He emerged — white-haired and wrinkled but stentorian as ever — from NPR, a voice from the past scolding the present about the state of its political debate. The day after Donald Trump emerged mostly victorious from Super Tuesday, former ABC anchor Ted Koppel was talking to Bill O’Reilly about the Republican front-runner on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”
“Donald Trump — I’ve interviewed him a number of times,” O’Reilly said. “Not an easy interview. How would you do it?”
“It’s irrelevant how I would do it,” Koppel said. “And you know who made it irrelevant? You did.”
O’Reilly kept his poker face. Was this a compliment or an insult — or both?
“You have changed the television landscape over the past 20 years — you took it from being objective and dull to being subjective and entertaining,” Koppel said. “And in this current climate, it doesn’t matter what the interviewer asks him. Mr. Trump is going to say whatever he wants to say, as outrageous as it may be.”
Koppel also seemed dissatisfied with the quality of America’s ongoing conversation about the presidency, and Trump’s role in that conversation.
“His audience … is not even a television audience,” Koppel said. “It’s an audience on Twitter. They deal in messages of 140 characters or less, which keeps it nice and simple.”
O’Reilly, in turn, wasn’t satisfied with Koppel’s take. He thought the news media could do more than give up.
“Maybe his supporters don’t care what he says,” O’Reilly said. “However, our job, whether I’m a commentator or a reporter, is to get as much information … to show the viewer who the person really is.” So what would Koppel — no longer as regularly on the air as in days of yore — do with Trump?
Koppel was ready to educate.
“The first way you do it is not in the interview — you do it by some reporting,” Koppel said. “It’s an old-fashioned concept, but I think demonstrating who and what Mr. Trump is and what his policies really amount to is something you don’t do in an interview. He doesn’t answer the questions.”
Koppel — perhaps unaware that Trump released his health-care plan Wednesday evening — then dinged Trump, saying he lacked “substance.”
“When is the last time you have heard Donald Trump spell out a real policy on anything other than, ‘We’re gonna be the best, we’re gonna be the greatest, I’m gonna negotiate the best deals you’ve ever seen?'” Koppel said. “There is no substance in any of that, and nobody among his followers seems to care about that.”
O’Reilly allowed that Trump, not a traditional politician, is appealing to emotion. He compared the Republican’s tactics to those of Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his “wild” policy proposals.
“But he’s coming in a poor second, and Trump is way ahead of the pack,” Koppel said. “So it does make a difference.”
“You obviously don’t approve of Donald Trump,” O’Reilly said. But he wanted to know how Koppel would handle the candidate today — now that “commentators like me have ruined the country.”
“It’s true, you have,” Koppel said.
“Would you show your disdain at a certain point for a certain candidate?” O’Reilly asked. “… Under these new rules on television, is that allowed?”
“I don’t like the new rules of television, and quite frankly, I don’t think I would adhere to the new rules of television,” Koppel said. “It’s not a question of what I personally think; it’s a question whether there’s anything of substance there.”
Koppel’s prescription: “a little bit of journalism.”
“Go into some of the details of who and what Mr. Trump actually is, what those policies amount to,” he said. “… You remember on ‘Nightline,’ that’s what we used to do.”
O’Reilly pointed out that network news is now perceived as liberal — and biased. “A lot of the straight reportage that used to be accepted is now questioned,” O’Reilly said.
Koppel said that O’Reilly himself was one of those doing the questioning.
“For the past 20 years … you have been changing the landscape,” Koppel said. “… It’s hard to believe these days, but 30 years ago, a television network anchor, Walter Cronkite, was the most trusted man in America. There’s not a man today — yourself included — on television as an anchor who is trusted by anything approaching the majority of the American people.”
O’Reilly had to stick up for himself.
“I did get, in the Gallup Poll, most admired,” O’Reilly said. “In the top ten.”
“That’s cause you’re tall and handsome,” Koppel said.
The video can be seen here.