KOPPEL, TED

U.S. Broadcast Journalist

When Ted Koppel addressed Catholic University's graduating class in 1994, he proclaimed, "We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel, and it is a television antenna." In Koppel's words, "We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing." This may be Koppel's opinion of television in general, but few observers would accept it as a description of Koppel or his late-night news and public affairs program, Nightline, which began on ABC in 1980. Koppel and Nightline have repeatedly won awards and, at the same time, consistently attracted large audiences, even battling against such successful network stars as Johnny Carson and David Letterman. In the eyes of many world wide TV viewers, Koppel is a celebrity, a respected yet gutsy commentator, one of the best interviewers on TV, and a superb reporter. Newsweek once called him the "smartest man in television." Clearly, Ted Koppel does not "say absolutely nothing."

After first working in radio news at WMCA in New York, Koppel joined ABC News in 1963 as one of the youngest news reporters to ever work for a network. He quickly rose through the ranks of the organization. He covered Vietnam, became the bureau chief for Miami and then Hong Kong, and then chief diplomatic correspondent in 1971. In this capacity he established himself as one of television's best reporters. But then on 4 November 1979 Iranians seized the American embassy in Iran, took Americans hostage, and television news took another step toward becoming the most relied on source of news. Four days later at 11:30 P.M. ABC News aired a program called The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage anchored by Frank Reynolds. Roone Arledge, ABC News president, decided this program would continue till the hostage crisis was over, and that it would eventually become a regular late-night newscast. After about five months The Iran Crisis became Nightline, and Koppel, who had anchored The Iran Crisis several times, became the permanent anchor for the new program. Since 1980 it has been difficult to separate Koppel from Nightline. Koppel retired from Nightline in 2005.

Koppel has won Peabody awards, duPont-Columbia awards, and countless of other awards including the Emmy. It was Koppel who went to South Africa for a week long series in 1985 to analyze apartheid, and subsequently won a Gold Baton duPont-Columbia prize for the series. It was also Koppel who brought Jim and Tammy Bakker to Nightline, attracting 42% of network viewers. It was Koppel who brought George Bush and Michael Dukakis to TV in the last days of the 1988 presidential election when neither was giving interviews. Also in 1988 Koppel went to the Middle-east to report on Arab-Israeli problems and held a town meeting attended by hundreds of Israeli and Arab citizens. And Koppel has probably brought Henry Kissinger (who once tried to hire Koppel as his press spokesman at the State Department) to TV more than any other interviewer. Among many other accomplishments, Koppel made a journalistic coup by being the first Western journalist to reach Baghdad after Iraqi's Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. (Koppel eventually began his own production company so he could produce his own programs, such as The Koppel Reports.)

Koppel's success has been earned under the scrutiny of millions of viewers, and he has had his share of critics. But as media critic Bernard Timberg comments, Koppel is resourceful. While dealing with enormous programming, technological, and economic changes in the business of electronic journalism (not to mention enormous egos), Koppel has persisted and has come out on top. But the style of Nightline was established early as "us-versus-them" during the Iran hostage crisis. Critics like Michael Massing have said Koppel and Nightline are not impartial; some feel that, especially with Kissinger's influence, the show (and therefore Koppel) serves as a "transmission belt for official U.S. views." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (a watchdog organization also called FAIR) has charged Koppel's Nightline as being overly influenced by white, male, corporate guests. In other words, the audience frequently only gets one side of an issue. However, Koppel wants to be seen as impartial and he wants Nightline to be a program where "...people of varying stripes and political persuasions can feel comfortable." Koppel recognizes the possibility, raised by critics, that his work can actually influence news events, but says that all the journalist can hope for is to "...bring events to the attention of people in government" and of course to the public. In his book on ABC News, Gunther describes Koppel's Nightline as the most significant addition to television news since 60 Minutes was created in the 1960s. If this is so, then Ted Koppel may be one of the most significant journalists working in the medium.

-Clayland Waite

 


Ted Koppel
Photo courtesy of ABC

TED KOPPEL. Born in Lancashire, England, 8 February 1940. Educated at Syracuse University, New York, U.S.A., B.A. in speech, 1960, Stanford University, M.A. in mass communications research and political science, 1962. Married: Grace Anne Dorney, 1963, children: Andrea, Deirdre, Andrew, and Tara. Reporter, radio station WABC, 1963-1967; television reporter, Saigon Bureau of ABC News in Vietnam, 1967-68; Miami bureau chief, ABC News, 1968; Hong Kong bureau chief, 1969-71; chief diplomatic correspondent, ABC News, 1971-80, correspondent, ABC News Closeup, 1973-74, anchor, ABC News programs, from 1975; anchor of The Koppel Reports, since 1988. Recipient: George Polk award for TV network reporting, numerous Emmy Awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards, eight DuPont/Columbia awards, seven Overseas Press Club awards, two Society of Professional Journalism awards. Address: c/o ABC News, 1717 De Sales St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

TELEVISION

1967-80 ABC News (correspondent and bureau chief) 1973-74 ABC News Closeup (correspondent)
1975-76 ABC Saturday Night News (anchor)
1980-2005 Nightline (anchor)

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1973      The People of People's China
1974      Kissinger: Action Biography
1975      Second to None
1988-90 The Koppel Reports

PUBLICATIONS

In the National Interest, with Marvin Kalb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Nightline: History in the Making and the Making of Television, with Kyle Gibson. New York: Times Books, 1996.

FURTHER READING

Gunther, M. The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Massing, M. "Ted Koppel's Neutrality Act." Columbia Journalism Review (New York), March-April, 1989.