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.
This truth, Koppel tells us, “is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me.” Yes, some commentators are indeed guilty of mistaking their opinions for facts. Beck, as the most recent controversy of his coverage of George Soros has made clear, is most guilty of this charge. But Moynihan’s comment that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts” is itself somewhat flawed. The problem is that, as historians know, one chooses which facts to emphasize and hold as important when one makes an argument. Often those with a contending view will emphasize other facts they believe contradict their opponent’s argument. Very infrequently is the issue of distorting a “fact” the real issue at hand.
Indeed, Koppel ends his piece by making an argument -- one that conservatives make a lot and that liberals dismiss. He writes:
But when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster. We need only look at our housing industry, our credit card debt, the cost of two wars subsidized by borrowed money, and the rising deficit to understand the dangers of entitlement run rampant.
Where have I heard this kind of argument before? Oh yes -- I believe it was by someone talking on Fox News! Perhaps Mr. Koppel should consider applying to them for a new job. A lot of people would like to see him on a major network again.
Yes, he is correct that one problem is that the news division is now seen in the same way as the entertainment division, and like them, they have to show a profit or make budget cuts or face cancellation. Originally, they were supposed to be supported by the entertainment division, and were exempt from the same rules.
But we live in a new age, and the news executives have no choice but to take reality into account. No one hardly watches the big three (CBS, ABC and NBC) 7 pm news shows anymore, and in fact, with the internet and cable, there is no need to. And by the way, were Koppel or the other anchors willing to save their bureaus and correspondents by taking cuts in their average $8 million a year salaries -- an act that alone might have prevented the loss he so bemoans of the overseas bureaus?
As for his claim that the old broadcasts “offered relatively unbiased accounts of information,” it is simply not true. Nor is Koppel’s claim that the reporters were only “motivated to gather facts about important issues.”
And so we learn that Mr. Koppel is now an analyst for BBC America. Isn’t the BBC that wonderful outfit that is so biased and one-sided -- especially in its treatment of Israel -- that most critical listeners and viewers know immediately to take anything it says with a grain of salt? Perhaps Ted Koppel is not aware of this and, recalling the reputation of old that the BBC once had, thinks of it the same way he thinks of the networks in our country in the '40s , '50s, and '60s.
Maybe we should all wait for Al Jazeera America to finally get on the cable channels. Then we can all find a true objective source we know we can trust.
It has been pointed out to me by the indomitable Jack Shafer of Slate.com, who wrote about Koppel here, as well as in an e-mail from retired top editor Ed Kosner, that the truth is that LBJ never made the statement that has been so widely quoted- including by me above-that "if we lost Cronkite, we've lost the country," or whatever version of that quote has made the rounds. The real story has been discussed by press critic W. Joseph Campbell at his "Media Myth Alert" blog. As Campbell writes, "the frequency with which the quote attributed to Johnson is invoked certainly has made it among the most famous, if most dubious, turns of phrase in American journalism." A lesson learned. We all have to check and re-check our sources before citing a quote, no matter how many others have made the same mistake.