A Conversation with Ted Koppel
Special Correspondent, NBC News; News Analyst, National Public Radio; Former Anchor and Managing Editor, ABC News, Nightline
Media Writer and Author, New Yorker
Ted Koppel reflects on his career and the changing nature of journalism and social media.
The Home Box Office History Makers Series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in international relations.
AULETTA: Welcome. On behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, the History Making Series, I want to thank Richard Plepler and HBO—is Richard here? His money is here, so thank you.
KOPPEL: He's heard both of us.
AULETTA: He's heard both of us. I'm also instructed to please welcome council members from around the world who are tuning into this as a streaming event.
The series focuses on the contributions of prominent individuals who have made these contributions to international relations.
I won't burden you with a long introduction of Ted, just to say that Ted Koppel has won more journalistic awards than I could recite in the hour that I have here today.
The format, we'll converse for about a half hour and then we'll turn it over to you for questions. It's on the record as was noted. And we'll conclude I promise by 2 p.m.
Ted, let me begin. In 11 years, you did 250 Nightlines on the former Soviet Union. You stayed with subjects like that, like the hostage taking for long periods of time. What would you say to those who said that you play the voice of God on the air and you were kind of an elitist who are basically telling people eat your spinach? Guilty?
KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure I want to offend the Almighty but I'd go with the spinach part. That's OK. Yes. I don't think that there were then and there certainly are not now in commercial television that many folks serving spinach. And it really was our impression from the beginning that by putting a little spinach on the table every night, we were serving an audience that was not, otherwise, being served.
And the fact that people—I mean, Nightline is still on the air, I did 26 years worth and that was 6,000 programs. And we still had, I mean, at the end of my tour, we still had about 4 million people a night watching the program. There was a time earlier on when we had 12 or 13 million people a night.
AULETTA: And as you, you and I noted when we were talking, 12 million viewers would be a good show in television live today.
KOPPEL: In prime time.
AULETTA: In prime time?
KOPPEL: Yes. So, you know, I don't shy away from the notion that those of us who put Nightline on the air were serving sort of an elitist purpose but even elitists have a right to be heard, I think.
AULETTA: Go back, you begin—the first show was on March of '80 and you piggybacked on the hostage crisis in Iran.
KOPPEL: Yes, the first—I should point out. The first formal Nightline was on March 24th, 1980. We of course have done months of program that was understating called "America Held Hostage". That grew right out of the hostage crisis in November of '79.
AULETTA: But how did Roone Arledge, the President of ABC News, how did he and David Burke, his deputy, tricked Fred Pierce the President of the network to air a nightly program, which he didn't want to do?
KOPPEL: I need to go back a little bit. Is there anyone here, and please don't be embarrassed to raise your hand, who doesn't know who Roone Arledge was?
He deserves that show unanimity here. Roone Arledge was a brilliant showman. He was also a brilliant tactician and politician, and he had wanted for years to put on a one-hour news program in the early evening, at 7 o'clock and was stymied in this by the affiliated stations around the country who wanted to put on Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy and those programs because they could make much more money on that.
So Roone determined that what he would do was to put on anytime that there was a major event, he would put on a special at 11:30 at night. And his hope was that one day a story would come along. I mean the sort of stories we covered with the—the visit of the Pope to the United Sates.
Well, you can't build a—you know, yearlong series on the visit of the pope, he comes, he goes, that's the end of that story. But then the hostage crisis began and quite literally, 3 or 4 days in to it, Roone Arledge sensed that this was a story that had legs that would go on and on and on. And indeed, after a couple of weeks of doing these nightly programs at 11:30, which I should point at had no sponsorships. So, ABC was losing every night that this program was on the air.
After about two or three weeks, I called Roone one night and I said, "You know, Roone, nothing is happening to date, absolutely nothing." The White House is not holding a briefing. The State Department is not holding a briefing. The Iranians aren't allowing us to send any video out of Tehran. We've got nothing. He said, "I don't care. Tell me what an Ayatollah is. You know, define the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Put something on the air tonight."
He was determined that we would have a program on every single night and one day, he was called as (inaudible) by the then president of the ABC Network. A very nice, decent man by the name of Fred Pierce and Fred said, "Roone and David, how long is this going to go on? You know, I mean, we're losing a ton of money doing this."
And either Roone or David sat off and said, "What do you think, David, a week?" And Burke said, "I don't know. Certainly, in two weeks." He said, "All right. Well, you know, go ahead" and so, the two of them as David Burke recounted it to me later are riding back to ABC in Roone's chauffeur-driven Jaguar and they started singing, "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle."
And that afternoon, Roone called me up and said, "Ted, when you go on the air tonight, I want you to say that ABC News will continue reporting this story until the hostages are released." Yes.
Well, as some of you may recall and in a little, just footnote to history, we had a separate section of the ABC News room at ABC in Washington. And they put in a special telephone line for us with our own number so that when ABC—people called ABC and they wanted to get through to America Held Hostage, they had to ask for this number, and that number was 444.
The historians among you will remember that the hostages were held for 444 days. We have that number in front of us from day 3 and didn't know it.
AULETTA: Well, you talked about Roone Arledge. You had been the state department correspondent for ABC at the time of Nightline's birth and he tried hard to recruit first Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and Roger Mudd.
KOPPEL: Roger Mudd, yes.
AULETTA: Why didn't he just give it to you?
KOPPEL: He didn't think I was good enough. I mean, you know, it was—look, it's always easy after someone has been on the air for a long time and has made something of a success of a program to say, you know, "Why not?"
Roone wanted a name and I remember in effect on the day that Dick Wald who was another senior vice president of ABC called me up. It was on my 40th birthday and he said, "Do you want to do the show? You know, we're going. It's going to be permanent. Do you want to do it?" And I said, "Are you kidding, of course." And he said, "You're going to experience some interesting transformation. You think your famous now, you're not."
You know, a few people know you. You've been—I've been with ABC News for 17 years at that point and, you know, I've been a phone correspondent, I've been a war correspondent, I've been diplomatic correspondent. He said a few people will occasionally recognize the industry.
He said you start doing a program on a nightly basis and it's a whole another thing. Television transforms you in that sense.
So again, after you've been on TV for a couple of years, three years on a nightly basis, people will perceive you on a different way. Suffice it to say, nobody perceived me as an anchorman in those days.
AULETTA: You mentioned being a war correspondent. When you were in Saigon covering the war up there in the '60s, back in that period of time, you would get a video report, a film from the battlefield, you have to ship it to Saigon then fly it to Japan and uplink and maybe at two...
KOPPEL: No, no, no, no. No up linking.
AULETTA: How would you do it?
KOPPEL: No up linking.
Back in those days, you would do a report out on the field. Let's say much of the time we were up in what was called I Corps in those days, with the marines up near the DMZ. And we would get a—you know, do a story and we'd have it on film in those days, of course. That was before videotape.
So, it would be on film and I would do a narration on a separate piece of film that would then later be linked to, they would run the edited film version with my narration then. I would put that onto a plane in (inaudible). It would be shipped to Saigon. In Saigon, they would transship it to Tokyo. In Tokyo, they transship it to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles they transship it to New York.
In New York, a motorcycle courier would pick the film up out of what was then Idlewild Airport or had just been named Kennedy Airport. And then, they would bring it in to West 66th Street here in New York.
The film would then be processed. That would take two or three hours, then it would be edited, then it would be put on the air.
AULETTA: So, how many days?
KOPPEL: Two and a half to three days after I have done the story in the field, it would actually end up on the air. In a curios way, it forced us to be more thoughtful in the stories that we did back then, because whatever we wrote, whatever we said had to survive two and a half days.
These days, if something survives two and a half minutes, it's already outdated, right? Because the cable channels are constantly updated with the end result that what you have is certainly fresh, it is really thoughtful.
AULETTA: So, switch forward to 1985, as an illustration of how technology changed. You do a week of reporting Nightline in South Africa. And you do a town hall that's live from South Africa and Nelson Mandela was then in jail still.
KOPPEL: He was.
AULETTA: And—but he later told you something about the importance of that week of Nightline.
KOPPEL: Well, I want to tell you a couple of things about that weekend.
First of all, one of the things that made Roone Arledge a truly outstanding leader, as the president of a news division, was that he would imbue us with the sense of the importance of what we were doing.
When the decision was made to go to South Africa and Nightline was going to report live out of South Africa for anywhere from half an hour to really on most nights, we did at least an hour and on one or two nights we did an hour and a half.
It was going to cost ABC somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million to those programs. Just by way of comparison, the normal Nightline program would cost about $20,000. So if we're doing five programs at a million dollars, each program is costing 10 times the normal amount.
To show his support and nobody before we went to South Africa thought that this program was going to be a rating success. We were doing this because David Burke who was Roone's senior vice president had an expression that he liked to use. He said, "It's important periodically to make a statement." And at this particular time when the situation in South Africa was not good and apartheid was still very much a part of the government policy.
For an American network to go over and do six, seven, eight hours worth of programming from there and spend $1.5 million doing it with the expectation that not many people would watch each program, that took guts on Roone's part.
So, to show his support, he came with us. On the second day that we were there, he announced that he had to leave and go back to New York. What had happened was that Capital Cities had just bought ABC and they insisted that Roone be there. So, he was there for the announcement and then what he did really was the (inaudible).
He got on another plane and flew back to South Africa again and in those days, it was an18-hour flight, all right, to get there. So that he would be with us. And to our enormous surprise, those programs were highly rated. They were among the highest rated programs that we did that week.
So to get back to your nasty little jive about the elitists there, the fact of the matter is, that apparently there was something of an appetite for some of these elitist programs. And years later, when I met Nelson Mandela for the first time in 1990 when he was released from prison, he said to me, you know—and it was before the term tipping points have been coined.
But really, what he was saying is, "We were at—in 1985, we were at kind of a tipping point, and I'm not suggesting that you were all that important with your programs but you know something, it may have just been that tiny little push we needed at that time to convince the government that we had to go on another direction."
So that, I must confess was one of our—collectively, one of our proudest moments.
AULETTA: You had another unusual thing you do on Nightline. You would sit there without notes and in fact, at one point Susan Mercandetti handed you notes for an interview she didn't think you knew much about the person you're going to have on the air, and you said, "I don't take questions from anyone." She was one of your foremost producers.
Why is it that you would sit there and not have notes and questions written out before you?
KOPPEL: Because as you'll discover when I take these away from you.
AULETTA: I'm in trouble.
KOPPEL: No. Because, I...
AULETTA: Good catch.
KOPPEL: I consider an interview to be a conversation. And in a conversation, you need to listen to what the other person is saying, and I feat that especially among young interviewers or younger interviewers who feel that they have to have those questions written down, there is a tendency then to get locked into question number three, question number four, question number five, and if in response to question number two, the person admits that, "Yes, I used to be a communist when I was in college and I used to smoke dope, and had several homosexual relationships." And then, you move on to question number three.
You know, I think the audience out there is going to say, "Ted, did you hear what the guy just said?" You have to listen.
And quite frankly, if in the course of our half-hour conversation, I mean, you and I could change places right now. And you're a brilliant writer and, you know, probably the best chronicler of mass communications in this country today.
AULETTA: I'm not going to go easy on you for this.
KOPPEL: No, no, no.
You know, if I couldn't get half an hour's worth of staff out of you without any questions being written down, I shouldn't be in the business.
AULETTA: Well, in fact, as I recall one of the things that convinced Roone Arledge that you were the man to be the anchor of Nightline was that he would watch you one evening where you kept it going and you ad lib in questions because you are listening to the person as you said.
KOPPEL: Well, it actually, I remember the evening, it was the night after election night, I think. And I forget—it had to be in 1980, I guess. And what I did was we had—it's difficult to remember today. But this notion of having satellite communications where you could have one guest in Moscow and one guest in Tehran, and one guest in Washington, and have them talking to each other live.
Before Nightline did it, no one had ever done that before. I say that with enormous pride because I have no technical capabilities, whatsoever. And have—and deserve no credit for making that happen. But boy, I did realize that in having that capability, we were able to do something that had never been done in the history of communications before.
I suppose you could have done it on the telephone but it had never been done on a video screen before. And some brilliant person in our PR Department actually came up with a slogan for Nightline early on based on that. And it was a terrific slogan and really summarized what Nightline was about. And the slogan was, "Bringing people together who are worlds apart."
And this capacity to have people talk to each other, sometimes through me, meant that Palestinians and Israeli Jews would come on the same program, wouldn't talk to each other, but they talk to me. And through me, they would respond to one another.
We had Iranians and Iraqis during the 1980s, during the war. Bloody war, 800,000 people killed. They wouldn't talk to each other anyway. Wouldn't talk to each other at the U.N., right? And yet, they would come on Nightline and talk to each other.
Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland came on Nightline, talked to each other through me.
That was what made Nightline so different in those early days. These days, every local station on the country can do it.
AULETTA: But another thing that made it different, Ted, is what some would call the "Ted advantage," which is you would be in the studio. Your guests would not be in the same studio.
AULETTA: You could watch them on camera. They couldn't watch you. And some people thought it gave you enormous advantage. Why did you do it that way?
KOPPEL: We did it that way because Roone insisted on it. And he insisted on it I think for a very good reason.
If, for example, you're my guest and you're sitting here next to me and the other two guests are in remote locations, another country, another city. Fact of the matter is you can by, you know, kind of tapping or by eye contact or whatever it is, you can have an advantage over the people who are not there.
So, even when someone was being interviewed in Washington, Roone's theory he was, put them in another studio and then all three guests are on the same footing, and I think that was right.
He had another insistence, which we carried out for many years and that was that the program be done live. And such was the power of Nightline in the early '80s that one time, Al Haig who was then the Secretary of State had been attending a conference in Ottawa, Canada. And he had agreed to come on the program, but he said, "Look, I have to catch a flight back to Washington." And Al pre-taped it if we can do it at 8 o'clock and I called Roone and said, "What do you think?" and he said, "No. He's only the Secretary of State. Tell him he has to stay."
"Well, OK, Mr. Secretary. Sorry, but we don't do that. We only do the program live." He stayed. He stayed and we did the program live, and, you know, Roone maintained that until the 1988 presidential campaign. And you may recall that Senator Gary Hart had had an unfortunate incident on a vessel called the "Monkey Business," which sort of summed it all up.
And he dropped out of the presidential campaign and then decided a few weeks or couple of months later, I forget the length of time that he was going to come back in again. And we had been after him to come on the program. And I had a couple of conversations with him on the phone and he said, "Oh, come on. But, I know some of the questions you're going to ask me and I want you to look me in the eye when you ask me those questions. I'm not going to sit in another row." And I said, "You know, something? You're right, that's fair."
And I called Roone and I said, "We have to do it." He knows, I'm going to ask him about Donna Rice and he knows I'm going to ask him about the Monkey Business, and he knows I'm going to ask him about whether a man who has had, you know, a relationship with a woman who is not his wife should be eligible for the presidency of the United States.
These are all really tough questions. And Roone said, "OK." And that was the first time we did it. Thereafter, we did it hundreds of times. Hundred times but that was the first time.
AULETTA: You're known for, Ted, a couple of theories and one of them...
AULETTA: Yes. Actually, we talked about this last week but you're getting old, you're forgetting them.
KOPPEL: That's true.
AULETTA: And one of them was that you believe that many of the stories, of the stories you followed, one that has its roots that stretched to today and have created problems is what happened in Somalia. Share that with us.
KOPPEL: Yes. That's the—well, that's the theory of the rule of unintended consequences. And I think as we look at what's happening in Syria today and we look at what's happening in Egypt and we look at what's happening in Libya, I trace it all back to what happened in Somalia when President George H. W. Bush, Bush 41. Having just been defeated by Bill Clinton was in that interregnum period, between Election Day and Inauguration Day, and he did something that was extraordinarily decent. And I don't know that any other U.S. national interest was actually involved but people was starving by the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands in Somalia.
And President Bush sent the Marines over with tens of thousands of tons of food, which arguably saved the lives of many, many thousands of people. But then, we stayed on, we stayed too long into the Clinton Administration. And inevitably, mission creep began to take over and we became involved in some of the internal politics in Somalia. And before you knew it, we were involved in a peripheral way in the fighting in that terrible day which was immortalized in the book "Black Hawk Down" and then in the film "Black Hawk Down." I think19 American soldiers were killed.
One of the rangers was dragged semi-naked, dead through the streets of Mogadishu behind a truck and the American public was absolutely horrified and within a matter of a couple of weeks, all U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia.
A couple of months later, the killing began in another African country, in Rwanda, when the Hutu began killing the Tutsi, the Tutsi. And there were desperate pleads to the United Nations, desperate pleads to the White House. "Wouldn't you please do something, send a few troops."
And the aftermath of Somalia was such that we did not send any troops. I've heard it speculated by those who were there, military men who were there that really a couple of companies of Marines could have stopped the killing but we didn't. And before it was over, 800,000 people have died.
And there was a young journalist by the name of Samantha Powers and a young woman who was working for the Clinton Administration by the name of Susan Rice who were absolutely horrified by what happened then. And who when they became members of the Obama Administration, I am told, lobbied hard for some kind of U.S. intervention in Libya to keep the same kind of thing happening in Libya.
We didn't have a dog in that fight. We probably should not have gone into Libya but we did. We got out by the skin of our teeth, except of course for the tragedy of the death of the ambassador and the three other Americans. And I think everything that sort of flowed out of that then gave these administration real palpitations at the thought of going into Syria or helping in Syria in a really productive fashion.
So, you know, one crisis leads to another crisis, leads to another crisis. What we do in one place has an impact on what we don't do in the next and that is a valuable long recitation of the law of unintended consequences.
AULETTA: I'm going to ask another question and I'm going to turn it over to the audience for questions but there are those who believed, Ted, that we've entered the Golden Age of Journalism, that in the age of...
KOPPEL: I'm relieved to hear that not many of those people are here with us today.
AULETTA: You probably precluded your answer but in any case, the argument is that because of citizen participation, technology, it allows people to have many more source of information. And despite the fact that there are no more documentaries on TV or the kind of Nightline that you did. It really does represent a golden age of Journalism.
Your dissent, sir?
KOPPEL: Well, clearly, the potential is there but I think that just as our forefathers in sort of building the framework of an American republic back in the 18th century didn't really intend to create a democracy in the purest sense.
We, ironically, have the technological capability to have a pure democracy. We could probably go to any number of companies in northern California who could hook up American homes so that on a daily basis, we could say, you know, "the Affordable Healthcare Act, up, down, hit the button," and you get, you know, 120 million votes registered but we didn't want that kind of democracy.
What we needed was representational government where some people would be elected for two years. They would be more responsive to what the voters back home wanted. Others would be elected for six years. They would be a little more independently minded. The president would be elected for four years.
We have, right now, something that comes dangerously close to pure democracy in journalism. The potential for greatness is there but I think at the same time we have to acknowledge that the potential for an enormous amount of horseshit also exists.
There is just so much bad journalism that is being instantaneously communicated. So quickly in fact that it has made its way three times around the world before anyone has a chance to check on the veracity of what has been put out there.
You know, those who wrote about the rise of democracy in Egypt, in Tahrir Square, when people were tweeting and facebooking, I think they missed the point. That wasn't journalism that was happening there. That was in fact social media operating on a political level and achieving a great deal but there's a huge difference between social media and journalism.
The most important thing about journalism is not the reporting, it's the editing. The most important thing about journalism is separating the wheat from the chaff. The most important thing about journalism is putting events into an appropriate context.
And if you don't do that, then all you have is a cacophony of sound that is just ripping around the world so quickly that it's having an impact that is very difficult to control but very rarely rises to the level of journalism.
AULETTA: I will withhold my impulse to applaud and go to questions.
Cathy (ph), please identify yourself, stand up and identify yourself. Microphone is coming.
QUESTION: Is it on?
AULETTA: Now it is.
QUESTION: First—two quick questions or one quick, one longer and one refutation of something that Ken said. You're not getting old. You're as sharp as you ever were, amazing.
The question is, what—where do you get your news specifically on television if you do get there it? And second, a compliment to Ken and a question that follows. Ken just wrote an amazing piece a couple weeks ago on the Guardian, and it included a discussion of Snowden and WikiLeaks. And I'd like to know what you think about the situation of surveillance and the New York Times and the Guardian, et cetera.
KOPPEL: We were doing so well with that, you know. The first question—I'm sorry, you wondered...
QUESTION: I wondered on where you got your news.
KOPPEL: Where I got my news, that's right. Well, my wife and I—we pre-record the American evening newscast on the BBC, and we watch BBC America while we're having dinner or at least the first half of it. And then we will zip through CBS and NBC and just see if there's anything new.
I am a devoted contributor to and listener to NPR. I listen to Morning Edition. I listen to All Things Considered. We get the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News delivered everyday. And that's—those are essentially the main—you know, the main sources of news.
AULETTA: And the NSA Snowden.
KOPPEL: Well, the NSA thing—I mean, look, let me just make a comment about Wikipedia because there is obviously some hugely important stories came out of what was released by Wikipedia.
KOPPEL: WikiLeaks. I'm sorry. WikiLeaks. I am getting older. Thank you. By WikiLeaks. But there was also an awful lot of material in there that probably should not have been released. And I think the difference between a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal and WikiLeaks is this sort of random dump it all out there and let people find what they want to find. That isn't journalism.
I'm glad that I said what I said about the importance of editing before you asked me that question, because I repeat it now—journalism requires editing. It requires sifting through the massive quantities of information. And, you know, I think when the WikiLeaks material was used by the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Manchester Guardian, now the Guardian, that's perfectly appropriate. I have no trouble with that.
AULETTA: If someone said to you, "Push aside the legal question whether Snowden broke the law or Manning broke the law. Do you think on balance, it was a public service that they released that information?"
KOPPEL: I must say that I don't know what his intentions were. I wish that Ed—Edward Snowden, I wish he would come back. It would take enormous courage on his part to come back but I think he should. And I think he should face trial and if need be --I mean some of the great heroes, the Thoreaus of history and the Emersons who were prepared to go to prison for their beliefs.
They raised it to a level of citizenship and heroism that I would like to see duplicated.
AULETTA: Let's get some more questions. Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Benita Brown (ph), Harvard Kennedy School. So, how do you rescue, if rescue is the right word, journalism from the influence of social media, particularly in an area where it's not just the rapidity and the pace. And, you know, the ease of putting information out there but there are cost controls and now, an entire generation of young writers who have not necessarily had the benefit of being edited.
And then closely related to that, how do you rescue it from those people in power who benefit from the lack of editing in journalism today.
KOPPEL: Well, I mean the answer is you don't rescue it. Unless I leave you with the impression that I think with the genie can be put back into the bottle again, I don't. You know, for good or ill, we live in an age of Twitter and Facebook and all of the vast variety of media that now make information instantaneously available.
I think the only thing we can do and Ken does a great deal of work for a magazine, The New Yorker, that stands in marked contrast, we were talking before I was asking you about the editing process at the New Yorker, which is legendary. I mean, you know, you have to be really committed to doing a story, as Ken repeatedly has demonstrated, to subject yourself to the editing process that takes place at a magazine like The New Yorker because they want to be right. They want to be as accurate as it is humanly possible to be. That takes time.
Before one of Ken's stories makes it into print, he will have spent a couple of months or more editing. He will have spent a month or more writing. They will have spent I don't know how many weeks editing before it finally makes it into the magazine.
We have to be sure that they continue to be in print, in magazines, in newspapers, on television, on radio, alternatives so that those among you who say, you know, something I know they can do it quickly but I'd rather do it slowly. I know that McDonald's can put it out very fast but every once in awhile I'd like to go and see what Chef Daniel has to say about a good meal, right?
That is also true of knowledge and journalism. There are different ways of acquiring it. There are different ways of processing it. There are different ways of consuming it. And the answer is that as long as we have good alternatives, great alternatives, then at least we all have a choice in what we're going to do.
AULETTA: Yes sir? Yes, the gentleman, yes.
QUESTION: Joseph Carey (ph), I'm delighted that you're here. You have had the opportunity to interact with several of our presidents. And I was wondering if you could share with us not your political take on them but the measure of the man. And who surprised you or any insights that you could give. Thank you.
KOPPEL: Sure. It's a very tough question because when you talk about, you know, interacting, you have much more interaction with the president when he's running for office, in other words, the first campaign I covered was in '64 with Barry Goldwater. And Barry Goldwater was an incredibly decent, nice man and an abysmal candidate.
Now I was a very young journalist in those days but my seniors, you know, those among the press core who were covering Goldwater had a genuine affection for him and when Goldwater, you know, had a little psess conference somewhere in New Hampshire would blurt on something about yes, well Social Security. We got to get rid of Social Security.
You know they would go to him afterwards and say Senator, did you really mean that? Did you really want to say that? The, you know, the impression that President Goldwater didn't get along, it was really untrue. I mean, they—a lot of these guys loved him and protected him in those early days. But eventually, he would just blurt it out anyway and they couldn't protect him anymore.
Nixon, I spent a lot of time on the Nixon campaign and I came to know Nixon fairly well later on. Ironically, better after his presidency. I went to see him up in New Jersey. And you know I had a really long afternoon chat with him, brilliant guy, brilliant guy. I'd tell you a quick Nixon story that really is probably not on topic. But when—when—who was it, it was Brezhnev. When Brezhnev died, we did a long Nightline. And we had—Kyle, do you remember this one, we had Nixon on and we had Ford on and we had Kissinger on and we had Schlesinger on. We had—you know, and the program went on until about 1:30 in the morning. And I didn't get home until about 2:30 in the morning.
At about 7:30, the kids were all off at school. My wife Grace Ann is an attorney and she was off at work and the phone rang, 7:30 and I got to bed around 3:30. I pick up the phone and I hear this very familiar voice. "Hello, Ted." And I said that, "Yes." And he said, "President Nixon here." And I said, "Good morning, Mr. President. What can I do for you?" And the first words out of his mouth, I swear, were, "I didn't realize you got up this early."
I could do a whole half hour on Nixon malapropisms and yet, he was probably the smartest of the presidents that I knew. Although I will say Bill Clinton is one of the few people that I've interviewed over the years who I felt was always two or three questions ahead of me. He knew where I was going. He could smell where I was going and he was, you know, he is just—I never nailed Clinton.
You know Reagan—by the time I got to Reagan, his due date was long passed. I mean, it was really kind of sad by that. You know he was going from cards and wasn't—it wasn't good.
AULETTA: Next. Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Good afternoon (inaudible). My question has to do with—I don't know if you saw that editorial which was more of a conversation between Bill Kellner and Glenn Greenwald in today's New York Times?
AULETTA: It's online. It was in the paper.
QUESTION: But part of it is a critique of the state of journalism and I wanted to know your thoughts on something Glenn Greenwald said which was that journalists today mistake the purpose behind neutrality and he said that when you're reporting X says Y and A says B, there's a difference between that and actual journalism which is setting also what the facts are.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. And I totally agree. And used to say, you know, what I hate as much as almost anything in television and news is when they do a man on the street interviews and you get one for, one against and one, well, right? And that is supposed to represent public opinion. And the notion that by always giving, you know, equal treatment to both sides, you know, to take...
You know, when we went to South Africa, we did not present, you know, on the one hand there is the position of the white apartheid leadership. We went with some attitude. We went with a willingness to say this is evil. And however, we want to permit or give an opportunity to the leadership of the government to send representatives to give their point of view and explain why they believe that apartheid is necessary. I don't think anyone who watched those programs was under any illusion that I was neutral on the subject.
AULETTA: It's by the way a fascinating exchange online, Bill Kellner and Glenn Greenwald today and it probably runs 2,500 words, an e-mail exchange between them. It's quite (inaudible). Byron. It's coming behind you.
QUESTION: I'm Byron Wien, Blackstone. Let's say that you were working on two of the biggest stories of our time, whether or not Syria is really going to surrender its chemical weapons and whether they will be destroyed. And whether Iran will negotiate some ameliorization of their nuclear weapons program. How would you go about identifying the people and who would you identify to provide your—the public with a better insight into whether those two things will happen?
KOPPEL: Look, I think when you're dealing with an issue like the chemical weapons in Syria, that an American journalist has an obligation to put it in the context of America's national interest. The degree to which resolving that particular issue, is in America's national interest, is, I would argue, separate from whether the Unites States should become engaged in the civil war that is currently taking place.
The possibility that weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons among them, would make their way into the hands, for example, of the Iranian surrogates, is a totally different issue from the one of whether U.S. national interest is involved in the civil war. I would argue that in the first instance, the chemical weapons, America's national interest is very much involved. I would argue in the second interest, America's national interest is not at all clear to me, that we have to become involved there.
Once you get that framework, then covering the story, I think is really, you know, because then you need to find the people who agree or disagree with that point of view.
AULETTA: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Steven Blank (ph). I want to go back to the question immediately before that.
Today, journalism with an attitude is usually factless journalism, people pushing one extreme position or the other. On the other hand, we have—on one hand or the other, which is the mainstream journalism, how did we get in that place? How did we get to that position? Why didn't you have more influence? How did journalism today lead us into this and what can be done about it?
KOPPEL: Well, I mean, look, you've sort of touched on an issue that can take an hour or two.
(UNKNOWN): We got time.
KOPPEL: But I—we don't. I'm looking at the clock. The fact of the matter is that about 15 years ago, a fellow by the name of Rupert Murdock decided that American mainstream journalism was by and large too liberal and that there was a crying need among those in the United States who considered themselves more conservative for journalism that catered more to their point of view, and he began Fox News.
And Fox News has done brilliantly. He clearly identified a need within a certain segment that the American public, a large enough need. And over the course of the past 15 years, Fox News has done very well, making somewhere in the neighborhood...
KOPPEL: 1.2. I thought it was actually 1.5 billion a year, but at least 1.2 billion a year. And the good folk over NBC who had a pathetic little cable network known as MSNBC that was going nowhere fast and doing nothing and not making any money, somebody decided, "Hey, if Rupert Murdock can do that for the right, we can do that for the left. If we're only half successful as Murdock, that's still $600 million, $700 million a year, that ain't chump change." And they did and MSNBC has done brilliantly on the left.
And you've got the radio hosts on the right and you've got the John Stewarts and the Stephen Colberts on the left, and by in large, it has become something that was driven by economic forces. There was an economic need for it. Why didn't that happen 40 years ago? It didn't happen 40 years ago because back then we had three networks. That was it.
And I was telling Ken before, when Nightline was on the air, in the early 80s, you had the Tonight Show, Nightline, and on CBS, I think on those days, they had like the rerun of an old cop show. Those three programs, among the three of them, accounted for 70 percent of all the television sets in use at 11:30 at night—70 percent.
These days, you got the Jimmy Kimmel Show on at 11:30, you've got the Tonight Show, you've got the Letterman Show. Collectively, they have about 20 percent of the audience. That's your answer. What's happened over those past 30 years is that a universe of three networks has become a universe of 3,000—30,000, if you count the internet, right?
So there is far more competition, far more room for point of view, and the fact that Rupert Murdock so skillfully demonstrated how much money could be made by going for the point of view rather than the—on the one hand on the other hand is part of the answer to your question.
AULETTA: Let's see. Let's get someone in the back who hasn't asked a question. Yes?
QUESTION: Wendy Brewer (ph), Foundation for Civil Society. One of the happiest moments of my life was when I saw an old friend with a scarf that I've given her, who I didn't know whether she was dead or alive, on the mountain outside of Skopje during the Kosovo events that you were interviewing, Ferdita Carmende (ph). It was an extraordinary moment.
Of all the 6,000 programs and all of these different crises around the world that you have covered, and you said you went into South Africa with an attitude on one side, what sticks with you? How have you remained involved in any of those things and what are the things that you think was life-changing for you?
KOPPEL: I must tell you it's a very interesting question because this issue of how do you remain involved. You can remain involved in large issues. I have, for 50 years, been and will until the day I die, be engaged in America's foreign policy in what we do and how we do it. I care a lot about that.
One of the things you have to be able to do, when you're the editorial manager and the anchor of the program, like Nightline, that's on five nights a week, is you have to be able to forget last night's program and move on to tonight's program, and begin preparing for tomorrow night's program.
So that if I say to you, "I have no memory, whatsoever of interviewing your friend," I hope you understand that it is because I almost had to do and erase every night so that I could then get into the right frame of mind for the next night's interview.
The one sort of overarching conclusion that I've reached, that media has been a mixed blessing. I mean the kind of mass media that we have today has been a mixed blessing because I often will say when I talk to groups of students at a university, "If I said to you throw out the names of some great men or women from the 1930's and '40s, and understand that by great, I mean the impact that they had on the world so you can have great bad and great good."
And they start throwing them out, you know, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, you know, Chiang Kai-shek. You can go through probably 10, 15 names in no time at all.
And now, I say it's a challenge to all of you, let's do the same thing today. Give me the names of three or four great leaders on the world stage. Anybody?
(UNKNOWN): Who is it?
KOPPEL: Which one?
KOPPEL: Maybe, I don't think he's Churchillian, but OK.
Den Xiaoping. Well, he's dead. But, yes. OK.
KOPPEL: Mandela. Mandela, I must say—and of course, Mandela is tragically is in last days of his life. But I would agree with you. But then—and I'm glad you said Mandela because that makes my point.
What distinguishes Mandela's career? He was in isolation for 26 years. He was nowhere near a camera, a reporter, a microphone, so that the mystique of Nelson Mandela, and this is not to take a thing away from what he achieved after he came out of prison. But the fact of the matter is that he was a man who, through no fault of his own, avoided the media.
I think we have so much media today, so much coverage. It is ubiquitous. It is so constant. It is so never-ending. It is to fast. It is so—it's just so much of it that no human being alive can survive the scrutiny of all that media and retain any kind of image of greatness.
At this, we come out with flawed characters who, for one reason and another, managed to rise a little bit above the crowd. The greatness is almost extinguished by constant close attention; none of us is that good.
AULETTA: On that note, I'm afraid it's 3:00. Thank you, sir. Good job.
More from this series
Tony Blair reflects on his time as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, and shares his decision-making process in foreign policy and the lessons to be learned for today.
Janet Napolitano reflects on her time as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Stephen J. Hadley, former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, joins CNN's Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott to discuss his experiences in foreign policy and national security.