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Ted Koppel's Delusions About TV News

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Ted Koppel, the eminent TV newsman and former anchor of ABC’s Nightline when it was in its heyday, had an op-ed about “the death of real news” and the role played in what he thinks is its decline by the likes of Bill O’Reilly on Fox and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC.

As Koppel sees it, the good old days existed when someone giving campaign contributions who was part of a news team would have meant immediate suspension, if not outright being fired. As he writes, it was a time “when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.”  In those years, the networks “aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship.”

That, indeed, is the key sentence, although Koppel does not seem to realize it. He thinks there really was a time when the networks “considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.”  Is that like the years when the late Peter Jennings, his colleague he cites as one who earned the public trust, demonstrated hostility to Israel and a pro-Palestinian point of view that was apparent to most anyone who watched his broadcasts? The same Jennings whose prime-time ABC special on the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima endorsed entirely and uncritically Gar Alperovitz’s discredited thesis that the U.S. dropped the bomb only to pressure the Soviets, and that its use was completely unnecessary?

Or perhaps he is thinking of those golden years when the entire nation watched Walter Cronkite, whose famous judgment that the U.S. had lost the Vietnam War led Lyndon Johnson to say “if we’ve lost Walter Cronkite, we’ve lost the country.” Does Koppel not realize that the U.S. had not lost when Cronkite claimed it had and that the CBS TV anchor was himself on the anti-war side in the debate and was hardly objective?

It was true that back then, the networks tried to pretend to be non-partisan and objective. They forbade their employees, for example, to attend anti-war marches even if they were completely partisan and on the movement’s side. An old friend of mine was a top producer in those years for 60 Minutes, and she recently told me of her conversations with the president of CBS News in which she argued with him that the entire news division should be allowed to protest the war and attend rallies if they wished. He turned her down, but her partisanship -- and that of her colleagues -- was apparent, and readily visible in the stories they put on the air.

Then there were the numerous TV reports on both ABC and CBS about Cuba, and how wonderful Castro’s revolution was, and how the people fully supported it. I recall both of Dan Rather’s trips to Cuba, as well as those of Barbara Walters on ABC, and before her, those of the late TV newswoman for ABC (whose name now escapes me) who was a firm left-wing activist privately and who began the coverage of Cuba for the network. In fact, CBS was so partisan that when they had a major story about Cuba, they invoked the aid and help -- as did 60 Minutes -- of our country’s top Castro apologist, Saul Landau, who arranged the trip, got credit for producing the segment, and was shown on the air reporting for them. True non-partisan objectivity, Ted!

The only difference is that today, the networks have all given up what was always fiction -- that TV news people had no opinions and just told the facts. Now the feft has MSNBC and Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and the rest of their crew, and the right has Fox and O’Reilly and Hannity and Beck.