Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The end of a (bad) era

Ellen: So, um, did you see Nightline last night?
Audrey: Oh, don't you hate Ted Koppel? He's so superior. It's like there's only one opinion in the world and Ted has to have it.
-- "The Anchor" written by David S. Rosenthal. From the series Ellen (These Friends of Mine, when originally broadcast), Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres), Audrey (Clea Lewis).

So tonight is the bow out for Koppel on Nightline.

We're all supposed to be boo-hooing, wearing the hair-shirts over the future of TV "news."

Tributes will probably roll out to remind us of what we're going to "miss." Yes, it's true there was little of the screaming found on CrossFire, The McLaughlin Group, et al. It's also true that there wasn't much for the left to applaud on Nightline.

As Gore Vidal's noted, ". . . if you want to know what the ownership of the country wants you to know, tune in to Nightline and listen to Ted Koppel and his guests" (Vidal, The Decline of the American Empire, p. 44). Vidal also cites a study by FAIR for the years 1985-1988 of Nightline. Koppel mentor Henry Kissinger racks up 14 appearances as does Al Haig -- other multi-appearance guests included Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. Vidal notes (pp. 47-48):

The Koppel explanation for this bizarre repertory company is that, well, they are the folks who are running the country and so that's why they're on. Well, yes, Ted, that is why they're on, but there are other more interesting and more learned -- even disinterested voices in the land and, in theory, they should be heard, too.

That was Nightline, that is Nightline.

We're so starved for TV news (as opposed to "news") that there may be a temptation for some to extoll Nightline as "serious." What show were they watching? Let's trip down memory lane.

Let's drop back to July 29, 2004, Democracy Now!'s "ABC's Ted Koppel Refuses To Apologize For Pre-War Iraq Coverage:"

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that ABC and the other networks should apologize for providing an uncritical forum for the administration to lay out their unsubstantiated claims of weapons of mass destruction?
TED KOPPEL: I am glad you phrased your question so nicely. No, I don't think an apology is due if what you are saying is could we all have been more critical? I think the answer is yes. I must tell you, I am going to be responsive in behalf of Nightline over which I do have some control. We did do a 90-minute town hall meeting, the title of which was Why Now? and the essence of which was: Where is the evidence that there's an immediate danger to the United States? Did we do enough programs like that? I concede we did not. But that's a function of perhaps incompetence on my part, but certainly not ill will and I will try and do better the next time, but I don't think I need to apologize for it.

There was incompetence and Koppel's incompetence continues, especially with regard to the occupation, especially with regard to his statements in the interview (we'll return to that in a moment). However, note that there's no apology. We never got one. Not in any form, not even a New York Times style mea culpa.

Ted Koppel was always a curious sort of reporter. In 2002, he was calling for censorship in reporting from the battle field, as Cynthia Cotts outlined in "Smoke Signals: Koppel Says Yes to Military Censorship in Iraq" (The Village Voice). And during the invasion/occupation he was often "confused" as when he reported (wrongly) that Iraq had fired Scud missiles. Chronology was also confusing for Kopel.

For instance, note FAIR's "Missing the Evidence on Missing Explosives: Reports ignore videotapes that debunk administration claims:"

On October 28, ABC affiliate KSTP released footage that was shot by its embedded reporters on April 18, 2003, showing members of the 101st Airborne Division searching the Al Qaqaa bunkers. Clearly visible on the tape are containers marked with labels that indicate the barrels contained the high explosives in question. ABC World News Tonight broadcast the footage on October 28, noting that soldiers opened the bunkers that had been sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), discovered the high explosives, and then left those bunkers open and unguarded. Given that the tape was shot nine days after the fall of Baghdad, it would appear to prove that at least some of these explosives were looted after the U.S. invasion-- a scenario that is consistent with statements from Iraqi officials and witnesses to the looting (Agence France Presse, 10/27/04; New York Times, 10/28/04). As ABC's Martha Raddatz put it, "It is the strongest evidence to date the explosives disappeared after the U.S. had taken control of Iraq."
[. . .]
And even though ABC's network newscast had broadcast the KSTP footage, ABC's Ted Koppel reached a very different conclusion on the Nightline broadcast later that evening (10/28/04). Koppel explained that "a friend" in the military had reminded him that he was actually at Al Qaqaa during the war, and that "my friend, the senior military commander, believes that the explosives had already been removed by Saddam's forces before we ever got there. The Iraqis, he said, were convinced that the U.S. was going to bomb the place." For some reason, the theory advanced by his military friend was apparently more credible to Koppel than the television footage ABC had aired hours earlier that debunked his thesis.

Ted's friends never steer him wrong, to be sure. Old Hank Kissinger never told a lie and certainly saintly Colin Powell never even thought one. Surrounded by all that "truth," it's surprising that Ted Koppel could ever be wrong (though he often is). Let's go back to that interview Amy Goodman conducted and we'll make a game of it, like "Where's Waldo." See if you can spot the problem on your own (answer follows excerpt):

TED KOPPEL: Right. I agree with you. But I must ask you in return, what was, you know, what would you have looked to for evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction? There was evidence in 1998 that those weapons of mass destruction, not only existed, but were present in, just let me finish the plot--not only existed, but were present in Iraq. It did not make logical sense that Saddam Hussein, whose armies had been defeated once before by the United States and the Coalition, would be prepared to lose control over his country if all he had to do was say all right, U.N., come on in, check it out, I will show you, give you whatever evidence you want to have, let you interview whomever you want to interview. Logically at that time, it seemed as though weapons of mass destruction--did I believe at the time that there were weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely, I did.

Did you catch his error? (He didn't.) From Robert Parry's Secrets & Privilege (page 350-351):

But as anyone with a memory of those historic events should know, Iraq did let the U.N. weapon inspectors in and gave them the freedom to examine any site they wished. Iraqi officials, including Hussein, also declared publicly that they didn't possess weapons of mass destruction, contray to the repetition of the question posed by Bush's defenders that: "Well, if Saddam Hussein didn't have WMD, why didn't he say so?" The history is clear -- or should be -- that it was the Bush administration that forced the U.N. inspectors out of Iraq so the United States and its coalition could press ahead with the invasion.
Yet through repetition the Bush administration's favored narrative of the war had sunk in as a faux reality for Washington journalists, including Koppel, that Bush bent over backwards to avoid the invasion and was forced to attack because Hussein's intrasigence made it look like the dictator was hiding something. While Koppel's response to Amy Goodman might be viewed as a case of Koppel trying to spin the facts himself to dodge responsibility for his lack of pre-war skepticism, he clearly had gotten the idea for his misleading explanation from the Bush administration.

Goodman notes another problem, to Koppel, with his "logic:"

AMY GOODMAN: Well let me look at September 2002. Bush and Blair give their, have their news conference at Camp David. They say an I.A.E. report has just come out that alleges that Saddam Hussein will get nuclear weapons within six months.
AMY GOODMAN: This was six month away before the invasion.
AMY GOODMAN: Almost no mainstream reporter in this country reported, there was no such report.

That escaped Koppel's attention apparently. Perhaps he was thinking back on 1993 and a broadcast he did then (or possibly of a guest on that show. From FAIR, "Koppel's 'Tough Question': Should Doctors Be Killed?:"

Nightline's December 8, 1993 program was a prime example of imbalanced, irresponsible journalism. The issue was the killing of doctors who perform abortions: not how it can be prevented, but whether such attacks are justified.Invited into the studio to discuss this "issue" were Helen Alvare, a representative of the Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, and Paul Hill, the director of a tiny anti-abortion faction called Defensive Action, which advocates the killing of doctors. No one with a pro-choice viewpoint was allowed to participate in the live discussion. (The three soundbites from pro-choice sources in the pre-recorded portion of the broadcast were well outnumbered by 12 soundbites from advocates of anti-abortion violence.)
Koppel opened the show by comparing the number of legal abortions with the number of murdered doctors--an equation often made by those who justify violence against clinics. "Here's the latest casualty count from the battlefront between the pro-life and the pro-choice movements," Koppel began. "Thirty million aborted fetuses over the past 30 [sic] years since Roe v. Wade.... On the other side of the ledger, 7,709 incidents of violence and disruption targeting doctors and abortion clinics since 1977... [including] one attempted murder and one successful murder."
This sort of arithmetic leaves pregnant women--including the estimated 200,000 women who die each year during illegal abortions worldwide--entirely out of the picture. Hill picked up on Koppel's theme when given his opportunity to explain his advocacy of killing doctors: "We're saying 30 million children have died.... Sometimes you have to use force to stop people from killing innocent children."
[. . .]
Nightline's decision to treat the issue of doctor-murder as solely a tactical debate within the anti-abortion movement is peculiar. It is difficult to imagine the show bringing on representatives of a mainstream peace group and a far-left organization to discuss, say, whether bombing Army recruitment offices is a justifiable way to oppose U.S. military intervention.

Now let's stay with that for a moment, let's stay with that episode and with the guest Paul Hill.
In FAIR's July/August 1995 issue of Extra!, Laura Flanders followed up on this with "Far-Right Militias and Anti-Abortion Violence: When Will Media See the Connection?:"

In late 1993 (12/8/93), Nightline's Ted Koppel hosted an in-studio discussion of doctor-killing. His only guests were Helen Alvare, are presentative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (which issued a statement post-Pensacola comparing the violence of murder with the"violence of abortion"), and Paul Hill, director of the anti-abortion group"Defensive Action," which advocates killing doctors on the grounds that abortion is violence.
Ted Koppel echoed this definition of violence when he opened the show by comparing the number of legal abortions with the number of murdered doctors--what he called "the latest casualty count from the battlefield between the pro-life and the pro-choice movements." Although terrorism is one of Koppel's favorite subjects--FAIR's study of Nightline counted 52 programs on the topic in 40 months (Extra!, 1-2/89)--the word "terrorism"was never used by him to describe anti-abortion violence. Instead, a sympathetic Koppel said that Hill's advocacy of murdering doctors raised a "very, very difficult moral question." (See Extra! Update, 2/94.)
Hill, like Griffin, was a protege of John Burt, whose group issued a wanted poster for Dr. John Bayard Britton, Gunn's replacement. The poster "exposed" Britton "for the butcher that he is." Seven months after his appearance on Nightline, Hill gunned down Britton and James Barrett, his escort, at the same Pensacola clinic.

Is Nightline responsible when a guest goes out and kills someone? Absolutely not. But can Nightline be more responsible in whom they book? Absolutely. But as the two critiques from FAIR seem to indicate, Nightline's sole concern was in presenting a "pro-life" installment. They did that. They got a murderer on air before he committed the crime. Is Ted Koppel proud of making nice?

Okay, but he's been there on some issues, right? Like race. Well no, Nightline was one of the outlets that promoted The Bell Curve and "treated as fact Murray and Herrnstein's claim that black IQs are 15 points lower than whites."

Okay, but he's a knowledgable person, so, on politics, he provides astute commentary, right? Actually, he huffed and puffed, then finally bailed on the 1996 GOP convention due to (his opinion) a lack of news coming from the convention (possibly the guests added to the spin factor? -- Frank Luskin, New Gingrinch).

Was he really upset about a lack of serious news in the coverage? Magic Eight Ball says, "Seems unlikely." Let's note Bob Somerby's "LIMOUSINE LIBERAL BIAS (PART 2)! The Post limned Ted--and we caught a glimpse of those troubling Millionaire Pundit Values:" (The Daily Howler):

[Larry] King was referring to the "bit" about the size and distribution of the Bush tax cuts--the campaign's largest budget proposal. Bush and Gore had battled about the shape of the plan--and in his charges of "phony numbers" and "fuzzy math," Bush had called Gore a Big Liar. The issues involved were stunningly basic. So try to believe that Ted said it:
KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can't pretend for a minute that I'm really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven't a clue what they're talking about.
Koppel is paid millions of dollars a year. The facts about the Bush tax cuts had been clear for five months as he spoke (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/24/02). But it "turned his brains to mush," he said, to try to follow the Bush-Gore debate. In this moment, we saw the stunning insouciance of our insider press corps. In any other professional sector, a practitioner making such a startling admission would be subject to suits for misfeasance.
Simply put, Koppel didn't seem to give a fig about the most basic issue of the campaign.

Okay, well that was Koppel discussing a debate in 2000, but he was a guest on someone else's show. Certainly he's more prepared on Nightline, right? From Bob Somerby's "CHURLS IN CHARGE (PART 3)! Why do 'TV liberals' argue so poorly? Perhaps they aren't 'liberals' at all!:"

Item--October 14, 2004: Uh-oh! Koppel again! On Nightline, Koppel interviews Kerry-trasher John O'Neill--and it's obvious that Ted is unprepared. Koppel fails to catch his guest in a string of key misstatements. But then, where was Koppel earlier that evening, when he might have been preparing? Where else? He was attending a foppish "roast" for Colin Powell, one of the most powerful men in the world--and someone Koppel allegedly covers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04). At the roast, Powell reveals more secrets of the press corps' foppish ways. "Every couple of years, Ted will come by my house on the spur of the moment and we'll sit in the back yard and have a cup of coffee," the secretary/general says. "And he's usually driving one of his hot cars. He always has a fast car of some kind. And so about, oh, four or five years ago, he came by the house and he had this real muscle car, and after we had a cup of coffee and chatted for a while, he says..." Well, we'll spare you the rest of the manifest foppistry. But was this not another triumph of the press corps' High Foppist Values? Koppel has time to chat about his latest hot car with one of the people he's supposed to be covering. But he doesn't have time to prepare for a crucial TV session. Result? On his show, Kerrry gets crushed.

And who can forget his performance as a moderator at the 2003 Democratic primary debate?
Not John Nichols. From his "Kucinich Makes Media an Issue" (The Online Beat, The Nation):

Koppel, served as a moderator for last week's debate in New Hampshire between the nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination in 2004. The veteran newsman's decision to focus vast stretches of last week's debate on insider questions about endorsements and polling figures rankled Kucinich, who has for some time objected to the neglect of his candidacy by most media. But he also did something else. By badgering Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun with questions that suggested they should drop out of the race, Koppel exposed the dirty little secret of network television journalists who are covering the 2004 contest: They prefer easily described, sound bite-driven contests between a handful of well-known candidates, not wide open contests with lots of candidates and lots of interesting ideas.
Journalists know that covering democracy is costly, and inconvenient. Covering coronations, in contrast, is relatively cheap and undemanding.
By seeming to complain about having to deal with such a large field of candidates, however, and by so clearly indicating which candidates he would like to see leave the competition, Koppel turned attention away from the contenders and toward the question of whether the self-serving calculations of America's television networks are doing damage to America's democracy.
After gently poking Koppel for starting the debate with a round of questions regarding Al Gore's endorsement of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Kucinich suggested that it was wrong to steer the debate toward process questions when fundamental issues -- such as the war in Iraq, trade policy and national health care -- had gone unaddressed. Koppel then came back to Kucinich with a question about whether he, Sharpton and Moseley Braun weren't really "vanity" candidates who would have to drop out because they had not raised as much money as other contenders. That's when the sparks flew.
"I want the American people to see where media takes politics in this country," the Ohio congressman said. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then talking about money. When you do that you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."
The crowd at the New Hampshire debate erupted with loud and sustained applause.

They were applauding Kucinich's statements, not Koppel's performance. Here's Bob Somerby (The Daily Howler) on the same debate:

If you didn't see it, yes--it was bad. The second time Kucinich told Koppel to shut up, he got a long ovation from a frustrated audience. Ditto Kerry, moments later, telling Ted "where to put" his questions. At one point, we really thought that the audience might start heckling Ted. Too bad! Polite to a fault, they did not.
Koppel, of course, has those Millionaire Pundit Values. After Bush and Gore's first debate, he couldn't explain the simplest facts about Bush's tax plan--but he's willing to bust his ass to learn the size of his neighbors' McMansions (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/3/03). For a summation of Koppel's performance this week, we refer you to Will Saletan, who captured it well in his opening paragraphs. Dan Kennedy has also weighed in. You know what to do. Just click here. Also here.
One last point--do read that profile by Howard Kurtz (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/03). Watch Koppel's staff as they proudly assemble the questions for which he was ridiculed.

More on this can be found in the editorial, "The Awesome Destructive Power of CPM" at The Black Commentator:

ABC finally showed its true corporate colors at the New Hampshire debate in the person of Nightline's Ted Koppel. Imperiously addressing the bottom trio, Koppel said:
"You've [to Kucinich] got about $750,000 in the bank right now, and that's close to nothing when you're coming up against this kind of opposition. But let me finish the question. The question is, will there come a point when polls, money and then ultimately the actual votes that will take place here in places like New Hampshire, the caucuses in Iowa, will there come a point when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out? Or are you in this as sort of a vanity candidacy?"
Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley-Braun acquitted themselves well in the exchange. The real story here is that Koppel felt empowered to all but demand that the three most progressive candidates (and both Blacks) vacate the Democratic presidential arena. Koppel had fumed to the New York Times about the
uppity intruders, the month before. The day after the debate, ABC withdrew its reporters from all three campaigns. (None of the other networks had even bothered to give full-time coverage to the bottom tier.)
Koppel's arrogance, so unbecoming to a journalist, is rooted in his actual status at ABC/Disney: he is a corporate executive who pretends to be a newsman on television. His professional history notwithstanding, Koppel and each of the high profile TV "news" personalities are millionaire executives who act as spokesmen for the corporate divisions of their parent companies. They interact with executives of other divisions, principally marketing -- the domain of sales and "impressions." Koppel is incapable of thinking in terms other than money and polls, an important marketing tool. He is proprietary about the political process because, as an esteemed executive in the ruling corporate class, he thinks he owns it.

Okay, politics were hard for Ted. (They were hard for Henry Kissinger too, at least overseas elections.) But the important stories, regardless of guests, were addressed, right? Right? For twenty-five years, Koppel has maintained the integrity of this show as it's tackled the hard issues?

Absolutely. Koppel may have passed the interview onto Forest Sawyer, but he didn't stand in the way of corporate synergy when it was decided his show would address the most pressing issue as 1990 drew to a close. Which is why December 3, 1990's episode dealt with the world shattering "news" topic: MTV's banning of Madonna's "Justify My Love" video. (No offense to Madonna, if "news" shows are stupid enough to offer, take the free promotion.)

Just to provide a little context, on December 2, 1990 Germany had their first "all German" (no longer partioned into "East" and "West") elections in fifty-eight years. December 3, 1990 Mary Robinson is elected the first woman president of Ireland. Also on December 3, 1990, you have a plane crash in Detroit that kills twelve. On the fourth of December, Saddam Hussein will release hostages. So it makes perfect sense that Nightline will instead honor it's corporate parent(s?) by promoting Madonna and her banned video (which Nightline played in full). Koppel's farming that interview out to Forest Sawyer doesn't alter the fact that Nightline "covered" it.

And more recently, they were there for the earth shattering anniversary of the release of the film Animal House. Animal House & Nightline? At first, it doesn't seem like they go together but think it through.

These and other "important" stories have oft been covered on Nightline. Take the 'pressing' issue of violence in figure skating. As FAIR noted, Nightline was there for "the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga. In about seven weeks (Jan. 24 to March 16), Nightline devoted five entire broadcasts to the figure skaters -- over 13 percent of total air time. During that period, Nightline offered no programs on such issues as unemployment, declining U.S. wages, world hunger or nuclear proliferation." (Multiple episodes are really important to Koppel, Katha Pollitt's noted his 1993 two-parter to explore whether or not the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, had too much power.)

You can't explore these "weighty" topics without something falling through the cracks. Which is why, as noted in FAIR's "Spinning the Libby Indictment: Pundits attack Wilson, downplay perjury," the day of Scooter Libby was indicted, here's how Nightline handled it:

On ABC's Nightline, Ted Koppel devoted only a few minutes to the indictment before beginning a scheduled town hall meeting on disaster preparedness. Koppel offered the following explanation:
Scooter Libby's indictment today is indisputably a major story. It was the lead on all the television network news programs earlier this evening. It will be the object of banner headlines in all of your morning newspapers tomorrow. As for its real impact on the lives of most American, though, not much. Not really. That's the strange thing about our business, the news business. Often, what seems so important to us, reporters that is, is of little or no consequence to many of you.
Why Libby's indictment is "of little consequence" is worth some explanation. Valerie Wilson's job at the CIA was preventing the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; if blowing her cover jeopardized that work, then this story certainly does affect all Americans.

This wasn't news to Ted Koppel. As Democracy Now! noted, "For the first time in 130 years, a White House staff member has been indicted for crimes committed in the office." But to Ted Koppel, it depends, presumably, on what you definition of "news" is. Not surprising when you consider that this is the man who looked at the 1992 Los Angeles riots and, as Susan Faludi noted on page 481 of Stiffed, saw his "next Tianamen." Violence must do something for Ted Koppel. The lack of it led to a lack of interest in covering the protest rallies in NYC during the 2004 GOP convention. Which lead Tracy Van Slyke to write a response to Koppel ("Ted Koppel's disturbing analysis," The ITT List, In These Times):

Is it my understanding that because there isn't blood running in the streets, that the protests aren't worth covering? This is not just bad judgment, this is terrible journalism.
I'm fed up with the mainstream media not acting like journalists, but fulfilling the role of snotty censors. These "protestors" have done a better job at home and in New York this week investigating and exposing the issues that go the heart of the American people than journalists themselves. They have talked about the economy, about jobs, about womens' rights, about labor, about the issue of war and its consequences and yes, even about the mainstream media itself. At least they are engaging discourse, whether or not everyone agrees with them. They have not repeated political rhetoric, pitted two campaigns against each other to see who draws more blood, and engaged in instant punditry as if that makes good journalism.
How typical for the mainstream media to dismiss these protestors as a fringe element, not worth a look at unless there is disorder and mayhem in the streets.

So as Ted Koppel, "proud to be a friend of Henry Kissinger," gears up for his final Nightline broadcast, let's remember some of the above. There's plenty more that could be noted. Ted Koppel says farewell tonight and some may see that as "sad" or "disheartening." I'm more inclined to agree with Rebecca, "ted koppel go away already." Instead of being upset over the end of a (bad) era, we could, as Joel Bleifuss noted:

Support and build independent media institutions that challenge the smug righteousness of the likes of Ted Koppel, that perform a civic duty by engaging citizens with each other and their community, and that, in the words of In These Times mission statement, oppose "the tyranny of marketplace values over human values."

The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.