ABC News veteran Ted Koppel ladles out self-serving news nostalgia in the Washington Post.

Media criticism.
Nov. 15 2010 6:29 PM

Ted Koppel, Bad Reporter

ABC News veteran Ted Koppel ladles out self-serving news nostalgia in the Washington Post.

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More accounting tricks: After NBC stated that it spent $800,000 on the coverage of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, hospitalization, and funeral, it admitted to reporter Edward Jay Epstein that at least $500,000 of that included salaries of existing news crews and technicians and "general overhead" that had to be paid regardless.

Socolow amply documents that making money from news was already a tradition at CBS and NBC in the radio era, writing that "by 1944 news programming provided the majority of NBC's revenues." He points to former NBC News President Reuven Frank's 1991 memoir, Out of Thin Air, * where Frank writes that Camel cigarettes "supported the entire national and worldwide structure of NBC Television News—salaries, equipment, bureau rents, and overseas allowances to educate reporters' children." And NBC News was free to sell ads beyond the Camel spots. According to Socolow, the Today show, a news-division product, became NBC's most profitable program by 1954. "By the early 1960s, both NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report and the CBS Evening News were earning enormous revenues," Socolow writes, paralleling the booming revenues of their parent networks.

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How big was the take? "I don't think the news division of a network ever lost money," Frank says in a 1989 interview cited by Socolow.

Koppel is correct when he cites the success of 60 Minutes as a news-business turning point, one that proved a news-division program could make entertainment-division-size profits. But to say, as Koppel does, that because of 60 Minutes,"a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed" is beyond stupid. It's bad reporting.

If Koppel is so keen on criticizing the sensationalizers and popularizers of TV news who are bent on turning profits, won't he please look in the mirror? In 1979, when American hostages were taken in Tehran, ABC News capitalized on being the only one of the big-three networks with a presence in the country to start nightly special broadcasts titled The Crisis in Iran: America Held Hostage. That Koppel-anchored show morphed into the profitable Nightline franchise. I can't take a wrecking ball to everything Koppel has done in his life. He obviously did some good work with Nightline.  But the ambulance-chasing and audience-pandering contained in that show set the template for the coverage of O.J. Simpson, Natalee Holloway, Anna Nicole Smith, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, the Balloon Boy, and others. 

There's a lot wrong with broadcast and cable news, but hustling for profits isn't their main fault and never has been. In fact, profitability is a good thing for TV news because, as Socolow indicates, it gives news divisions the muscle they need to push back any person, institution, corporation, or government bureaucracy that would try to stifle independent reporting.

Correction, Nov. 15, 2010: The original version of this article misnamed Reuven Frank's memoir. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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When I read a Koppel column, I can hear his too-practiced voice reading the copy in my head. Do you have this problem with voices in your head? Send your mental health problems to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and chase the ambulance that is my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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

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