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Interview: Ted Koppel On The State Of The Media

Haraz N. Ghanbari
"Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel prepares for the taping of his last broadcast in 2005 at ABC's studio in Washington.

Ted Koppel was the host of Nightline, the groundbreaking TV news program that chronicled the Iran hostage crisis day after day, starting in late 1979. It was the kind of coverage that has evolved to the 24/7 news cycle that we see today, for better or worse.

Koppel’s career has ranged from copyboy to war reporter to international correspondent. Koppel recently sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss the state of journalism today.

Mr. Koppel, hello.

Please call me Ted, and is anything wrong with the state of journalism?

I’d like to know if you think that’s the case. You’ve been a part of the news media for close to six decades now. You’ve seen the industry undergo quite a few changes. In recent years, there’s been, I guess you’d call it a seismic shift in how people get their news and what is passed off as news. And it makes me wonder: has the role of journalism, what reporters do and how they do it, changed, in your view?

It has and let me refer you back to a conversation I had with Donald Trump in Cleveland on the day that he received the Republican nomination. And at that point, I was doing an interview with him, and he said, ‘Ted, I don’t need you anymore. I don’t need guys like you anymore,’ and at that point he made reference to the fact that he had, I don’t know, about 18 million followers on Twitter and about 8 million followers on Facebook. And his point was that he was able to communicate directly without any sort of intervention by the media.

There is a growing sense that you don’t really need journalists in an environment in which important people, like the President, can communicate directly with their public by the use of social media, and that, I’m afraid, is a terrible misreading of what journalism is all about.

So you think, then, that people still want fact-based reporting even though by  kind of going around the traditional gatekeepers of fact-based reporting – journalists – they may or may not be getting the facts.

I think that there is a serious division in this country between those people who really feel that they are better off getting their information directly from the policymakers than they would be if they got their information filtered through the news media.

It’s easy to understand why a lot of people might feel that way, but the fact of the matter is the reason that journalism is important is precisely because there is a serious profession of journalism that involves fact checking, that involves editing, that involves sifting the wheat from the chaff, that involves putting things into a proper context. And the simple fact of the matter is that getting the news directly from the newsmakers is not a substitute for journalism.

What then do journalists need to do, do you think, to become an important part of the process again?

I think they need to do their jobs. I happen to believe that journalism, and the journalists who practice it, bear much of the responsibility these days for the public’s lack of respect for journalism. We have become more and more inclined to confuse analysis and to confuse opinion with the pure practice of journalism. That’s a mistake.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of the coverage, particularly on my medium of television, a lot of the coverage these days has more to do with the economics of it than it does with journalism itself. The fact of the matter is CNN and MSNBC and FOX and the three broadcast networks and their news departments are all doing much better, as is The New York Times and The Washington Post than they were doing in the pre-Trump era.

If you watch television, especially cable television, you could easily come to the conclusion that the most important things that are going on in the world today, the issues of greatest importance to the American public these days, all begin and end with some variation on the theme of what’s Donald Trump doing these days. And that’s just plain and simply not true, but it puts butts in the seat, it puts viewers onto their television sets.

Until we get over the notion that it’s more important for these news channels to be making a great deal of money than it is for them to be practicing journalism, I’m not talking about in its purest form, but just in the sense of giving equal coverage to other things that are actually more important than whatever the President’s latest tweet happens to be.

Ted Koppel, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Ok, my pleasure.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.