News Veteran Ted Koppel on Latest Edition of ‘The Kalb Report’

Mr. Koppel and Marvin Kalb discuss the transformation of broadcast journalism at the National Press Club Nov. 19.
News veterans Ted Koppel and Marvin Kalb on "The Kalb Report" Nov. 19 at the National Press Club.
November 20, 2012

Is network news on its way out?

That was the topic of conversation between news veterans Ted Koppel and Marvin Kalb on the latest edition of “The Kalb Report,” Nov. 19 at the National Press Club.

Although the title of the show was “The Twilight of Network News: A Conversation with Ted Koppel on Democracy and the Press,” Mr. Koppel said he think there’s still hope for the nightly news.

“I predict that your title, provocative as it may be, may be premature,” he told Mr. Kalb. “I think that when Americans finally realize how bad things are, and what terrible straits our political system is in, I think there may be a resurgence of the kind of journalism that you and I grew up with.”

Mr. Koppel is best known for his role as anchor and managing editor of ABC News’ “Nightline” where his interviews and reporting touched every major news story over 25 years, making him the longest-serving news anchor in network history.

Mr. Koppel joined ABC Radio News in 1963 as a correspondent for its daily “Flair Reports” program, where one of his first assignments was to cover the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He moved to television in 1966 when reporting on the Vietnam War.  

During his 42 years at ABC News, Mr. Koppel also worked as anchor of “The ABC Saturday Night News,” chief diplomatic correspondent, Vietnam War correspondent and Hong Kong bureau chief. He has had a major reporting role in every presidential campaign since 1964.   

Mr. Koppel has won every major broadcasting industry honor, including the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award, 41 Emmy Awards, eight George Foster Peabody Awards, 10 Overseas Press Club Awards and two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the highest honor bestowed for public service by the Society of Professional Journalists.

On “The Kalb Report,” Mr. Kalb and Mr. Koppel discussed the changes in journalism since they began their careers more than 50 years ago, with Mr. Kalb noting that they together represent “more than 100 years of journalistic experience.”

Back then, it could take more than three days before pieces went on the air—and only on ABC, NBC or CBS. Stories had to contain more context to “survive,” said Mr. Koppel, who currently serves as special correspondent for the NBC News primetime newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” and as a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.  

“I have nothing but respect, admiration and a little bit of sympathy for our colleagues today who quite literally have to report almost around the clock,” he said.

But in the rush to report news—which includes almost minute-by-minute posts on social media—Mr. Koppel fears the quality of reporting may be suffering.

“We have more media available to us today, more means of communicating information than have ever existed in the history of the world,” she said. “We're so enchanted, though, with our ability to be fast that I think we've sometimes lost connection with what we're saying and why.”

The creation of “60 Minutes” in 1968— a momentous year in the United States, which included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and major developments in the Vietnam War— was the birth of a new form of television news, said Mr. Koppel.

“60 Minutes” also made money, a first for television news program, Mr. Koppel said. News programs are now becoming “profit centers” for the networks, and he fears is driving their programming today.

“Being a profit center is a huge responsibility because it means that you start thinking in a different way,” he said. “You start thinking not so much about what the public ought to hear, but rather what the public wants to hear. You are now in competition with the other networks, with the other news outlets, not just for audience, but you're in competition with them to make money.”

To stay ahead, Mr. Koppel said news programs are shying away from shipping their major correspondents overseas for big stories—and thus not investing in the news coverage that is “vital to a democracy.”

“Now you have cable, you have satellite television, you have the internet. So now there are quite literally hundreds, even thousands of competitors out there,” he told Mr. Kalb. “What is incredibly cheap to put on the air are a couple of people like you and me just yelling at each other, right?”

Mr. Koppel also mourned the partisanship and lack of objectivity in a majority of news programming today. He said opinions are drawing viewership, not content, citing MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as an example.

“I'd love to see Rachel Maddow as the anchor of one of the evening news programs on network television,” said Mr. Koppel. “But the price of that would be that she would have to keep her opinions to herself… I don’t want to know where she comes down on a particular issue. But that is seen as hopelessly old fashioned these days.”

“And whether or not our critics want to believe it, I argue…that there really was a time—and there really remain in this country today—men and women who can be professional journalists capable of objectivity,” he added.

But despite his criticisms, Mr. Koppel said a “course correction” in broadcast journalism is not out of the question.

“Remember, twilight is usually followed by night and then dawn follows night,” he said. “So, I'm still hopeful. I'm still hopeful.”

“The Kalb Report” is produced by the George Washington University, the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

GW Research Blog