Ted Koppel's embarrassing debut as a Times columnist.

Media criticism.
Jan. 30 2006 7:02 PM

This Ain't Nightline

Ted Koppel's embarrassing debut as a Times columnist.

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Ted Koppel: Made for TV

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.

******

Think I'm kidding about Koppel's writing? If you have an Amazon account, use the "Koppel Randomizer" to harvest a random page from Off Camera. Send the most banal lines you find to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Right now the item to beat was culled by Mark Roh from Page 76 in which Ted's life imitates The Ed Sullivan Show:

Grace Anne and I often analogize our lives to the performance of an acrobat/juggler who keeps twenty or more plates spinning on the tips of an equal number of twelve-foot-long flexible wands.

Andy Gale randomizes to Page 74 where Ted offers this about his struggle with his local Giant supermarket:

You never know how and when you're going to have an impact. Back on January 17 I took note in these pages of the confusing nature of certain Giant ads in the Washington Post, products listed at one price but covering a range of weights.

I discussed the issue with an assistant manager at our local supermarket, and then, a few days later, with the manager. He, it now turns out, raised the issue with Odonna Matthews, the vice president of consumer affairs for Giant Food, Inc. Damned if they haven't changed the ads. They now clearly list the exact weight and price of each product. We'll see how long the changes remain in place. But I'm tickled.

Did Ted read Listen to the Warm before he sat down to compose Page 127, which Robert Ferrigno discovered?

Reality becomes an unwelcome intrusion while you are adrift in Barney's world.

Ferrigno spun the Randomizer a second time and found this stunner about the Koppel family on Page 54:

Our two youngest children, Drew and Tara, are with us for the weekend. Dinner conversation meanders until the subject of last night's TV program ER comes up. None of us has seen it.

Chuck Taylor spots a Kliban kitty moment on Page 126.

Rosafina, now an elderly cat entering her eleventh summer, is making it difficult to work. She keeps trying to walk across the keyboard of my computer, clearly for no other reason than that I do not want her to do so.

John Asalone captures Ted accusing somebody else of banality on Page 23. The nerve!

I've been watching Cheryl Mills, an attractive young black woman who is deputy White House counsel, deliver her defense of the president on the floor of the Senate this afternoon. It is her task to contradict the charges of obstruction of justice.  I find her performance pretty banal.

Pioneer Ted checks in on Page 8, where Jim O'Grady listens.

(I'm not altogether sure how the coal was employed, since it was not to produce hot water or heat in our rooms. Indeed, not only were our rooms not heated in the winter, we were required to leave the windows open.)

Annie Ronen discovers Ted channelling Andy Rooney on Page 28:

The problem with the one-cent stamps is that they're so cheap the stickum on the back doesn't work; they keep falling off the envelopes. So I took a batch of our thirty-two-cent stamps to the post office this morning, hoping to trade them in on an equal number of thirty-threes and just pay the difference. Of course, I expected an argument.

Louis Rios finds Ted going Masters and Johnson on us on Page 60.

Nature's message to men and women "of a certain age" would seem to have a certain harmonious foundation. After all, vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction are clearly intended to comfortably coexist.

Laura McMasters reveals the "literal" Ted on Pages 75 and 146:

A Huey helicopter just flew by over the Gulf of Mexico. It has been thirty years some I listened for that sound in Vietnam, thirty years since it meant the imminent arrival of food and water and, often, safety. The sound and the memory of what it once meant still makes me salivate, literally.

Father's Day. Larry and Deirdre have brought Jake down to spend a week with us. It is literally mind-blowing how jet travel whisks one overnight from a war zone in the Balkans to a diaper pad in southern Maryland.

Christopher Truffer notes Ted's skills at jump-cutting from one scene to another on Page 5:

Anyway, the world's in a mess, weapons of mass destruction abound and we haven't a clue how we would respond to a chemical of biological attack against one or more of our cities.

God it's beautiful outside. I think I'll go sailing.

Stefanie Lindeman exposes this bit of Ted blowhardery from Page 52:

When there is no wind, you cannot sail. When the wind is too powerful, it is foolish to sail.  You cannot sail directly into the wind, but by tacking patiently back and forth you can arrive at the point from which the wind is coming. Never take the wind for granted. It can change force and direction without apparent notice.

Sheena Foster holds the hankie for Ted as he laments the vast wasteland of television on Page 122:

Tonight the last episode of the police drama Homicide will be aired. It has always been good, occasionally even great. It's being canceled because of high costs and relatively low ratings. Television is drowning in crap and a wonderful series like Homicide can't survive. Unfortunately, quality takes time and costs money. Therefore it takes an even larger audience and higher advertising rates than usual to make a series like Homicide profitable. The program was popular, just not popular enough.

Karyla Trester Randomizes to Page 20 and discovers the origin of Ted's dispute with Giant supermarket:

The Giant has a sale on Cap'n Crunch cereal today--$1.84 (half price)
for a "13-16 oz." box (13-16 ounces? That's an interesting twist).
Are we now selling goods within a weight range? You may be getting a
full pound of cereal or maybe not.

Karen Meyer accuses Ted of going poetical on us after reading this passage on Page 51:

It's calm out on the gulf today, but a couple of days ago when big breakers were crashing in I jotted down a line that captured the moment for me: "The beach daisies are bobbing and weaving and the wind is tearing lace curtains of foam from the waves as they collapse on the beach."

Cara Bucciarelli finds Ted playing Marlon Brando on Page 174:

Late this afternoon I was swinging Jake on the little swing we set up under
the rose trellis that we constructed for his mother's wedding nearly nine years ago.  Then I did a variation on the Marlon Brando bit in The Godfather, when he's dodging between, and hiding among, the tomato plants. Jake loved it, laughing and giggling. How much we take these sorts of things for granted.

Okay, I think we're approaching the limits of fair use under the copyright laws. Thanks to everybody for Randomizing!

(E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.