by Pat BroeskeOctober, 2000
A Reporter's Diary made Public
Like Leno and Letterman, he is a fixture of the after-hours cultural zeitgeist. But instead of delivering monologues and Top Ten Lists, Ted Koppel delves into issues. His name is synonymous with ABC's Nightline, the respected news show he has anchored for more than 20 years. Esteemed for his journalistic skills, especially his intrepid interviews, Koppel is a preeminent force in TV news. Befitting that status, he has been toasted and roasted (of his decidedly bad hair, the Washington Post declared, "it looks like a Brillo pad ). And, he has journeyed from the small screen to the book shelves.
In his televised reports, Koppel strives for objectivity. Viewers are not privy to his personal thoughts. So he has delivered them in print.
Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public originated as a journal what Koppel calls "an exercise in self-discipline. Speaking by phone from the Nightline offices in Washington, D.C., Koppel explained that on the last day of 1998 he got the idea to keep a day-to-day record of his observations on the events of the following year. "My grandmother was born in 1899. I thought what a joy it would have been, for our family, if there had been a journal detailing the dawn of 1900. Determined to detail the dawn of 2000 for Grace Anne, his wife of 40 years, and their four children, Koppel wrote daily initially alternating between yellow legal pad and laptop. "Then I realized that everything I was writing on the legal pad I was transferring to the laptop. The legal pad was abandoned. Off Camera marks his second print project about Nightline. The first, largely written by former Nightline producer Kyle Gibson (with Koppel contributing) was the 1996 title, Nightline :History in the Making and the Making of Television. It took readers behind the scenes of the show. Off Camera also takes readers behind the scenes of Koppel's childhood in England, his contemporary family life, and his work as a TV newsman. To Koppel's dismay, in current news reporting, there is "this tremendous rush to be first with the obvious. His book underscores the perils of that rush, pointing out what happened when CNN broke the news of a shooting at the Armenian parliament. After reporting the death of the prime minister, a CNN anchor went on to report that the prime minister was actually at a hospital, in critical condition. (He did die, but it was never made clear when.) "It was a perfect example of all that is wrong with television's electronic tail wagging the editorial dog, writes Koppel.
After all, he elaborated, "Journalism entails more than focusing a camera on an event. It entails providing some kind of context. Koppel also voices his concerns about the racism inherent in our society. (He once quizzed five of his black Nightline colleagues and found they had all been behind bars, if only in a holding cell.) Then there is Koppel's theory about the Vannatizing of America, as in Vanna White, the beautiful game show personality who attained her fame without offering up opinions. "This, I believe, is the root of her popularity. We are able to project on her whatever we please, and, therefore, find her sympathetic, writes Koppel, who wryly wonders if George W. Bush's popularity is likewise due to the Vannatizing of America. He also questions Bush's continued refusal to squarely answer questions pertaining to rumors of possible drug use. Koppel, who has done numerous shows about this country's correctional institutions and their inhabitants believes Bush owes the public the truth. After all, he is governor of a state known for dispensing tough penalties, in the form of stiff prison sentences, to drug users.
"A lot of the offenders are young people who are not going to be finding themselves on the path to the presidency. In fact, their options will be severely limited after they have served 10 to 15 years. As for the future: he is not yet sure how the internet will ultimately impact news. He worries that there are no watchdog agencies to make sure cyberspace news sites abide by "professional standards. Until that day comes, he advises news junkies to stick with solid news sources that are unafraid to weigh in late on a story. "The New York Times has retained its [lofty] reputation. I think they'd rather be beaten on a story than be inaccurate, said Koppel. Without skipping a beat, he added, "And so would I. Pat H. Broeske explores the worlds of crime and punishment as a segment producer for Court TV's Anatomy of Crime.