An Unfettered Press
The Sweet Sound of Conflict
By Rona Mendelsohn
Every weekday night at 11:30, America tunes in to one of its premier television news shows, "Nightline." Presided over by Edward (Ted) Koppel, the half-hour program on the American Broadcasting Company's (ABC) television network has an average audience of six or seven million -- a huge number for a show that is broadcast at an hour when most people are in bed.
Yet many remain awake across the United States to watch Koppel, who is based in Washington, conduct his live, unedited interviews -- frequently with people who hold opposing views.
"Ideas must be able to conflict with one another," Koppel explains. "Our system of government works best when conflicting ideas have a chance to be heard. When people of totally different viewpoints argue with one another, out of that process of debate comes intelligent government."
Koppel not only interviews some of America's most prominent political figures, he also, on occasion, moves his entire show abroad. In 1985, for example, Koppel spent a week in South Africa. There, in what Newsweek magazine described as "an historic moment," he was able to get South Africa's then minister of foreign affairs, Roelof F. Botha, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak to each other, although indirectly through television monitors. In 1988, Koppel broadcast five nights of shows from Jerusalem. These included live interviews with then Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres and, by satellite, with Palestine Liberation Organization spokesperson Bassan Abu Sharif.
Koppel defines the difference between his television news program and other commercial television broadcasts as one of concentration. "We devote a half hour of time to one issue," he says, "which gives us an opportunity to focus a little more attention on it." This intensity of focus contrasts with the widespread dissemination of news that is characteristic of his competitors.
Without censorship or central control, television broadcasting competes with all other media to inform an American public bombarded with news. "If you were just dropped into New York City or Washington from some other country, and no one had given you any kind of briefing or background on what to expect, you would feel disoriented," Koppel comments. "There is information coming at you from every corridor. I have often been amused to think of what it must be like to be an intelligence operative from another country here in the United States, because your problem is not finding information -- your problem is sifting through all the information and determining which is accurate and which is not."
What American television does well is to bring people up to date "very efficiently," says Koppel. "Business people, actors, politicians, statesmen, and diplomats all know that if they want to reach a large number of American people, they will reach them best, or at least most quickly, through television -- and reach the largest number."
Koppel notes that in every city in the United States where cable TV (stations that transmit via cable rather than the airwaves) is available, viewers can choose from as many as 30 to 40 different programs presented simultaneously 24 hours a day. The problem for viewers is overcoming this "information saturation," he points out.
Koppel's award-winning program sometimes breaks the news, conducting investigative journalism that may well appear later in America's newspapers. "My job really is to try to look beyond what my guests are trying to sell and see if that is a legitimate line or if there is something there that warrants further investigation."
The realm of investigation that Koppel roams is broad. He interviewed former U.S. national security adviser Robert McFarlane about money provided to the Nicaraguan contra forces. And in another program, he reviewed the arguments that were to be presented to the U.S. Supreme Court on whether a murderer with mental retardation should be given the death penalty.
"The level of independence, at different times and for different news organs, is extraordinary," Koppel says about the U.S. media. "It does not exist anywhere else to the degree that it does here in the United States."
Of course, the government makes its case as best it can. According to Koppel: "There are a dozen things that are being done every single day by different branches of government to try to put the proper 'spin' on the story or to present the story in such a way that it reflects best on the government. Or, if there is a negative story, to release it so close to our deadline that we do not have time then to check with other people who might have conflicting versions."
These subtle attempts to shape the news often fail, Koppel says. "In commercial television, the pressures on us are not political pressures, they are economic pressures," he explains. On commercial television in the United States (as distinguished from public, government-assisted television), advertisers buy time to promote their products during commercial breaks in the programs. If, for instance, these advertisers find that "Nightline's" audience is declining, they may take their advertising dollars elsewhere. Koppel therefore feels a responsibility to entertain his audience occasionally, as well as keep his viewers informed.
"Sometimes you do programs that are not terribly important but are entertaining." On a day without a major story, Koppel does not mind using a pre-recorded program featuring, for example, popular musicians such as guitarist B.B. King and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
And sometimes a particular story turns up that both informs and entertains. In 1987 and 1988, for example, "Nightline" ran 11 shows on scandal-plagued television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. When both Bakkers appeared together on "Nightline," the show got the highest ratings in its history.
Koppel considers it a "gift to 'Nightline' every once in a while to have a story like this, because it meets all the criteria: Millions of people wanted to watch, yes, but it was also legitimate news at the time."
Koppel majored in speech at Syracuse University in New York State and received a master's degree in journalism from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
He began his journalistic career as a writer-reporter for a New York radio station in 1963. In 1966, Koppel moved to ABC-TV, where his major stories included the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. He was ABC's Hong Kong bureau chief from 1969 to 1971 and its chief diplomatic correspondent from 1971 to 1980. He left the network for a year, in 1976, to care for his children while his wife, Grace Anne Dorney, attended law school. During that year, he did radio broadcasts from home, anchored the network's Saturday night television news, and co-wrote a spy novel with a fellow journalist.
In 1979, Koppel hosted "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," the show that was a precursor to "Nightline." "Nightline" became permanent in March 1980.
Koppel does not recommend that aspiring journalists study journalism. Instead, he says, they need to know something in depth, be it economics, philosophy, history, art, or music.
"It does not really make any difference because, basically, this is a trade. It is not an academic skill," Koppel says. "The skill lies in the ability to absorb information and translate it into a simpler, easier-to-understand form. It lies in taking arcane or complex information from a particular field and making it understandable to a mass audience. Television is, for the moment at least, the ultimate mass medium."
Koppel views himself as an eyewitness and a "marginal participant" in "all the important stories of my time." He knows that his influence and power are ephemeral. The power that the press in general, and reporters in particular, have is built on trust, he believes. "We have influence only for so long as our viewing public believes that we are not using it for our own ends. The minute that the viewers of my own program begin to believe that I have an agenda, that I am trying to achieve something, that I am trying to push them in one direction or another, then my influence is gone. My influence paradoxically rests in the perception of the viewer that I am not using it."
Koppel has a wide-ranging audience. Although some of his viewers are highly literate, educated, and affluent, Koppel is aware that less-privileged groups also watch his program.
Appealing as he does to a disparate audience, Koppel feels an obligation not only to pose hard questions to those who appear on his show, but also to be "kind of a representative of the viewer," he says. His object is to have the viewer identify with him when he is conducting an interview and thus to set personal opinions aside. His politics are never revealed on television, but Life magazine has reported that Koppel is a registered independent (not officially affiliated with any political party), and he always votes.
Although Koppel has been in the media since his school days, he finds that the news is never predictable. Relishing the randomness of each day's events, Koppel thrives on spontaneity. He never prepares in advance the questions he will ask his guests, preferring to respond to their reactions to the five- to seven-minute introductory video report on his show.
His advantage is that he can see his guests on a TV monitor (guests rarely appear face-to-face), but guests can only hear Koppel through an earpiece. They respond solely to Koppel's disembodied voice in their ear.
"The purpose of putting them in that electronic isolation is not to give me an advantage over them," Koppel says. "It is the only way that 'Nightline' can be done." Treasuring his staff's ability to put him in touch electronically with possible guests from anywhere in the world, Koppel is happy to work in an environment where "there has never been a day when I know with whom I am going to be meeting. I only know it is going to be the most interesting person who has anything to say on the most interesting subject of the day."
Having had the opportunity to interview most of the important political figures of his time, Koppel still looks forward to putting some of those he has missed on the air. He wants to talk with Pope John Paul II. He also hopes to have Cuban leader Fidel Castro on his program. His enthusiasm is unrestrained.
"The wonderful thing about this job is that I will never run out of people to interview," Koppel says. "There is no such thing as saying, 'I've got them all now,' because there is always someone new who comes along."
Did any of his subjects make a particular impression? One who did is former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, says Koppel, "has a first-class mind. A half hour with him gives me a better insight into a foreign policy question than hours with others."
Koppel, like Kissinger, was born outside the United States -- in Koppel's case, Lancashire, England. In 1953, at the age of 13, Koppel emigrated to the United States with his parents; he subsequently became a U.S. citizen. His parents believed that in America there would be opportunities for him, Koppel recalls. And indeed there were!
Rona Mendelsohn is a Washington-based free-lance writer.