Distinguished Voices Series With Ted Koppel

Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Jason Reed/Reuters
Ted Koppel

Senior Contributor, CBS Sunday Morning; Former Anchor and Managing Editor, Nightline, ABC News


President, Council on Foreign Relations; @RichardHaass

HAASS: That was for you. They never do that for me. (Laughter.)

KOPPEL: They may have been applauding lunch. (Laughter.) Let me explain, first of all. I have conjunctivitis. So please forgive me. The lights are a little bothersome and seeing me would be even more bothersome. (Laughter.)

HAASS: This is some experience I never had in the various times I was on this program, that those of you who are over forty-five will remember, called Nightline, where we were never in the same space. We were never knee-to-knee. Why was that, by the way?

KOPPEL: Actually, it’s an interesting question. Please thought it was to put me at an advantage. It was actually because Roone Arledge—and I suspect that many of you here are old enough to remember that name—Roone Arledge, who was the president of ABC News, felt that since Nightline came into being by capitalizing on the use of satellite technology—we began, of course, with the Iran hostage crisis. And I would do interviews with one guest sitting in Tehran, another guest, perhaps, sitting in Moscow, and the third guest sitting in Washington. And it was, at that time, revolutionary television. No one had been able to do that live before.

And Roone felt that if a guest in Washington was able to sit at the desk with me, he or she would have an advantage of the remote guests, because when someone is sitting there they can sort of tap your arm, let you know they want to get into the discussion. So he made it a rule—(laughter)—you want to get into it already?

HAASS: At some point. (Laughs.)

KOPPEL: He made it a rule that no guest, even if he or she was in Washington, would sit on the set with me.

HAASS: So for those of you who aren’t of a certain vintage, for twenty-five years Nightline was truly must-see television. It was the bookend to the day, and it both framed the day but also the day or days to come. And the gentleman next to me, Ted Koppel, hosted it for all of a quarter of a century.

KOPPEL: Twenty-six years.

HAASS: Twenty-six years.


HAASS: But, you know, we don’t do quantitative work here at the Council anymore. And it had—it’s hard to exaggerate the impact.

I wanted, though, before I turn to Nightline—first of all, thank you for doing this.

KOPPEL: My pleasure.

HAASS: Talk a little bit about before Nightline. You were a war correspondent. And, among other things, you covered Vietnam.

KOPPEL: I did.


KOPPEL: Actually, I should point out, Vietnam was my first war. And the gentleman sitting over there, General Lloyd Austin, it turns out, Lloyd, you and I have been friends now for almost seventeen years because my last war was the Iraq War. And General Austin was the deputy commander of the third mechanized infantry division, which was the first major unit into Baghdad. And I’m delighted to see him here.

HAASS: And you also covered a certain secretary of state who spoke with a German accent on his travels through the Middle East and elsewhere.

KOPPEL: I did, indeed, yeah. In fact, what happened was my wife and I, who have now been married for almost fifty-seven years, when we first married, during the first eight years we were married ABC moved us eleven times—twice out to Southeast Asia, where I was covering Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. When I came back from the second tour in Vietnam I said to ABC: I’ll go anywhere you want me to go, but that’ll be it. I’m going to stay there. And they then put me in Washington, where I thought I would be able to stay at home because I was covering the State Department. And nobody really cared what William P. Rogers was saying or doing. (Laughter.) And then, of course, he was replaced by Henry Kissinger. And I was off and on the road again.

HAASS: So this is the fortieth anniversary of what was American held hostage, fortieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the hostage taking at the—at the embassy. So let’s talk a little bit about Nightline, which is—say a little bit about how what ended up on the air on a particular evening at 11:30, how did it end up there? What was the decision-making process about who or what you would do? How did you decide what was worthy of your attention? Because if I remember correctly, tell me if I’m wrong, that most of every show was about one issue.

KOPPEL: When the program began, Richard—and you’re right. What is the date today? The—

HAASS: It’s almost forty years to the date.

KOPPEL: When was the takeover of the embassy? Ninth. No, November 4, you’re exactly right. It was taken over on November 4. And in one of the more brilliant pieces of reporting that I have ever done, I went on the air that evening and said: Not to worry, there had been a similar event just a few months earlier. The ambassador had resolved it in a matter of hours, and the hostages would be released before the weekend was over. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Thank God you were wrong.

KOPPEL: Thank God I was wrong, yes. Tragically I was wrong—I mean, very wrong. But initially, the program began with a different title. It was called America Held Hostage, which during the first few days sounded like a terrible exaggeration. And yet, it came to be probably as accurate a title as you could have had. Within a matter of certainly a few months but possibly even a few weeks President Carter had maneuvered himself into a position in which it was very, very difficult for him to get out. I mean, he spoke of the hostage of crisis—a man of great compassion—he spoke of it as being the first thing he thought about in the morning and the last thing he thought about at night. Perhaps not thinking that the people who were holding the hostages in Tehran would listen to those words from the president of the United States and say, aha, we really have some clout here with the president.

Then a few weeks later, he said that they would do nothing—we, the United States, would do nothing to jeopardize the safety of the hostages. But that once they were released—and this, I think, is the exact phrase—the slate would not be wiped clean. In other words, as long as you hold the hostages, we’re not going to do anything to jeopardize them or you. Let them go, and there will be retribution. It didn’t work out well. So that in short order it became an obsession with the American public. There was a popular song at that time, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. And that became kind of thematic song of the hostage crisis.

HAASS: Do you feel you had something to do with creating the obsession, or you think you just reflected it?

KOPPEL: No, no, no, I—well, initially reflected it. Over a period of weeks and months, certainly contributed to it.

HAASS: When did you start numbering the days?

KOPPEL: Honestly, I can’t tell you, Richard. But I think it was probably within the first two or three weeks. So that it became—and Walter Cronkite then did the same thing on the CBS Evening News, where it became the hostage crisis, day twenty-three, day thirty-four. And interestingly enough, much of what I would criticize my colleagues in broadcasting today and in cable television for their obsession with the whole Trump impeachment issue, we were certainly guilty of that. I was guilty of that in 1979 and 1980, because we did coverage of the hostage crisis every single night at 11:30. The program initially went about fifteen minutes, then they expanded it to twenty minutes. And we were doing it four nights a week, finally we were doing it five nights a week.

But it was the first program that ABC had ever had—and please note, I’m saying ABC, not ABC News. ABC had tried to compete with the Tonight Show for years unsuccessfully. All of a sudden, here was this news program where we were doing update on the hostage crisis. And we were routinely beating CBS and, quite often, beating the Tonight Show on NBC. Well, that’s the kind of thing that gains the attention of the—of the executives at the network. So that by March 24, the program had begun—I think we’d begun on the 9th of November doing these updates. But the 24th, it became a permanent program, Nightline.

HAASS: Did you think after the hostages were released, when the Carter administration gave way to the Reagan administration, that the show would survive?

KOPPEL: Oh, I knew it would survive, Richard, because once it became a full-time program, on the 24th of March, we stopped doing the entire program on the Iran story every night. We would do a one-minute, or a minute and a half update at the end of the program. But we began doing other programs of interest. And let me remind you, we’re talking about the very earliest days of CNN. We’re talking about pre-MSNBC. We’re really talking about pre-internet times. So that if you had not heard the news from 6:30 or 7:00 on, there was really only one place you could go. And that was Nightline. We were the program of record for quite a number of years, at that time of day.

HAASS: The only other thing I remember happening at 11:30 at night would be you’d get the next day’s edition of the Washington Post.

KOPPEL: Right.

HAASS: You could—you could find it in this town.

Let me ask one question again, which is: Once the show became Nightline, and you stopped focusing only on the hostage issue and Iran, what was the criteria or the process by which you said, this—tonight we’re going to do X and we’re going to interview A and B, or just A. What, to you, determined what it was you did?

KOPPEL: Well, I should—I should tell our audience that sitting out here in Susan Mercandetti. And Susan, of course, is married to Richard. But far more important than that is that she was one of the first hires on Nightline forty years ago.

HAASS: So you’re going to the story now about what you did when she gave you questions to ask? (Laughter.)

KOPPEL: (Laughs.) No. (Laughter.) But Susan probably has as—deserves as much credit for the success of Nightline, together with two or three other men and women, who were responsible for—we would have a meeting at 10:30 in the morning. Usually by phone. And in that meeting, in effect, we would say, well, what’s the most interesting thing going on in the world today? Who are the most interesting people we could talk to in the world today? And what are the most interesting things we could tell them about this story? And based on that rather loose conversation Susan and her colleagues would go out and would start calling people quite literally all over the world, inviting them to come on Nightline.

And what really marked their tenacity, and probably contributed as much to the success of Nightline as anything else—is Tara Sonenshine here? Did I—yes, Tara Sonenshine, of course, was the other half of that equation. They were indefatigable. And we would be sitting there sometimes at 9:30 or even 10:00 at night, confident that we had our guests booked for the program. And one or both of these women would come into the office and say: I got a much better guest. You know, let’s dump so-and-so. (Laughter.) In fact, I remember one time when the decision was made to dump the archbishop of Washington. And Susan, the good Catholic that she is, said: Ted, you got to do this one for me, right? (Laughter.)

So anyway, the earliest conversations in the morning would begin to shape the program. We would then send one of our correspondents and a producer or two out to produce a background piece. And these pieces would sometimes run, five, six, even seven minutes. And they would provide what an audience needed to know about the subject so that when I then began interview the guest or guests it would be done in the context of a fairly knowledgeable audience. And we would often go all day long working on one subject, and then something fresh would happen, and we would dump the program at 7:00 in the evening and create a new program by 11:30 at night.

HAASS: Could such a program survive or thrive now? Is the day of that kind of Nightline, that kind of an interview show with a five-minute background setup piece, twenty, twenty-five minutes of detailed conversation, could that show survive?

KOPPEL: It not only could, it does. The New York Times has a daily radio program called The Daily which I called them to congratulate them on the program. I think it’s amazing program. They do a terrific job. and they conceded to me that they got part of the idea for the program from the old Nightline. It is an enormously successful podcast, radio program. I have been trying to tell my new colleagues at CBS that that’s what they need to do. Truly, you know, those of you—can I manage to see by a show of hands? How many of you still here watch and evening news program? Oh, you are an old bunch aren’t you? (Laughter.) If this were a college crowd, not a single hand would—not a single hand would be raised.

But the fact of the matter is, yes, the people who still watch ABC, NBC, CBS at 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening tend to be folks who are in the late fifties, sixties, seventies. The younger crowd, and I’m trying to convince my friends at CBS of this, the younger crowd, A, doesn’t watch the evening news anymore. Why? Because anything that you’re going to see on the evening news, the way it’s currently configured, they have already seen on their iPad or on their iPhone. You know, they’re already up to speed. And really there is no point in sitting down to watch the news at 6:30 when you have already learned during the course of the day all those events.

But if you could put a program on at 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening that took one of the most important stories in the day and so analyzed it, and so diagnosed it, and so explained it that you’re giving people something that they don’t currently get on their iPhone, I am convinced that such a program could be so—so, the answer is, could a Nightline-like program succeed? I think it could.

HAASS: I see Margaret Warner here. At some point I’ll let her say it does exist at 6:30 or 7:00 at night, and it’s called the NewsHour. Look, I mentioned before, you know, all your work as a foreign correspondent. So I want to connect that with Nightline and, more generally, television or radio, for that matter, podcasts. How is it you—what did you find worked? When you want Americans to tune into something about foreign policy, and you want to say: You may not see the connection but, trust me, this is relevant, this matters. What did you do so that when foreign policy came on the air your numbers didn’t go down the tube? I know weather was obviously a safe place to go. What did you do about foreign policy?

KOPPEL: For many years, and certainly during the last few years of Nightline, Richard, that was not the case. Our ratings began to slip. Our ratings began to go down. But certainly for the first fifteen to twenty years of the program the reputation of the program as such as that people who cared about the important events of the day would tune in just to see what the hell we were doing. And would the ratings slip when we did something like foreign policy? Sure. But did they go down the tubes all together? No.

And I’m proudest of the fact that when there was a story later on—I’m thinking of the O.J. Simpson trial, for example—we could see that any time we covered the O.J. Simpson trial our ratings would spike. And nevertheless, we decided that that was not what Nightline was about. We announced that we were going to do one program a week, Fridays, we would devote to a sort of reprise of the week, what had happened in the trial, and our ratings went through the roof on Fridays. But for the rest of the week, we covered the rest of the news.

I just think there is—and it’s difficult to do in the face of executives who are telling you, look, we need you to goose the ratings. We need you to come up with a younger audience than the one you’ve got right now. But I’m very proud of the fact that for almost twenty-six years Nightline was able to maintain a respectable audience by doing one of the more important stories of the day each day.

HAASS: I read some other interviews you’ve given. And one of the things that came through is you’re quite critical of how the, I guess, mainstream media is covering the forty-fifth president of the United States.


HAASS: I’d be curious to hear you say and how you think then he should be covered, or if you had Nightline today and you were covering him, how one should cover him?

KOPPEL: Well, first of all, as I’ve suggested, I think the evening news programs on the networks have pretty much given up. They’re barely covering it at all. You know, they’ll do a two-minute piece, a two-and-a-half minute piece. The number of times in which I see one of the networks—and forgive me, PBS is the exception—but the number of times that I see one of the commercial networks really following up on the whole impeachment issue in great detail is pathetically small. And I grimace every time I’m watching an evening news broadcast and I see another story on the weather, and another story on the fire, and another story on a plane that, you know, a two-seater that plowed into a house somewhere.

And they’ll end up doing a couple of minutes on a story that really, if it deserves anything, is just a fifteen-second reader. They are more concerned with the video that they have. They are more drive by the video that exists than they are by the importance of the story. And arguably I would say the story that confronts America right now is as important as any we’ve seen certainly in my lifetime. And I worry about the fact that we are—we are being driven into camps so that—and you know, because I’ve talked to you about it—I worry when I see you on Morning Joe, because I know you are a very down the middle kind of guy. But anyone who appears—any one of the New York Times reporters, Washington Post reporters who appear on a show like Morning Joe, and you can watch it throughout the day on MSNBC. And the same kind of thing at the other end of the ideological spectrum on Fox. And to a greater or lesser degree on CNN.

When you see people participating in a conversation that is being driven by a clear ideological point of view, you cannot but help but come to the conclusion that the journalists who are appearing on such programs are themselves favorable inclined to that ideological point of view. That’s a problem. That’s a mistake. A nation cannot survive—this nation cannot survive if we lose confidence in the objectivity of our journalists. And a massive job has been done on undermining public faith in the profession of journalism, as it is. And I don’t know how we’re ever going to be able to recover that again. And we live in an age of the internet. Let me put it to you this way: I can’t imagine anyone in this room hiring a roofer who’d never put a roof on before. Or calling up a plumber who didn’t have his plumber’s license. Or going to a doctor or a lawyer who didn’t have a degree in medicine and law.

And yet, we seem to be perfectly content going online and reading stories from, or listening to, or watching blogs from people who have absolutely no professional experience in gathering, and sifting, and presenting facts. And more, and more, and more the nation is being divided into the two camps, which spend their entire time listening to those points of view that reinforce what they already believe. I don’t know how we get out of that. I am—I am not convinced, Richard, that when Donald Trump is gone, whether he leaves because he’s voted out of office or whether he serves another four years, those who believe that the crisis will then be over are dreaming.

HAASS: So when you—if that’s what worries you, and for good reason it does, what is your sense of either what’s brought t about or how do you fix it? I mean, is it civics education in our—in our classes? Is it the ProPublicas, the PBSs, the NPRs that aren’t driven by commercial considerations? This is, you know, what you’re describing as reality—and I actually agree with you—that a degree of this was not created by Donald Trump, which means a degree of it will survive Donald Trump.

KOPPEL: Oh, I think a lot of it will.

HAASS: And so the question then is to the extent you think that something has gone haywire in American democracy, what’s your sense of either what’s caused it or how to fix it?

KOPPEL: Well, I think people are intoxicated by the phrase “democratization.” Somehow if something is democratized then it has to be good. And what has happened is the almost complete democratization of journalism. When I began in this business fifty years ago, if you wanted to get into journalism there were limited avenues open to you. You could go to work for one of the wire services or newspapers in your town, or a radio station, or a television station, the networks. But again, you were limited in terms of how many options were available to you. And there was as certain level of professionalism that applied in each of those areas.

With the advent of the internet, with the capacity of people to sit at their laptop and compose any piece of nonsense that they want to, and with the commercial reality of the more outrageous pieces of nonsense getting more hits than anything else, we have created a marketplace out there in which it is no longer a marketplace of ideas. It is a marketplace of opinions. It is a marketplace of savagery. It is a marketplace of lying and calumny. It is—it is a marketplace in which, tragically, the most outrageous views get the greatest attention. And lest you think that I’m completely giving up on my colleagues at the networks, I hold them responsible also. I really do. I don’t think that they are doing as professional a job as they ought to be doing.

It is—you know, there was a time, of course, when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America and, indeed, Wilbur Schramm of Stanford at one point coined the term “gatekeeper.” And certain journalists in this country were the gatekeepers who provided the information on which the American public ultimately made its decisions—political and otherwise. That’s totally gone. Totally changed.

HAASS: But part of that is the nature of the technology. We now—when you and I came of age you had, you know, three networks and so forth. Now you’ve got on cable hundreds of networks. You’ve got an infinite number online of, if you will, quote/unquote, you know, people “narrowcasting,” as you would say, without gatekeepers, without editors, no fact checkers. Not everything’s the New Yorker. So that’s simply the way it is.

So it seems to me these places thrive or fail depending upon what you called the marketplace. So it puts tremendous pressure on the discernment of individuals, what they bring, their judgement, their tolerance for inaccuracies masquerading as facts, their tolerance for ideology purporting to be analysis. So it seems to me, yes, it’s in part about those who put it out there, but it’s also in large part about those who consume and what they prefer to consume.

KOPPEL: And it’s very much a function of the marketplace. I ask this as a rhetoric question, you can provide your own answer. Do you believe that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox would be focusing as much of their attention on what I’ll refer to broadly as the impeachment story and everything that is sort of related to it on either side—do you think that their conversations from morning until night would be focused on that subject if, for some reason, the American public turned off? If, in other words, they were not, as is now the case, making more money than MSNBC has ever made before, more money than CNN has made in many a year, and I suspect Fox is doing very well also. And they’re doing it by catering to the ideology of their perceived audience.

And you know, would the—would the subject unfailingly, day after day, hour after hour, program after program—I don’t care when you tune into MSNBC. You’re going to hear a discussion of the latest wrinkle in the impeachment story. And I pose the question to you rhetorically. You answer it for yourselves. If they weren’t making money on it, would they still be doing it?

HAASS: Well, let me push back and answer your question. Say they weren’t making money on it but it was legitimate news that the American people needed to hear. Just because they didn’t want to hear it, that if people genuinely believe that what this president did crossed certain lines that hold him constitutionally culpable, that this is essentially for the American people to digest. And even if it meant ratings went down, isn’t that your whole argument, that the networks should not cater to the ratings?

KOPPEL: That’s my whole argument. But I am saying to you, Richard, the networks are catering to the ratings. And I’m saying to you that if in fact—I mean, you may consider it unfair—let’s take some of the subjects which you and I can certainly agree are important. Whether it’s foreign policy in general, how much coverage of that do you see on MSNBC? Zilch. Almost nothing. Whether it’s the climate change—I mean, the whole issue of climate, whether it is the economy. I mean, God knows you and I in the space of fifteen minutes could come up with a list of twenty subjects equally deserving of at least some coverage every day. Are they getting it? No. And they’re not getting it because MSNBC, and CNN, and Fox are making a ton of money doing what they’re doing right now.

HAASS: Well, first of all, I’m not here to defend any network. I think it’s just as true of the main networks, of ABC, NBC, CBS.

KOPPEL: Actually, they’re not. I mean, they’re—frankly, they’ve more or less covering the news. That’s my whole problem. (Laughter.)

HAASS: That makes me feel so much better. No, but then the question is, unlike the BBC, if we have media—mass media in this country that are ultimately commercial propositions as opposed to financed by a license, we are going to have to live with the reality that commercial decisions are going to be made. If you don’t like that, then you have to go to an alternative model—either a philanthropy-based approach, a billionaire-based approach, a license-based approach like the BBC. That’s simply a fact of life.

KOPPEL: Well, I think the fact of the matter is that PBS and NPR—I am a devoted listener to NPR. Why? Because in fact I think NPR does a much, much better job than any of the commercial networks, including the MSNBCs, CNNs. They really do a far, far better job. How well are they doing economically these days? I don’t know.

HAASS: Well, we could go on, as you could sense. (Laughter.) But debating either these issues or the quality of staffing of Nightline in its golden days. I think we could—we could do that.

KOPPEL: We’re agreed on that. (Laughter.) The quality was superb.

HAASS: We agree on that. (Laughs.) So let’s open it up. Raise your hand. Let us know who you are. A short and preferably difficult question for Mr. Koppel. Sir.

Q: Thank you. My name is Jamie Kirchick. I’m with the Brookings Institution.

I agree wholeheartedly with your remarks about the media being itself responsible for much of the loss in trust. And I wanted to know what you think about your former employer ABC in this leaked hot mic of the anchor speaking about the Jeffrey Epstein story, which she apparently had and the network sat on, didn’t report it for apparently political reasons. And then ABC tracking down the women they accused of leaking the video, who was working at CBS, and getting her fired, which seems pretty unprecedented to me in the history of TV news. I’m just curious what your thoughts were on that whole episode.

KOPPEL: Stupidity is a poor excuse, but I’m totally unfamiliar with that story.

HAASS: There we go. That’s a great defense, though. (Laughter.) I’m going to try that more often.

Yes, sir.

Q: Larry Garber. Currently teaching at GW.

But for purposes of this story, student at Columbia University in 1980, in the law school—taking a course in the law school and journalism school with Fred Friendly. And it was April 1980 when he came into class, about a week after the hostage rescue effort had failed. And he asked us all what we would do if we had gotten information about the potential raid beforehand? Would we have, as journalists, broadcast it at the time? And he pushed us all. He basically convinced us all that we should protect the national security. And I’m curious both how you think that issue should be—should have been answered then, and whether that has changed with your balancing of national security versus the journalist’s obligation to inform people has changed as a result of the expansion of media, as you’ve described here.

HAASS: Let me just add one wrinkle to Mr. Garber’s question. Whether you did not go with certain stories because people in the administration appealed to you not to?

KOPPEL: Yeah. In fact, I was going to respond to your question by giving you a specific example. You’ve probably seen the movie that was based on the, I think it was, seven Americans who managed to escape from the U.S. embassy and took refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. And I learned about that story at the time and got a call from Secretary Vance, who was then the secretary of state, saying: Ted, I know you have this story. And I’m not going to try to convince you that it isn’t true. It is true. But I am going to try to convince you that you may very well jeopardize the lives of those hostages, the security and safety of the Canadian residence and the staff there. And I’m asking you not to carry the story.

And I didn’t. It was the one and only time in a career that’s now over fifty years in which I’ve been asked to hold a story and did. The interesting—

HAASS: Did you make the decision or did you run it up the table?

KOPPEL: I made the decision without asking. When the movie came out, several of us who had been covering the story at the time—my CBS colleague and friend Marvin Kalb, my NBC counterpart Dick Valeriani, we were all invited to a showing of the movie. And it turned out that all three of us had the story. And all three of us were asked not to use it. And all three of us made the decision not to. Could we do the same thing today, where we’re not talking about three networks, you’re talking about three thousand outlets? You’re talking about the multifaceted internet where, quite literally, a story that can crop up, you know, in Ames, Iowa, because somebody got a leak on the story, before you know, it is going to be a national story. Could that story be held today? I honestly don’t think so.

HAASS: We’re actually seeing a version of that play out with the whistleblower story to some extent, that it’s just very hard given both the number of people who get access to things as well as the increasing politicization of specific outlets. It’s harder and harder to keep things.

Kathy O’Hearn, you had your hand up.

Q: Yes. Hi, Ted.

HAASS: Sort of a ringer. (Laughter.)

Q: I wanted to ask what you thought of—I’m sorry. Kathy O’Hearn with the Washington Post.

But I did want to ask what you thought about newspapers today in comparison to what’s happening with the networks , and why you think they’ve kind of maybe taken a different path.

KOPPEL: Let me be clear. I think the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are doing some of the finest work they have ever done in their long and distinguished histories. Having said that, I don’t like some of the trends that I have seen. I don’t like analysis stories showing up on the front page. I don’t like, as I think I’ve previously indicated, seeing really fine journalists, whose objectivity is really beyond question in my mind, showing up on programs on cable television that is going to undermine their credibility in the minds of people who may have suspicions about that. I told the executive editor of the—of the New York Times, shortly after he did it, that on the day that he put—

HAASS: Careful, you’re at the Council on Foreign Relations.

KOPPEL: Those words on the front page of the New York Times—and we all know what I’m talking about—that I turned to my wife at breakfast and I said, you know, the Times is absolutely determined to make sure that Donald Trump does not become president of the United States. I’m sorry, I worry about the clear sense of mission—the mission to tell the story in as accurately and in as great a detail as possible is wonderful. And all three newspapers are doing an absolutely brilliant job. But I think they’re letting their colors show a little bit too much, and I wish they wouldn’t.

HAASS: But just to push back—

KOPPEL: Go ahead.

HAASS: The story you’re referring to, which we’ll continue to be oblique about, why isn’t that news that’s fit to print, if someone at the time who is running for president spoke in that sort of language about women? Why isn’t that a legitimate news story? Why isn’t that revealing of character and behavior?

KOPPEL: Oh, let’s not be coy. If they had put “p****y,” do you think people wouldn’t have known what the word was?

HAASS: Is that your problem, was just the literalness of it?


HAASS: Oh, OK. So it wasn’t reporting the story. It was how it was reported.

KOPPEL: No, exactly.


KOPPEL: Yeah. No, no, no.

HAASS: That’s a different –

KOPPEL: I mean, the fact that he used that kind of language was absolutely relevant. This is a man who is running for president of the United States.

HAASS: OK, I misunderstood your criticism.

KOPPEL: No, no, no. I’m just saying when the Times did what the Times has never done in the past, by spelling the words out, that said to me, you know, there’s a goal there.

HAASS: OK. All right. I misunderstood your point.

KOPPEL: Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve misunderstood. (Laughter.)

HAASS: No. And we’ve got twenty minutes left. And it won’t be the last time either. So, yes. Subtly just goes right now here.

Q: Esther Lee, Refraction, an innovation hub and a former journalist.

I, like you, am bitterly disappointed by all three cable networks, which I watch. I try to watch all three. It’s like we live in three different countries.

KOPPEL: Good for you.

Q: (Laughs.) And many of us, whether we like it or not, live in echo chambers, right? I can count on one hand the number of people of the opposite party on my Facebook feed. And so what are your ideas on what we can do to get both sides talking in a respectful manner, in a productive manner, as opposed to everything on the internet devolving to name-calling.

KOPPEL: Let me—let me conduct a very brief experiment. Would those of you here who listen to Rush Limbaugh more than once or twice a month please raise your hands. One brave hand raised in the back. Now, you may think that I’m going to be sympathetic to your point of view. I’m not at all. I think you should all be listening to him at least half a dozen times a month. If you want to have a sense of how the 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump—how their opinions are being shaped, what it is they believe in, how it is they feel things will progress from here, should progress from here, you can’t—you can’t get that by listening to Rachel Maddow alone. You really can’t. If, in fact, we are doomed to have nothing but the extremes being presented to us, then we as consumers have an obligation to listen to both extremes.

HAASS: I actually follow that principle on the elliptical, and I tune in Fox along with the others. My pace picks up a little bit, but. (Laughter.) That’s a different issue. So, Margaret. And I think this is equal time. The equal time doctrine now is going to kick in.

Q: I wouldn’t presume to ask for equal time. But Margaret Warner, formerly of PBS. Now, actually, American University.

Mr. Koppel, given all your years covering the relationship between the media and U.S. officials who are policymakers in foreign policy, how do you think the relationship has changed? Has it? I mean, you mentioned about William Rogers, nobody would send William Rogers—any reporter on William Rogers’ plane. But of course, did it on Henry Kissinger, but.

KOPPEL: Well, obviously part of what has changed is that I don’t think diplomatic correspondents even travel with the secretary of state anymore. Maybe they do on occasion.

HAASS: Is that out of choice or because they’re not invited?

KOPPEL: No, I think it’s—I think it’s probably for economic reasons. You know, you’re just not going to—I mean, remember back—those of you old enough—remember back about twenty-five or thirty years. I mean, I can to this day—and I didn’t work for CBS—I can name you the CBS Washington lineup. Roger Mudd on Capitol Hill, Dan Rather at the White House, Marvin Kalb at the—at the State Department. Ike Pappas at the—at the Pentagon. I mean, I’d say 50-60 percent of the coverage every night came from Washington. And the strongest correspondents that you had—and believe me, I’ve just named some very strong, well-informed correspondents—they were covering the different branches of the U.S. government. Eh, get a little bit of that today, but not much. Still Capitol Hill, yes.

HAASS: Well, it’s an irony that it’s happening at a time where arguably what happens in the world is more important to the fate of this country than ever before, given globalization. Yet, our coverage of it is much diminished.

KOPPEL: What’s the title of that book again? (Laughter.)

HAASS: Oh, that would be improper of me to promote my own book at your event. (Laughter.) But copies of it are for sale outside. (Laughter.) Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you. Andy Masloski with the Department of State.

 Sir, you articulated—you mentioned the term “gatekeeper” at one point earlier on in your remarks. And for someone, speaking for myself, the notion that there were gatekeepers, individuals—individual people, all men, who were telling us what we should and shouldn’t believe was actually disturbing to me. But I also understand the notion of absent any gatekeeper how are we to understand and decipher, you know, what is true, what is not? Could you articulate—in our current age and based on your past experience—articulate a vision for how we are supposed to interpret the news that we receive to determine what is and isn’t true if we don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore? Something that goes beyond a—I may be misinterpreting you, but I’ve heard you sort of articulate a pox on both their houses with respect to MSNBC versus Fox. But I feel like it’s more complicated than that.

KOPPEL: Oh, it is. You’re absolutely right. And I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I think that those were somehow halcyon days, when the gatekeepers were the ones who presented the news. Maybe not halcyon days. But if I recite some of the names to you, the Howard K. Smiths, the Eric Sevareids, the Walter Cronkites, the Harry Reasoners. And you’re right, mostly men. Almost all white men in those days. So you know, I’m not suggesting that that is any way a paragon of the way that things ought to be today.

But they were professionals. They really were. And they cared about presenting the news in a balanced and even-handed fashion. And that is not to say that there weren’t millions of people in this country who always looked at the networks and said, ah, they’re far too liberal. They’re far too left-wing. That indeed was ultimately what led to the creation of Fox News was the perception of those people that there was room in this country, plenty of room as it turned out, for people who would represent a different point of view.

What worries me is that so much of the information that is being disseminated these days is being disseminated by people who have no experience whatsoever in news coverage, no experience whatsoever in the fundamental rules of journalism. And to the degree that those voices can be disseminated just as widely as all the other voices, and the ones that are still on the networks, that’s worrisome.

HAASS: If you were considerably younger than you are today, would you—would you follow the same career? And if so, would you go to journalism school? What would be your answer to both of those?

KOPPEL: I didn’t go to journalism school when I was in college. I have—I have spent a lifetime recommending against young people going to journalism school.

HAASS: I kind of knew that, but I wanted to tee it up for you. (Laughs.)

KOPPEL: No, really do feel that young people should go to college and learn something. I don’t care whether it’s about—you know, whether it’s about antiquities, or whether it’s about literature, or whether it’s about science, or whether it’s about the humanities. But, you know, come out of college knowing something about somethings. And then the old pros in the business will very quickly teach you the fundamentals of journalism.

HAASS: So an apprenticeship model almost.

KOPPEL: Exactly, yeah. That’s exactly right.

HAASS: And would you, yourself—

KOPPEL: Would I go into it today? Boy, I don’t know. I don’t know, Richard. I really don’t. Probably, because I—you know, I can’t imagine looking back on the last fifty years—and I’ve had a whale of a good time, and have truly enjoyed—you know, as I said, our meetings at Nightline, the morning meetings, what’s the most interesting thing going on in the world today? Who are the most interesting people we can talk to? Where are the most interesting places we can go to? And then we do that, someone else picks up the tab—(laughter)—and we get paid for doing it.

HAASS: If you had held that meeting this morning, at 10:30 this morning, how do you think you would have answered those questions? What’s the most important thing to be covering? Where would you be going? Who would you be talking to? Like, what’s your sense of what’s really big, and important, and rich out there?

KOPPEL: Well, I mean, clearly with the hearings beginning tomorrow I think it would have to be a setup of the—of the hearings beginning tomorrow. And that would be the show tonight. So, you know, what you will undoubtably see on all the networks tonight is what you would have seen if I was still doing the broadcast.

HAASS: You’d be doing impeachment too?

KOPPEL: I would be doing impeachment too. (Laughter.) Tonight I would.

HAASS: Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you. Tom Kahn, thirty years on Capitol Hill and now at George Washington University.

I would suggest that what’s happening in Congress is worse than it looks. And I think Congress, in part, drives the problems that you suggest, and partly it’s a reflection of it. It is terribly depressing. People no longer speak to each other; they speak at each other. The notion of compromise is considered weakness. Members of Congress no longer need to appeal to moderates. They appeal to the extremes in both parties, because districts are drawn 80 percent Republican and 80 percent Democrat, so the general election no longer matters. It’s only the primaries and only on the left. You have presented a very sad picture, frankly, one that I think is very compelling and I agree with. But I wish you could give us more suggestions in terms of really what we can do in a concrete way to somehow address them.

KOPPEL: Well, I am a great believer in the value of true leadership. Since I stopped doing Nightline, two of my best friends these days are Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Jay Rockefeller, the former Democrat from West Virginia. Couldn’t be more dissimilar in terms of their ideology, but two more profoundly decent and caring patriots I’ve never met. I cannot help but believe if either one of them was still in the Senate, that what is going on right now would prompt either or both of them to say: Let’s cut this crap out. Let’s—you know, it requires someone to get out there and say what you have just said, someone to get out there. And unfortunately, the only ones who are saying it are first saying, I would like to announce I’m not running for reelection next year. (Laughter.) And then they are suddenly filled with heroism and bravado.

I’d like someone who is running for reelection next year to get up and say: I’m sorry, I just—I can’t accept what is going on here. And truly, I do not believe that all the—all the evil lies on one side. I think we’ve got to do a better job of presenting an objective picture of what is going on. And sometimes that means stepping on the toes of people with whom, perhaps privately, we empathize and sympathize. But, boy, I understand what you’re saying. And I’m as—I’m as concerned about what’s not going on up on Capitol Hill as you appear to be.

HAASS: Jill Schuker.

Q: Hi. Jill Schuker, the OECD.

Having been at the State Department during the days that you were there—

HAASS: Were you a source? (Laughter.)

Q: I can only say—

KOPPEL: She was a—she was as lousy source. She was a good friend but a lousy source. (Laughter.)

Q: I can only say that I know the story to be true about Vance.

But a couple of things, Ted. One, the issue of foreign policy being covered and not being covered is seemingly a forever issue, in terms certainly on television with the exceptions you’ve mentioned. I’m an avid watcher of Fareed Zakaria. But it is few and far between that there is very little—or much attention given to foreign policy. Is there any way to rectify that? And as a sort of subset question, during the time that you started Nightline, America Held Hostage, it was the first time that we allowed television into the briefing rooms. And the importance of briefings then were in part stimulated by the kinds of questions that you, and Marvin, and others would raise both at the State Department, at the Pentagon, at the White House. If there’s no common definition anymore, given this administration and your point about what the future may entail, how do we get back to some common definition of what is true and has the facts?

KOPPEL: No, it’s a wonderful point, Jill. And I would—I would add only to what you have said by pointing out that one of the spokesmen at the State Department at the time that Marvin, and Dick, and Bernie Gwertzman, and, you know, a lot of really fine diplomatic correspondents were covering, was a man by the name of Bob McCloskey. Robert McCloskey went onto to be—he was named ambassador. He was a truly first-class foreign service officer. And his intelligence and the level of confidence that the secretary of state had in Bob to stand before that noon briefing every day and convey some of the subtleties of foreign policy to a group of reporters who really knew their stuff. You know, we were all well-versed in foreign policy. But we were matched by the caliber of the foreign service officer who was briefing us every day.

You know, without naming any names now, you know, look at the people who are now the spokespeople for the government, for the White House, for the State Department, for the Pentagon. You don’t have your best people out there. And that’s really a reflection on what the people who run those different bureaucracies think of the press. We’re not worth it. Why bother?

HAASS: Come back to Jill’s first question, which is if you had the challenge—basically said: We’re going to put you on the air, Mr. Koppel, five nights a week, but only—and we want you to cover foreign policy. But only if you can get decent ratings. What is it—what is it that could be done in covering international issues, with what it is this organization’s about—what do you think that could be done to make it more—basically more widely viewed?

KOPPEL: Well, imagination, for one thing. Let’s take what is clearly one of the most important subjects of our time, the climate issue, and let us take what is the most—one of the hottest political issues of our time, and that is illegal immigration. And tell me about the last time you saw a really good half-hour program on the connection between what is happening in climate in Africa, in parts of South Asia, in the Middle East, and the direct impact that that is having on the number of desperate men, women, and children who are flooding into Western Europe. And of course, the same thing—the same arguments can be made. All I’m saying is it takes a little bit of imagination to say, all right, so you don’t care about the climate, but do you care about millions of people of color coming into your country? Clearly you do, because it’s a huge argument. It’s a huge political issue. Let me show you how those two issues relate. Let us explain to you how our failure to pay any attention to the one issue drastically increases the likelihood of millions of desperate people seeking shelter somewhere else in the world. You know, you can do that on almost any big story.

HAASS: We are trying to here. Mr. Koppel, I want to thank you for two things. One, for the last hour. And, two, even more important, for the last half-century-plus, for being one of this country’s principal teachers. So thank you. (Applause.)

KOPPEL: Thank you. That’s very kind.


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