By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Given all the heat Ted Koppel took last year for reading the names of the hundreds of Americans killed in Iraq, he could be forgiven for claiming vindication over the huge coverage when the death toll hit 2,000 late last month.
The "Nightline" anchor believes a meaningless milestone was overplayed by the media -- and is happy to tell you why.
"If the administration was really doing what it ought to be doing, they -- everyone from the president on down -- would have explained we have to remain in Iraq with such clarity that everyone would understand the sacrifice of 2,000, or even 20,000, lives is essential," he says. "My complaint is that the administration has done a poor job of explaining why we're in Iraq. You don't fight a war and allow just a tiny fraction of the population to carry the burden. It's hard to make the case that the rest of us are sharing in the burden of being at war when our taxes have been cut, not increased. There are no victory gardens. No one is being asked to do anything, really. That's why I thought it was important to show all those photographs and read all those names, not as a way of saying the war is wrong."
It is classic Koppel: tough-minded, eloquent, focused on world affairs and sometimes, it seems, conducting his own foreign policy. As he prepares to relinquish the helm of the ABC program he launched 26 years ago, when his focus was entirely on Iran and the Americans held hostage there, it is hard to avoid the end-of-an-era language that followed the departures of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and the death of Peter Jennings.
"This is easily perceived as the fourth 20-year-plus anchor stepping aside, and that's not the case," says Executive Producer Tom Bettag, who plans to launch a reporting venture with Koppel after they leave ABC. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment, Bettag says, is that the program will continue after Koppel's last night, Nov. 22, with an anchor triumvirate of Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran and Martin Bashir. "A number of people said once Ted goes, there goes 'Nightline.' "
One thing that will be lost with the new incarnation's wide-ranging format is what Koppel, 65, always has boasted about: an in-depth look at one subject each night. Does that bother him? "I don't want to begin by prejudging what's going to be done, because it may be terrific," he says. "I don't want this to be interpreted as Ted saying the new approach ain't going to work."
Koppel announced his resignation in March after ABC News President David Westin decided he wanted "Nightline" -- the ratings of which have been slipping in recent years -- to be live at 11:35 p.m. Koppel had no desire to work such a schedule, and always has argued that the program is live when it needs to be live and otherwise there is no point in having guests wait around all evening.
"At some point, it would probably be time to pull out anyway," says Koppel, who served notice five years ago that he and Bettag wanted to phase themselves out gradually. Koppel had hoped that Chris Bury would succeed him as anchor -- Bury and John Donvan will remain as correspondents, most likely joined by Vicki Mabrey from CBS -- and that former producer Leroy Sievers would replace Bettag. But management, which hired British journalist James Goldston to run the program, had other ideas.
"It's their broadcast in the final analysis," Koppel says. "I've always taken the position it's our job to make the program as attractive to the audience as we could possibly make it, but there are limits. You don't bring on dancing girls."
That's not an entirely frivolous comment, given that Koppel's competition includes Jay Leno and David Letterman. In fact, ABC tried to junk the show three years ago by luring Letterman from CBS. Koppel fought back, criticizing ABC and parent company Disney in a New York Times op-ed.
"I never questioned the corporation's right to do that," he says. "This is an industry, it's a business. We exist to make money. We exist to put commercials on the air. The programming that is put on between those commercials is simply the bait we put in the mousetrap.
"If it is true that David Letterman can draw a lot more viewers than 'Nightline' and Ted Koppel, if you can make an extra $30 million or $50 million a year, I absolutely understand they not only have the right but the fiduciary obligation to do that. I just don't think they did it the best way in terms of the handling of it. We were among the last to learn about it. You just don't do that to people who have worked hard for you for a long time."
In his 42 years at ABC, and especially in his quarter-century at "Nightline," Koppel seemingly has conducted every kind of interview. He's talked to Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, Larry Flynt and Ginger Rogers, Chuck D and Buzz Aldrin. He famously quizzed Gary Hart about adultery, told Michael Dukakis he just didn't get it and swatted down the racial views of baseball executive Al Campanis, who lost his job over the interview.
He also has reported from around the world -- a foray to South Africa in the 1980s made news worldwide -- and, more recently, covered the 2003 Iraq war amid the tanks in the desert. Just last week, "Nightline" did a show on Zimbabwe ruler Robert Mugabe's devastating impact on his country -- not the sort of thing other programs are clamoring to cover.
Television executives, Koppel says, "live under the misapprehension that Americans don't care about foreign news. They don't care about boring news. If you present it in a boring fashion, then they don't care about foreign news. What really dictates here is the cost of foreign news. At a time that we really have to worry about what's going on in the rest of the world, what people in other countries think of us, we are less well informed by television news than we have been in many years.
"If the only time you cover foreign news is when you send someone, every foreign story is going to cost you a lot of money when you do it and likely to be less well informed than in the days when you had people who lived in the country for two, three, five, 10 years and understand the culture."
In a been-there-done-that media culture, Koppel relished the idea of returning to his signature issues again and again: the Middle East, South Africa, AIDS, racism, crime and punishment. Asked whether evening newscasts do the same thing, he says: "There's a huge difference between coming back to a story and devoting 2 1/2 minutes to it, and the next time 1:45, and what we have done when we focused on an issue for two, three or four programs." Taking the show to such places as Congo -- which Koppel says has "an invisible war which barely exists even in newspapers" -- boosted the ratings and burnished the program's reputation. "But it's a very expensive thing to do and it's also thoroughly exhausting."
Koppel relishes the contrarian role. In 1996 he created a major stir by packing up and leaving the Republican National Convention in San Diego, saying no news was being committed there. "In the intervening years," he says, "guess what? Everyone's come to the conclusion that conventions really aren't worth covering, except on cable."
Last week Koppel committed news himself when he appeared to endorse Charlie Gibson, the "Good Morning America" co-host who has been doing part-time duty on the evening news, as ABC's next anchor. Koppel says he was just responding to a specific question about Gibson from a TV Guide reporter.
"I do think Charlie Gibson would make an absolutely splendid anchor," he says. But noting the rise of "GMA" under Gibson and Diane Sawyer, he says, "Those morning shows are moneymaking machines. Changing such a successful equation could cost you tens of millions of dollars."
Koppel and Bettag say they will not make a deal with another media outlet until their departure -- although they have had talks with HBO -- but say there is a vacuum in long-form reporting that they intend to fill. Still, they are leaving a very big stage.
"You can't help but have mixed feelings," Bettag says. "Trying to wean yourself away from the daily news adrenaline is no small thing. But this is something we've planned for a very long time. Ted is very much at peace with this."
Koppel plans to take a few months off, but "I'm not going to slide into semi-retirement," he says. "Nothing lights my fire more than a big story out there and going out to cover it."