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Ted Koppel

How the suits are making a travesty of television news

COMMENTARY | April 25, 2006

Former ABC newsman Ted Koppel says the consultants, accountants and demographers who are running television news divisions are surrendering their civic responsibilities – particularly when it comes to news from overseas.

An excerpt from Ted Koppel’s speech to the Overseas Press Club on April  20, 2006, upon being presented with the President’s Award.

Sometimes, I have to admit, the rear view mirrors through which we view the sparkling achievements of long-forgotten news departments --- those mirrors tend to be tinted with a rose-colored hue.

The news division I joined at ABC well over 40 years ago was, in fact, nothing much to brag about.  The God’s honest truth is that if they’d had a real news department back then, they never would’ve hired me at age 23.  The entire division operated on an annual budget that would, these days, have been insufficient to lure Katie Couric away from “The Today Show.”  And you can’t chalk it all up to inflation.

ABC News, back in 1963, put out a pathetic little production, fifteen minutes long, in black and white, that had neither substance nor visual impact.  That was the evening news.  And, (on ABC, at least,) there was no morning news program, there were no magazine shows, there was no “Nightline.”  ABC’s Sunday morning interview program “Issues and Answers” may or may not have existed back then, but whenever it began, it wasn’t much to brag about either.

Nor, quite frankly, was the much-vaunted, rock-ribbed, steel-spined support that the CBS Network allegedly afforded its legendary stable of broadcast news icons.  There had been a great extended honeymoon during the post World War II years when nothing was too good for the CBS news division. But eventually, that too faded, and Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Howard K. Smith all left CBS news disillusioned by the lack of support they got from management in the face of political or economic pressures.  

There never was a time, in other words, of perfect harmony between us and the suits.  Time simply softens the edges of those ancient frictions.  And yet, we knew who we were back then. There was a clear line between us and the entertainment division.

Ed Murrow recognized that he was crossing that line when he reluctantly agreed to host “Person to Person.”  And he had the good grace to feel uncomfortable about it.  But, I suppose, that’s where it began:  the seductive argument that by doing an occasional buck and wing, a little soft-shoe to fatten the coffers of the organization with one program. It made possible some of the other serious documentaries and news programs that didn’t enjoy such high ratings. 

But the central mission in those days was still hard news.  CBS, NBC and ABC News all operated on the premise that their reporters and producers, their camera crews and editors had been hired to focus the attention of the American public on the important issues of their time. And among the most important of those issues was the news from abroad.  Foreign news has always been an expensive proposition.  It costs a great deal of money to keep a couple of dozen bureaus open and staffed around the world.  But there was a time when our industry accepted the responsibility and bore the cost.  The fact is it never made good business sense.  But the minute you apply accounting principles to the gathering of foreign news, you’re in trouble.  And when you go the next step, turning news divisions into corporate cost centers, you’ve lost your reason for being.

Several years ago, a couple of top executives from the Disney Corporation paid a visit to the ABC News bureau in Washington.  One of them made the point that while he understood our objections to budget cuts that were being implemented, we had to understand that we were no more or less important to the company than the illustrators who draw those brilliant Disney cartoons, and that even their budget was being cut.

I raised my hand and asked the executive whether he had ever heard the names Terry Khoo or Roger Peterson.  Did he, I wondered, know who Dave Kaplan or Bill Stewart were.  He did not; and it was clear that he was irritated by the direction he sensed the question was going.  He was right. Bill Stewart was an ABC correspondent who was killed in Central America.  Dave Kaplan was a Washington producer who was killed in Sarajevo, accompanying my friend, Sam Donaldson.  Roger Peterson was an ABC war correspondent, seriously wounded in Vietnam.  Terry Khoo was a cameraman, killed on what was to have been his last day after several years for ABC in Vietnam.

The list of those who’ve died or been injured working for ABC News is actually much longer; but it doesn’t alter the point.  We’re in a different line of work from most everyone else in the corporation; Lee and Bob Woodruff can tell you about that.  We are all relieved that Bob is recovering so well from the wounds he received in Iraq, but he and his family are paying an enormous price.  

Kayce Freed Jennings, who, together with Lizzie and Christopher Jennings, joined us so that we could all pay honor to the memory of our late friend, Peter; they all understand why Peter’s loss is such a body blow to the entire news division.  Peter evolved into a news anchor by virtue of the years he put in overseas--on the battlefields of Vietnam, under fire in Beirut and Sarajevo.

There’s not a one of us who’s covered wars and revolutions in other continents, whose families can’t tell you about the fear and sleepless nights that were an outgrowth of every one of those assignments.

I don’t want to pretend that any one of us is or was something that we are not.  I love reporting from overseas.  So did Peter.  So does Bob.

But for all these years we have told our families and told ourselves that at least some of what we were doing is genuinely important, that Americans really need to know what is happening overseas…what is being done in their names…why it is that our nation’s best intentions are so often misunderstood or misinterpreted.

What is different about the television news business these days is that it’s driven by consultants, accountants and demographers.  No longer do the television network news divisions show the American public what it ought to see; rather, they provide certain favored age groups with what the networks believe they want to see. It is purely a question of what sells.

That marks a critical change in our industry.  The news divisions have gone from being loss leaders for their networks--a fig leaf for an otherwise hugely profitable enterprise--to becoming just another profit center within that enterprise.  They haven’t entirely, but they’ve almost surrendered even the pretense of civic responsibility.  Television news has devolved into essentially what the public would like it to be, and the public, we are told, does not much care for foreign news.

That’s not just a shame, that’s a travesty, and a dangerous one.

India and China are the looming superpowers of the 21st century.  American jobs are being outsourced to both countries by the tens or even hundreds of thousands.  How many functioning, fully-staffed bureaus do the networks have in either country?  You really don’t want to know.

 We are in the early stages of what the Pentagon, these days, is calling “the long war.”  There is no end in sight.  Our enemies are recruiting and planning and preparing all over the world and we are closing our foreign bureaus down.

If something happens in one of those places, I heard a former network news president say other day, we can always jet someone in.  That is a profoundly telling statement.  Instead of investing in someone on the scene who is familiar with the political and cultural landscape, who can give us all a sense of what’s going to happen, and who can provide us with a sense of context when it does, news is being re-defined as “that which has happened most recently…and which may pique the interest of a particular demographic group.”

More attention is being focused on the medium than the message:  make it available on a cell phone; put it on a blog.  Let’s see how many different messages we can jam onto a single screen at the same time.

Perhaps it was always a professional conceit: that gathering the news in dangerous places was actually worth risking life and limb. But we really believed that we were doing something worthwhile. I know that David Bloom and Bob Woodruff believed that. But frankly, looking at our industry these days, I’m not so sure that it is.

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