Ted Koppel gave Howard Kurtz an earful about his old bosses yesterday on “Reliable Sources.”
For starters: “Look, the fact of the matter is, Howard, that over the past few years, I think the commercial broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS — have become so cowed by the demographic demands of advertisers, that doing the kinds of documentaries that me and my colleagues like to do is seen as the sort of thing that you give a veteran anchor if it’s the only way to keep him happy.”
On the networks and news coverage: “I don’t know whether I would go so far as to call it a moral failing, but I do think it is a failing, and it’s a failing because it’s based on incorrect information. ”
On ‘Emoting’: “Because that’s not your job and that’s not my job. Our job is not to emote emotionally on the virtues or shortcomings of each story…. And if we become emotionally involved in every story, then eventually I think the public is — very quickly, I think the public will tire of that, if all of us do that.”
As Koppel explained to Kurtz the challenge was getting someone to hire him and the full staff he wanted to bring along with him, which was part of the reason that he chose Discovery in the final equations.
Here for the first time, also, is the list of former “Nightline” staffers heading to Discovery with Koppel: Exec. Producer: Tom Bettag; Producers:
Hallye Galbraith (who’ll serve as the head of operations), James Blue, Peter Demchuk, Jay LaMonica, and Elissa Rubin; Associate Producers: John Alexander, Imtiyaz Delawala, and Emily Stanitz.
Full transcript after the jump.
HOWARD KURTZ, “WASHINGTON POST”: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
It’s been an industry guessing game for months — who would land Ted Koppel after the 40 year ABC News veteran packed it in at “Nightline”?
He is, after all, one of the highest-profile and highest paid journalists in the business, one who has reported from war zones and hot spots around the world, and produced plenty of classic television moments during his long late night run.
Well, the bidding war is over. And joining me now to talk about his decision and the problems in television news is Ted Koppel. Welcome.
TED KOPPEL, FMR. “NIGHTLINE” ANCHOR: The bidding war?
KURTZ: A lot of people were interested in you.
KOPPEL: Well, interested yes. That doesn’t mean they were bidding.
KURTZ: You could have gone to any broadcasting network, any cable news network, you were in advanced talks with HBO, and yet you chose to join Discovery Network. Why?
KOPPEL: You’re very kind that I could have gone to all of those people. In the final analysis, Howie — I mean, you and I had conversations about this last week, and in the final analysis it was just the best fit. We are able to do — my colleagues and I, and you neglected to mention that my old friend and colleague Tom Bettag who was executive producer of “Nightline” for many years …
KURTZ: And the other producers that worked (ph) with you …
KOPPEL: … and the other producers and associate producers are coming with us. And the fact of the matter is that it’s not easy to get jobs for 10 people. It’s OK when you’re just looking for one, but to find a place that will hire all 10 is not that easy.
And, secondly, to find a place that is capable of giving you time when you need it, that’s not easy either. I mean, television networks, for example, tend to have programs slotted into each time period throughout the entire 24 hours.
And to be able to go to a network like Discovery and say, you know, we think we may have an hour in September, but if it develops we might want to go an hour and a half, and very possibly we might want to follow it up with a 90-minute town meeting …
KURTZ: Is that the reason you couldn’t have done this, for example, at ABC. You’ve done prime-time documentaries there before.
KOPPEL: Look, the fact of the matter is, Howard, that over the past few years, I think the commercial broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS — have become so cowed by the demographic demands of advertisers, that doing the kinds of documentaries that me and my colleagues like to do is seen as the sort of thing that you give a veteran anchor if it’s the only way to keep him happy.
I mean, Peter Jennings was very good at getting time for those kinds of documentaries, and some of the best television journalism that’s been done in recent years was done by Peter on the hours that he did and for which he got prime-time.
KURTZ: Did you seem — you used the word cowed, that suggested kind of a moral failing on the part of the networks. They don’t care about news that much anymore.
KOPPEL: I don’t know whether I would go so far as to call it a moral failing, but I do think it is a failing, and it’s a failing because it’s based on incorrect information.
I think somehow the advertisers have come to believe — and they have managed to browbeat the networks into asking as though it were true
— that the people who are the biggest spenders in America, and therefore the most desirable customers as far as the advertisers are concerned, are young men and women between the ages of 18 and 35.
It’s always been my experience that the 45-year-olds and the 50-year-olds have a lot more spending money than the 20-somethings do.
But they’ve managed to convince the commercial networks that those are the people they want to get and therefore much of the programming tends to skew in that direction.
KURTZ: Now, cable news networks are in the 24 hour news business.
Your daughter, Andrea Koppel, works at this network. You could have explored joining CNN. Why would that have not been a good fit?
KOPPEL: Well, if I ask you the question — and I’m going to use one of these industry terms. If I were going to do what I just described that I’m going to do over at Discovery, where we say we want an hour and we want it in prime-time, and then we want to follow it by a 90-minute town meeting, which day part do you think CNN would have put that in?
Would they put it on in the morning? Would they put it on in the afternoon? Would they put it on in prime-time, at 8:00?
KURTZ: Why not?
KOPPEL: Why not indeed?
KURTZ: Who would watch?
KOPPEL: I think they might, but in order to do that, they would have to knock some of your most watched programs off the air for that evening. And they might do that once or twice, just to be really nice to me, but I don’t think they’d do it on a regular basis.
KURTZ: You’ve been critical of cable news. Do you think that — you know, here’s an outfit that doesn’t have to do “Desperate Housewives” or “ER” or baseball or football like the broadcast networks do, and yet you seem to regard it as pretty superficial.
KOPPEL: I’m critical — and truly I mean this out of love, because I think the cable networks could do so much more, and I think they too have allowed themselves to believe.
I think somehow in the back of every television executive’s brain, there’s an image of the American viewer sitting there with five television monitors in his or her kitchen, watching to see who gets the latest breaking news story on first.
And if CNN is ahead of FOX by 30 seconds, by God, they’re going to keep on CNN. But if CNN is behind MSNBC by 45 seconds, that’s it for CNN. You’ve just lost that viewer.
KURTZ: And some of those breaking stories, in your view, are not all that important? Of course, there are always the missing and things like that, the melodramas.
KOPPEL: Many of them are not that important, but when you have 24 hours to fill it takes an enormous amount of effort and creativity, and one of the easiest ways to fill much of that time is simply to focus on whatever the latest developments are in whatever the story may be.
Whether that’s a truly important story or not often doesn’t seem to make a difference.
KURTZ: In your career, you’ve reported from the Middle East and South Africa and you did a five-part series from the Congo and you covered the Iraq war from the desert. Other than when U.S. troops are involved, why do you think there is so little international coverage on television, particularly on the broadcast networks which have that very narrow window on the evening news.
KOPPEL: It’s a fair question, and I think it comes about in some measure because there is a belief among network executives that the American public is turned off by foreign news. That’s part of it.
The other part of it — and here I would argue that outfits like CNN do a much better job than the broadcast networks do — it’s become a function of money. They look at — I’m talking about the broadcast networks.
They look at these overseas bureaus that they’ve had for so many years, for most of the past 40 or even 45 years, and they say well wait a second, it’s costing us whatever it costs — $3 million a year — to have the Moscow bureau.
And then they start going around and they do it on a cost basis analysis. They will go to the different programs and they will say, evening news, how often do you actually use anything out of the Moscow bureau? And they’ll check their records and they’ll say well, over the past year, we did it 17 times, 28 times — I don’t know …
KURTZ: It’s a circular argument, that the programs don’t use the bureaus and then you have justification to cut the bureaus …
KURTZ: … and then all you can do is parachute people in …
KOPPEL: You’re getting way ahead of me because what happens is they go to the morning shows then, the “Today Show,” the “Good Morning America” show, the “CBS Morning” show. How often did you use the Moscow bureau over the last year? Oh, they’ll say maybe six times, maybe eight times. Then they come to a program like “Nightline” and even “Nightline” would have used it only 15 times or something like that.
Then they add it all up and they said all right, divide those pieces into $3 million or $4 million or whatever it costs. And it works out to X tens of thousands of dollars per piece. That’s too expensive.
Answer? Close down the Moscow bureau — not all together. You know, have a phone somewhere at a desk so that if you need to, you can get somebody in.
But, look, in the heyday of the commercial networks, before folks like CNN came along, I think we probably had 35, 40, 35 foreign correspondents around the world. These days, I think each of the commercial networks — and that’s where I think CNN still does a far, far better job — that the commercial bureaus …
KURTZ: That’s true. It had to be the number of bureaus, because it all depends, I’m sure.
KOPPEL: They may have five foreign correspondents.
KURTZ: Your last night on “Nightline” was November 22nd. You had some interesting parting words that I want to play for that audience.
Let’s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOPPEL: You’ve always been very nice to me, so give this new anchor team for “Nightline” a fair break. If you don’t, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot, and then you’ll be sorry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Why did you say that?
KOPPEL: Why did I say that they would put a comedy show in there, or that you will be sorry?
KURTZ: “Then you’ll be sorry.”
KOPPEL: The “then you’ll be sorry” part — look …
KURTZ: I know they like comedy. They almost gave David Letterman your slot.
KOPPEL: Exactly, and look, the fact of the matter is, you’ve got the Letterman show on CBS, you’ve got “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”
on NBC. There ain’t a whole lot of television journalism like “Nightline” around anymore. And I don’t think that we can afford to lose it. I really think it’s an important program that should be encouraged to stay on the air, and …
KURTZ: As you know, the critics have kicked it around a little bit, particularly on the point of doing three or four topics a night whereas you always did one in-depth subject. Is this the reality of MTV’s attention span, that you can’t do a half hour on one subject anymore?
KOPPEL: Howie, you know that one of the things I said or — I didn’t say — I said it semi-publicly. I said it at a going away party that ABC was nice enough to throw for me. My gift to my successors was going to be that I wasn’t going to do what people did to me when I began “Nightline” 26 years ago, and that is just kick it around immediately out of the gate.
It takes time to start a new program. In many ways, it’s much more difficult to come in and be effective doing a program that people have perceived as being successful before, change the format, change the anchors, change the executive producer, change the way you’re going to do that broadcast, and then expect people to love it right away.
That’s never going to happen and they deserve a chance to do it without my sticking my nose into it and saying I think they’re doing this right or I think they’re doing that wrong.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break. When we come back, more of our conversation with Ted Koppel, and we look at how the media cover disasters.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Let’s talk for a moment about Ariel Sharon. Did the coverage of his career change when he became prime minister? I think before that people knew him — the commission had blamed him for the massacre in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. He was a hawk on settlements and things like that. Coverage very different once he became prime minister?
KOPPEL: It always — it always changes when somebody becomes prime minister or somebody becomes president of the United States or president of any country. I mean, Menachem Begin, who had been the leader of what back in the pre-independence days of Israel was referred to as a terrorist organization, nobody did that anymore after he became prime minister.
The same kind of thing has happened in Africa. I mean, there were people there who were regarding as terrorist leaders once they became president of their country.
KURTZ: Sure. Did you deal much with Sharon? Was he somebody who courted the western press?
KOPPEL: He didn’t much care for us, but yes, he was available. And one could talk to him. You could pick up the phone and get him out at the ranch. I mean, he was someone who was smart enough to talk to us but, like most politicians, didn’t much care for us.
KURTZ: All right. The West Virginia mining disaster where so many news organizations reported jubilantly that 12 miners were alive. That, of course, turned out not to be the case. Wasn’t that a colossal media failure?
KOPPEL: I don’t think it was a colossal media failure. I think it was one of — you know, I think it is one of those human tragedies that happens because people — I mean, first of all, apparently what happened, what was at the very foundation of it, was that the miners with their oxygen masks on the rescue team were trying to communicate information back about the 13, and were misunderstood.
And the point was made, don’t let any of this leak out, but it did.
Happiness leaks out, great sadness leaks out, it always happens that way and once it does, you just can’t contain it.
KURTZ: And seeing a lot of stories now about the problems of mine safety, why do we only get these kinds of intensive looks at a national problem in the wake of a disaster?
KOPPEL: Look, usually the criticism against all of us is you guys always focus on the negative. Why don’t you — I mean, I’ve often made the point that when a 747 airliner makes its 9,000th, you know, safe landing at JFK, why don’t we don’t reports on it? You never do. I mean, that’s always been the case.
We are struggling so hard just to keep up, and it comes back to what you and I were talking about earlier. To keep up with the breaking events that occur every day, and we spend so much time worrying about what it recent rather than what is important.
Yes, we ought to be looking at mine safety the rest of the time, even without a mine disaster. Yes, we ought to be looking at what’s wrong with out healthcare system. Yes, we ought to be looking at what’s wrong with our education system.
Yes, we ought to be looking at what’s wrong with our foreign policy, without there being a war or without there being a school that has to close down, without their being 3,000 old people who died because they can’t get their medicine. But, you know, those triggers are usually what set us …
KURTZ: And it reminds me of the intense media focus on FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly everyone asking — this guy Michael Brown, he worked for the Arabian Horse Association. What is he doing in charge? In fact, you interviewed him right after the disaster. Let’s take a look at that clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOPPEL: Not the city — not the city …
MICHAEL BROWN, FORMER HEAD OF FEMA: Frankly, that …
KOPPEL: I’m not asking you, Mr. Brown, why the city didn’t have buses available. I’m asking you why you didn’t have National Guard that may have trucks to get them out of there. Why didn’t you have people with flatbed trailers if that’s what you needed? Why you didn’t, you know, simply get Greyhound buses from as many surrounded states that you can lay your hands on to get those people out of there? Why you haven’t done it to this day?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Were you mad?
KOPPEL: I was frustrated because, you know, as Mr. Brown later conceded, there were things that he and his colleagues didn’t know that were routinely being reported on CNN, on MSNBC, on ABC, NBC, CBS …
KURTZ: You said aren’t you folks watching television.
KOPPEL: They were more concerned about what he should wear in his television appearances than they were in briefing him on what was happening.
KURTZ: But there’s been a lot of talk that Katrina ushered in, at least for the moment, a more emotion style of journalism as correspondents on the scene clearly frustrated, clearly upset at what the government — that the government’s reassurances were not borne up out of the human disaster they were seeing. Is that a good thing?
KOPPEL: Well — no, it’s not a good thing.
KURTZ: Why not?
KOPPEL: And I mean, look, our friend Anderson Cooper does it very well and does it — and means it — I mean, is sincere about it. It’s not a good thing for people to copy. I mean, if Anderson wants to do it that way, that’s terrific and I wish him all the best. Journalism …
KURTZ: But television reporters shouldn’t be androids. They should have feelings, and they shouldn’t let those show, in your view?
KOPPEL: That’s correct.
KOPPEL: They shouldn’t let those show.
KURTZ: What’s the problem?
KOPPEL: Because that’s not your job and that’s not my job. Our job is not to emote emotionally on the virtues or shortcomings of each story.
KURTZ: At “Nightline” you would say — forgive me, but what you’re telling me, you’re full of it.
KOPPEL: That’s right.
KURTZ: That you would call — now isn’t that a form of using emotion, using passing.
KOPPEL: No, no, no. That’s not a question of emotion. That’s a question of fact. If someone is handing me a plateful of B.S., I feel obliged to draw attention to the steaming pile there, and to make sure the audience knows what’s going on.
That has nothing to do with emotion any more than I would expect a doctor to become emotional, to break down in tears and say, Mr. Koppel, I’m just so sorry that I have to tell you. You and I have been friends for so long. This is really tearing the — you know, forget about it’s tearing you apart.
KURTZ: Give me the information.
KOPPEL: What are you going to do? Exactly. How are you going to help me? We are on the scene — when we go and cover a story, we’re on the scene to try as dispassionately as possible — dispassionately — to present the facts. And if we become emotionally involved in every story, then eventually I think the public is — very quickly, I think the public will tire of that, if all of us do that.
KURTZ: All right. On that rather dispassionate note, we will leave it there.
Ted Koppel, thank very much for joining us.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: Just ahead, David Letterman’s not so funny moments with Bill O’Reilly. Stay with us.