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Ted Koppel: Never Cynical Enough

Eighty thousand e-mails filled the computer screens at ABC's Nightline the day after Ted Koppel, the show's anchor for the last 24 years, read the names of the men and women who have died during the Iraq War.

By JANE AMMESON

"I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize or debate our leaders' policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders."
Eighty thousand e-mails filled the computer screens at ABC's Nightline the day after Ted Koppel, the show's anchor for the last 24 years, read the names of the men and women who have died during the Iraq War. The articulate and urbane Koppel, who has been in the news business for more than four decades since working at WMCA Radio in New York City as a desk assistant and an occasional off-air reporter after graduating college, finished the show, titled The Fallen, by saying:

"The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I'm not. But that's beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize or debate our leaders' policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders. Nightline will continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come. But not tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about."

Some people were not allowed to hear Koppel reading the names of the fallen? most of whom were very young -- or even to listen to his closing statements. Executives at Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns eight ABC affiliates -- including those in Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri -- were so outraged by what they viewed as an anti-war statement that they refused to air the show.

"I think our friends at Sinclair Broadcasting crystallized people's views," says Koppel who has won an amazing amount of broadcasting awards including 26 Emmys, five George Foster Peabody Awards, eight duPont Columbia Awards, nine Overseas Press Club Awards and two George Polk Awards, among many others.

It appears that Koppel is right about the crystallization of views and not in a way that Sinclair Broadcasting probably wanted. Ratings were up and of those 80,000 e-mails, about 75,000 were in support of the show.

But despite Sinclair's censorship, Koppel doesn't see any parallels between it and Disney's decision not to distribute Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11.

"Disney's stance is a perfectly sustainable argument," he says. "If you're Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, do you want to distribute a political polemic -- which is what the movie is? I'm not saying that negatively regarding the movie, but I think that was the question."

Citing the war dead is just one of many hard- hitting subjects Koppel has addressed. And other responses, while not as controversial, have also been overwhelming. Nine years ago he interviewed a terminally ill sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also called Lou Gehrig's disease. Koppel's interviews, which took place in 1995, were part of the impetus for Mitch Albom to write his huge bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie.

"Morrie had given an interview to the The Boston Globe where he talked about dying," says Koppel. The Globe piece intrigued Koppel, and Schwartz was asked to appear on the show.

"When I got to his house, my producer came out of the house looking somewhat ashen," remembers Koppel. "He said that Morrie wanted to interview me first."

And so Koppel went into the home, letting Schwartz ask him questions about his own life. It's something he normally doesn't do.

"He had the right to know," says Koppel, "because he was allowing us to ask intimate questions. We were talking about the process of his dying. The three broadcasts we did with Morrie are the three most popular shows -- they're the most requested and the most bought."

For Koppel, amongst all the interviews he's done, the time spent with Schwartz engendered one of the most profound personal effects.

"It's the rear end wipe test," he says. "It's what happens when you can't wipe yourself anymore. Friends had to do it for him and it wasn't embarrassing. It was a great act of love and real friendship."

But not all Koppel's shows are serious even when the subject itself can be serious. Two years ago ABC entered into negotiations to steal David Letterman away from CBS and replace Nightline with the talk show host. Letterman decided to stay with CBS and heaped praise on Koppel, telling his audience that he was uncomfortable with the way Koppel had been treated. Koppel called to thank Letterman and the two agreed to be on each other's show. It was considered quite a "get" for Koppel as Letterman hadn't given an interview in more than five years.

Both men handled their appearances with class, Koppel -- with his typical aplomb.

"I suppose people would be terribly disappointed if we didn't talk about the recent unpleasantness," Koppel said as an opener. "I know why ABC came after you. You're a money- making machine, a cash cow. People just walk down Madison Avenue, and $100 bills are thrown into baskets as soon as they hear your name. But I've never heard why you were interested in moving. Why did you even entertain that thought?"

"Well," Letterman replied, "this is a long story."

"That's good," said Koppel. "We have lots of time."

And so the two engaged in a pleasant and humorous exchange which, given other personalities, could have been a rancorous encounter. Both handled the situation with dignity.

Koppel's interest in the news came early in life.

"I believe I was 8 or 9 years old when I decided being a journalist was what I wanted to do," says Koppel, who grew up in Lancastshire, England after his parents left Germany to escape the Nazis. He was 13 when the family moved to the United States.

Describing himself as "a tiny kid" when he first listened to Edward R. Murrow, Koppel says that news was important in his family. This interest in news has been passed down another generation. Koppel, who has four children with his wife Grace Anne Dorney, is the father of Andrea Koppel, a state department correspondent for CNN.

Through the years, Koppel has seen great changes in the media.

"God willing, it will go over well," he says, "but let's not kid ourselves. The war is still going on. The handover didn't necessarily solve anything. There have been handovers before. The British handed over Hong Kong, and there were fireworks and celebrations. This was furtive."
"The 24/7 news of today creates a desperate race to do things immediately," he says. "We control the technology, it doesn't control us -- but we can let it control us. It doesn't have to be that way. That's the difference between film and live. It's the difference, 30 years ago in Vietnam, knowing that you're doing something that's not going to get on the air for two and a half days compared to two and a half seconds. It's just as possible that we don't have to be the first. News people can say we're going to focus, instead, on doing the best job."

Koppel stays on top of today's subjects by reading four newspapers daily, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He says he has a great research staff, but he doesn't mind learning something new from a guest while on the air.

"I know there are some facts out there that I won't know," he says. "I'm not doing a debate -- I don't need to know all of them. I win if my guests say something interesting. There is always someone who takes it to a new level."

He is willing to opine about many things including Iraq. Koppel, who was an embedded reporter when America first invaded the country, sees problems ahead.

"God willing, it will go over well," he says, "but let's not kid ourselves. The war is still going on. The handover didn't necessarily solve anything. There have been handovers before. The British handed over Hong Kong, and there were fireworks and celebrations. This was furtive."

With all that is going on in the world, decisions have to be made to determine what to air on Nightline. When asked if his decision-making is based upon what the public might want versus what he thinks is important, Koppel is quick with a reply.

"I have the need to show what's most important," he says. "People can decide if they want to watch or they think, ?You suck, Ted, and I'm going to watch Sean Hannity instead.' Out of all these stories, we have to choose one subject a night, and it's not Kobe Bryant or Laci Peterson. I think what's going on in Iraq is more important that that. By doing that, I run the risk of being the cod liver of broadcasting, but if people want fluff there's plenty of it out there."

Over the years, so much has happened and so much keeps happening that it seems like it might be easy for someone like Koppel to become jaded. No so, he says.

"I always quote Lily Tomlin, who makes sure to let me know that she didn't make this up -- it was from someone else -- but the line is, ?No matter how cynical I get, I can never get cynical enough,'" says Koppel, a history buff who likes to read Marcus Aurelius and Patrick O'Brien. Indeed, he loves his job.

"I've been with ABC for 41 years," he says. "And during that time I've been truly blessed to find myself able to do what I do...I'm like Forrest Gump -- I just keep running." o

Published: August 01, 2004
Issue: Fall 2004