This Ain't Nightline
Ted Koppel's embarrassing debut as a Times columnist.
It's not Ted Koppel's fault that the New York Times has made him a Times contributing columnist. As Koppel writes in yesterday's (Jan. 29) debut column, "And Now, a Word for Our Demographic," the invitation came from an "editor friend of mine," so the fault belongs to whoever assigned, accepted, and edited or rewrote Koppel's self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, late-to-the-party, and punishingly obvious 1,500-word piece about the state of television news. (It's bad.) It's not even Koppel's fault if he thinks he's any good at this columnist thing, when he isn't. If we were to belittle every person who stretched his talents until they pop, we'd have little time for anything else.
So, my critique isn't personal, it's institutional. Based on what did the Times think Koppel could write a compelling newspaper column? Did they not see disaster in this piece? If in his very first column Koppel is quoting his unfinished novel about a "television anchor … who, in the course of a minor traffic accident, bites the tip off his tongue," can his next column quote from his 2000 book, Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public, his column after that quote from a memorandum he wrote to his Nightline staff at ABC News, and a subsequent column cite something Roone Arledge scribbled on a napkin in 1979?
Now, it should be said that Ted Koppel possesses skills and talents that many don't. His ability to master new subjects—seemingly overnight—and conduct tough but fair interviews that inform has always impressed me. But if I give that one to Koppel, I want him to admit that he's not even as good at column-writing as the journeymen opinion columnists who labor at the low-status Copley News Service. Koppel's dubious ascent reminds me of the syndicated columnist who, after Pope John Paul II launched his own syndicated column, announced he was going to start writing encyclicals on the side.
Koppel wants his readers to believe—as he does—that a golden age of broadcasting existed "30 or 40 years ago," before the cable Mongols invaded, before the deregulation of broadcasting, before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. He writes:
Network owners nurtured their news divisions, encouraged them to tackle serious issues, cultivated them as shields to be brandished before Congressional committees whenever questions were raised about the quality of entertainment programs and the vast sums earned by those programs. News divisions occasionally came under political pressures but rarely commercial ones. The expectation was that they would search out issues of importance, sift out the trivial and then tell the public what it needed to know.
That's not my recollection of what sort of product the news divisions of CBS, NBC, and ABC turned out decades ago. Then as now, the news divisions took as their marching orders the accounts they'd read in the morning's New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal and bustled out to find pictures and graphics to go with them.
Nobody denies that all three networks did good work on occasion, but Koppel's vague recollections of excellence and service cry out for specifics. What terrific TV journalism are we saluting from days gone by? And is it really superior to today's TV journalism? If you, dear reader, could press a button on your remote control and delete the three cable news networks and the BBC World and restore the wonderful hegemony that the networks enjoyed in the halcyon years 1966 to 1976 that Koppel posits, would you?
When Koppel laments the fact that cable, satellite, and broadband have "overcrowded" the marketplace, making it "increasingly vulnerable to the dictatorship of the demographic"—that is, readers and viewers deciding what they want to consume rather than what the three broadcast networks think they should—he sounds like any other monopolist complaining about how the arrival of competition has dragged down quality. Is it a genuine disaster for the commonweal if the broadcast networks no longer operate fully staffed foreign bureaus in Vienna when readers and viewers, thanks to the Internet and cable and satellite TV, can consume timely newspapers accounts and broadcast reports from around the world? Who among us suffers because Pierre Salinger no longer files dispatches from his Parisian hotel room?
As I read Koppel's lame op-ed one last time, I wondered if I had been overrating him all these years. Granted, it's only one column, but had it arrived at the New York Times over the transom and without Koppel's byline, I'm certain the op-ed page would have rejected it. I can only surmise that Koppel convinced his editor to run his thin piece by reading it to him over the phone in the same stentorian voice he applies to his lines on television. Like his hero Edward R. Murrow, Koppel owes most of his authority to his voice, which to my ears sounds like Sonny Rollins playing a flugelhorn. Divorce his words from his instrument, as the Times did this week, and they carry little resonance.