.

Posted by jarjajo | Report as abusive

The proliferation of news sites on air and online will lead to their irrelevance.

Maybe what Koppel misses is the fact that television was the propaganda medium of choice for years. The country was not as thoroughly divided into countless self customized consumers. A few standard sizes could fit all and warp all.

You can’t make an army, a movement, a mob or a cause out of do-it-yourselfers.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

In the Arab Spring and other protest movements, the social media are the rumor mill. The mobs, or movements (if you prefer) make their own mobs, like they have always done but with invisible hands as the catalyst. And it seems that by the time anyone knows what really happened – the invisible hands have already disappeared.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I am sure that consistent and serious media is not completely lost but, as a general view, Ted is right. I am sure he refers to a lot of N American media. Check the news-feeds on Yahoo, check what the local TV broadcasts as the evening news – if it is not sensational or cute, it doesn’t go on the air. Ask average people what happens with Greek economy, who is Sarkozy or Chavez and you would be amazed to see that they know more about some viral video on Youtube about a cute baby playing the drums. While I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, I know that it is much easier to insert false ideas on empty minds, just as it is easier to write on a clean sheet of paper.

Posted by AndiV | Report as abusive

As an older American I have also lamented the decline of journalism and the responsibility it must always live up to in earning their freedom, a freedom that we are expected to fight and die to preserve. The author of this article presses that the differences between the past and now can be measured in sheer numbers of media outlets. I submit that those numbers today do not offer more or better content if that content results in carving up our society into segments that are so divisive and under-informed as to render Democracy an impotent exercise in delusional submissiveness.

I have witnessed the change in media focus from few talking heads offering news on a more manageable range of public concerns to a great many talking heads whose focus is their own opinion and their market share. Rather than verifiable facts that assist the American public’s decision making process we get attitude overlaying any uncertainty we have. How many public concerns are manageable by the American public now?

At the federal level there are only so many active American voters in any one election and there is a threshold number of people that needs to be reached before change can be asserted over Congress for any public concern. Simple math suggests that the governed at any given time can expect to control the outcome of only a few public concerns. Having more talking heads offering less verifiable facts and misinformation has ground to a near halt the promise of progress of our society that freedom of the press was to offer.

Posted by Philip_Andolina | Report as abusive

Last time I click on a Shafer article. He makes a few points, that he points in a ridiculous direction.

Posted by IanKernan | Report as abusive

Bad blog. You’re not looking at it from a centrist perspective.
Old media had a form of monopoly power, yes. But Koppel is right…there are things everybody SHOULD know. He’s saying it was their job to make sure you did know it, whether you wanted to or not. Everybody knew the same things, and could take a perspective on those key items.
That’s not what happens today. People go to where they want to, to read the news they want to, see the perspective they want to, and ignore/marginalize the rest. This means they have less and less exposure to other ways of thinking and different viewpoints, because their appetite for news caters to what they want, instead of what they need.
Yes, if you are one of the rare people with an open mind, today’s news can deliver all you want AND all you need. The problem is that people don’t have the time to gather everything. All you have to do is look at Fox and see what it does to the fairly strong ‘centrist’ approach of media…anyone to the left of Fox is bashed as liberal, even if they are centrist. Fox hugely distorts ‘news’ to a given viewpoint, and panders to the want, not the need.
It’s this distortion in national news which contributes to the polarization of our government. Instead of seeing a balanced approach, people are reading things that further set them apart from others who don’t think like they do, reinforcing the divides in the country. “But we give them what they want!” is not a politically or patriotically responsible defense…but it sure does make money, doesn’t it?


Posted by REDruin | Report as abusive

Without siding for or against Koppel, there is another issue related to this one that goes largely unremarked. The quality of writing and editing in reporting has fallen off dramatically over the past few decades. The decline has accelerated in the internet age. The daily papers and most internet news sites now include more bias in their reporting. They also go into print or cyberspace with errors of all kinds. Being married to an English teacher for thirty years has made it impossible to ignore the shoddy writing that prevails now.
I am reading Reuters because they are a welcome exception to this trend.

Posted by abb68 | Report as abusive

I will be the first to agree that the mediascape is much broader today than it was back in 1980. I will also agree that news and entertainment can co-exist with news as news and entertainment as entertainment. News is not entertainment.

And Koppel is right. There are things that everybody should know and, frankly, what is referred to as the MSM hasn’t been delivering it (as the man at the top said: I have two words for you Iraq War). However, from my perspective the media’s worst crime is what I think of as the triumph of relativism. The media tend to treat two narratives as equal and accept them without question even if one side or the other is lying through their store bought teeth. The media so rarely delivers actual facts that one begins to believe that they don’t exist. So when they air those two narratives, they don’t then provide you with the facts (yes, Virginia, they do exist) that both sides are choosing to ignore. It would be good if the media stuck to giving us facts and left the opinion creation to the listener/viewer.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

Koppel is correct. The amount of dis-information disguised as journalism today is a major reason for the poisonous state of politics.

Posted by dhfgfjfjhd | Report as abusive

I cheer the demise of Old Media. (I say this as an old white guy…) The days are OVER when a bunch of old white guys sat around in a cigarette/bourbon-fueled room and decided what was important, and what would be, ahem, hidden, and how the coverage of said events was to be shaped for the maximum benefit of their progressive world view.

Now that The Onion is unironically published in newsprint form, the death of the old propaganda industry is complete, and all that is left is the twitching corpse.

We news consumers can pick and choose from any news source till sated, and play one sniveling account against another.

I mean, jeesh, these people prattle on as if man-made global warming is real, as if the anti-vaccine folks might really have a point, and as if every word that is ever uttered by a (D) politician is true and every (R) is secretly a racist!

Good riddance, man!

Posted by DrSandman | Report as abusive

“No thinking person would trade the current mediascape… for the ancient one (that) ruled the news universe.”

There’s a problem right there, Jack, the “thinking person” is an endangered species.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“The rest of us who care about news are feasting our way through an endless, high-quality banquet.”…
So… O’Reilly is better than Walter Cronkite?, Insanity and HomeBoy are better than Chet Huntley and David Brinkley? You call this ‘feasting on a high-quality banquet”?????
The fact that Koppel is old and out of date is one thing. The fact that the news broadcasts were straight forward, and truthful are not in question. These older ‘giants of the media’ did NOT spew HATE and VITRIOL, while trying to divide the nation in their evening broadcasts, the way fox news does. Additionally, they did not hack their way onto people’s phones like News Corp (owner of fox news) did – and probably continues to do now in the US.
To try to equate the media giants of the 50’s thru the 80’s to the propagandists of the current media is just more propaganda… Truth is what makes us free, and fox news doesn’t know what the truth is…
I don’t need to hear – nearly every night on fox – that Obama’s birth certificate is called into question buy some ignoramus who thinks only white people should be prez… I need to know that the country is being subverted from within by propagandists who want to return to ‘civil war’ days when slavery was allowed, women were not allowed to vote, and banks could do what they wanted because there was NO regulations AT ALL… and states rights and secessionist fervor was the talk of the day….
I don’t for the life of me see how ANYONE can see that the HATE and VITRIOL that passes for news now-a-days in any way, remotely equals the 30 minutes of Walter Cronkite???

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Ditto to all the comments previous. This guy Jack Shafer is the one who is misguided, not Ted Koppel. Most of these comments are right on the mark. The media coverage today is far from an “endless high quality banquet”. It’s certainly a banquet, but the quality is another matter entirely.

Posted by mahadragon | Report as abusive

As a child of the sixties and ever observant of the sound bite evolution, I am disappointed, in the least, and “mad as all hell”.

For those who rely solely on broadcast media, I am concerned. They are led to opinion without meaningful discussion. When it does appear it is a programming slot and not a concerted effort of the broadcast media to bring to light a full story in digestible segments.

If you were Walter Cronkite or Edward R Murrow how would describe broadcast media content today?

Posted by OFA7 | Report as abusive

Ted is right. Media fixation on cases like Cassey Anthony, Terry Schiavo, Kardashians, indicate that Murdoch has made all of them behave like New York Post, tabloid news. What has no long lasting impact except 30 second headline news.
So challenging Ted is like acting as teenager who do not like what to do at that age. Why not analyze and understand where he is coming for. What he is trying to say and have a conversation. Ted has a point and needs to be respected.

Posted by KETE | Report as abusive

Koppel is right. The media today is a shadow of its former self. Thats not to say the media was great back then, but it was much better. Compare coverage of the Vietnam war and the Iraqi invasion. The former was more or less independent, the latter completely embedded.

The fact that there are more choices available today does not change the fact that Koppel is right. The information is there today if people care to look. But that has always been true. Even with the narrower mediascape back then, the information was always there for those who cared to dig it up.

The question though is why that information is not in the mainstream sources that reach most people? The bottom line for me is the following. A person who got their news primarily from mainstream sources, radio, TV and newspaper thirty years ago was a better and more informed consumer than they would be doing the same thing today.

So today we have access to the internet and the foreign press and to be as well informed as that citizen of 30 years ago you have to go to the foreign press today. Reading your local daily, listening to the radio and watching the major networks and cable news channels, won’t cut it anymore.


Posted by emk | Report as abusive

I would agree that ABC, NBC, and especially Fox do not provide much of anything useful on their evening broadcasts. CNBC is good, but they have abandon any attempt to critique many flawed economic dogmas.
If you are getting your information from several high quality online sources and viewing all articles with a skeptical mind there is an almost overwhelming level of information available. Which creates the need that is still not quite met –a high quality relevant news cast. I am rooting for Reuters.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive


Like a kid who won’t listen to his parents pleas not to stick his finger in the electrical socket, if you would spend less time closing your ears to Ted, and more giving thought to what he is saying — you might actually know what the heck you are talking about. Specifically, you define Ted’s complaint about the media giving people what they “want instead of need.” You respond by ignoring his point, and making a straw man argument about the accessibility and diversity of news sources today. In this, you entirely miss Ted’s point. He is referring to the editorial judgment of news editors and producers, and how they pander to public taste rather than inspire it. Fox News playing to conservatives; MSNBC playing to liberals. In many ways, your blog about Ted is symptomatic of what Ted is referring to — the cheap, two-bit play for attention that can be gotten with ad hominem attacks, rather than substantive, thought provoking essays that stimulate the way we view the world and each other. Ted focuses on in ideas — you, apparently on ad hominems with people. Now off to your room for a editorial Time Out!

Posted by Lerpiniere | Report as abusive

Wow. Shafer, if the maxim “more is better” (which you obviously espouse) were actually true, your bloated post would be solid gold . . . instead of what a modern-day Emperor Joseph might, justifiably this time, characterize as merely “too many words”. (Apologies to “Amadeus”.)

That Koppel and his on-air generation were relatively few in number, compared to the “journalists” found today under every virtual rock, is/was obviously not their fault, nor within their control. Nor does the relatively lesser “choice” of that time equate with lesser quality (or make those who rhapsodize about that better time guilty of myopia or self-aggrandizement). To the contrary, Shafer: Have you not noticed, are you CAPABLE of noticing,that journalism IS, in fact, in rapid and precipitous decline?

An “endless, high-quality banquet”? Yikes. The Web, including all these “choices”, resembles nothing so much as a Tower of Babble. If quantity indeed equals quality, then I must confess I’ve been guilty of grossly misunderestimating the current field of Republican candidates. Sorry. My mistake.

News and entertainment belong in separate corners, for a reason (just as news and opinion do). While I would agree with those (such as Keith Olbermann, who used Morrow as an example) that the myth of the disinterested reporter is not only a delusional, but an unnecessary, myth, nevertheless we have slid perilously far into a world where the line between opinion and reporting is not only confused, but where such blurring is celebrated.

For this, I blame the demogoguery-specialists known as the GOP, most especially beginning with Reagan. (Forget Jack Kennedy as the harbinger of the TV age in politics; it was The Gipper — whose role as actor-turned-president was even more ominous than any of us at the time could have realized.) Arising in quick succession after Reagan were Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannaty, Cheney, and the many other plagues upon the Republic.

So woefully confused is the general public, about what makes entertainment, reporting and opinion separate spheres, that people almost universally comment on some “article” they’ve read (usually online). The “article” is almost invariably what we used to call an “essay” — i.e., a piece that incorporates facts and events (or reputed facts and events), but is generously leavened with opinion. (The difference, among quality journalists practicing their art, is that they scrupulously avoid injecting their opinions into their pieces . . . even though they make little or no effort to wring every bit of their personal passion and motivation out of themselves — a futile project, in any event.)

But please understand: I don’t fault only the Far Right (notice I didn’t say “conservatives”) for this sorry trend. The Palins and Bachmanns are right about the existence of a Lamestream media . . . but not because the media are, in fact, any sort of monolith, much less a “liberal” one. No, the bulk of POPULAR media are lame because they are trite, just as often as they are reactionary. Case in point: CNN, with its ridiculous “Situation Room” (whose parade of mostly inconsequential piffle is an insult to the gravitas to which the REAL Situation Room is dedicated).

Shafer, you point to Edward R. Murrow as an early example of the [desirable and okay] blend of entertainment and news; as proof, you say that “in the early 1950s [he] investigated wrong-doings with his See It Now program at the same time he was chatting up celebrities (Brando, Bogart, Monroe, Sinatra) on his Person to Person broadcasts.” I never saw “Person to Person”, but it sure sounds like you’re describing two SEPARATE programs.

The rise of the Right Wing demagog-ocracy feeds upon the “democratization” of information bestowed upon us by the Internet. It is an atmosphere in which Science and fact are for suckers, and where all opinions are equal, fungible things — whether spewed off the cuff by a former high school basketball player turned sports anchor turned Veep candidate, or thoughtfully explicated, and documented, by a Nobel laureate. (Everyone is entitled to one, therefore everyone HAS one, on every subject — and, ipso facto, they MUST be equal in the eyes of the Lord!) It is an atmosphere in which even one of the few remaining harbors for quality journalism, PBS, regularly presents the “two sides” of every argument, and quite obviously buys into the now-popular pseudo-truism that as long as “both sides” are presented (“A says, then B says, then C says ‘Thank you both’ “), the journalist’s work is done. Not even close. (I think of that wonderful reproof of the New York Times’ Judith Miller (and her shameful toadying to the Dubya administration’s Iraq war rationales): “Journalism is not dictation.”

Concomitant with the plague of news-as-entertainment, Right Wing yak radio, and fungible opinions, is that other phenomenon known as “fake news” — the commercial message disguised as a news report. (Which, along with the war against Reason, and the enshrinement of Joe Sixpack’s every opinion, reveals the third leg of the Right’s dangerous Tripod of Inanity: The deification, and complete unshackling, of Business. How very appropriate, and inevitable, when you think of it. Genuine news departments have always been at odds with their networks’ entertainment divisions, ever mindful of ratings. Maybe all of this simply illustrates why, in a democracy that truly yearns to be free, the NPR and PBS models are the only way to go.)

The reason I’m DELIGHTED to see Koppel back is that he always knew how to moderate a discussion, not just attend it as a bystander. He knew how to insist, and keep insisting, that he receive ANSWERS to the questions he asked. He knew how to follow up. This should not be so neglected a practice as to have become a lost art, but alas, it is.

Posted by AMajorLeagueOne | Report as abusive

Ted Koppel is one of the best interviewers of our the last generation. I have learned a lot watching Nightline when he hosted, you could actually find the truth. That’s much better than the spoon-fed regurgitated news we get today from the major media, local media, newspapers, twitter, or comedians. This article did not ring true.

Posted by rooters777 | Report as abusive

Well, that didn’t take long. RE: the general confusion about the difference between an essay (or column) and an “article”, see rooters777’s Dec. 12 comment.

Oh, the humanity!

Posted by AMajorLeagueOne | Report as abusive

“No thinking person would trade the current mediascape… for the ancient one (that) ruled the news universe.”
There’s a problem right there, Jack, the “thinking person” is an endangered species.

Posted by Hasancan | Report as abusive