Ted Koppel’s misguided nostalgia
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.
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