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Reliable Sources

Ted Koppel Talks About Two Decades of 'Nightline'; How Do Journalists Cover Bush and Gore From Here?

Aired March 11, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The media after Super Tuesday. Will journalists run out of gas as well? How do they cover Bush and Gore from here? We'll ask Ted Koppel.

Plus, an in-depth look at 20 years of "Nightline."

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off this week.

Our special guest for this half hour is Ted Koppel, the anchor and managing editor of ABC's "Nightline," which is celebrating two decades on the air this month.

We'll talk with him about that in just a few moments. But first, campaign 2000 and the media's big day.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Whether you call it super, titanic, or some other superlative, the political importance of this day seems difficult to overstate...


KURTZ (voice-over): The primary season's biggest showdown was also a media extravaganza, with the networks ready to declare the day's winners and losers.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Red alert time for McCain...

MARGARET CARLSON, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": The McCain momentum seems to be gone with these votes tonight.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: A big New York victory for George Bush that we are just now declaring...

BERNARD SHAW, CNN NEWS: Well, CNN makes the call for the big one, California.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Al Gore, a clean sweep, a total lock on the nomination.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Vice President Gore, of course, has once again beaten poor Bill Bradley. He had another of what seems now to be an endless list of states and places...

TED KOPPEL, ANCHOR, ABC NEWS "NIGHTLINE": ... but the primary season seems essentially over.


KURTZ: While John McCain and Bill Bradley got ready to bow out, the victors hopped from network to network, racing to get a head start on the road to November.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's amazing that Vice President Gore will be talking about dropping soft money. He must have had amnesia for what went on in Washington, D.C., for the past seven years.

ALBERT A. GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Three of the four candidates running this evening, Ted, decided to strongly support campaign finance reform. Governor Bush does not.



KURTZ: Ted Koppel, welcome.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

KURTZ: When Al Gore and George Bush came on your show on Tuesday night, Super Tuesday evening, armed, as always, with their talking points, what if anything did you do to try to get them off the script?

KOPPEL: Well, for one thing, we had just heard Al Gore giving -- instead of the victory speech, he almost immediately segued into the beginning of the general campaign. And as part of that, clearly trying to get George Bush off balance a little bit, he suggested that the two of them drop radio ads, drop their TV ads, meet twice a week for debates, that George W. Bush join him in town meetings that he, Al Gore, plans to have between now and convention time.

So that allowed me then to play a little bit of that tape to him, of him talking, and say, in effect, Is this just gimmickry? Is this just a tactic? Or do you really think that there's a snowball's chance in hell that George W. Bush is going to leap to that bait?

KURTZ: So you did what every journalist tried to do, you tried to start a fight.

KOPPEL: Tried to start a fight, exactly. And not hard to do. I mean, these guys are at war with each other, so starting a fight is not all that difficult. And then when I talked to George W. Bush, I was able to present him with the -- what what the vice president had said. He actually hadn't heard it yet. And he was able to restrain his enthusiasm.

So right off the bat, you know, we know where this one's going.

KURTZ: Is it a requirement for presidential candidates to make repeated appearances on "Nightline"? Is there a Koppel primary?

KOPPEL: No, and, I mean, the amazing thing, I suppose, is that there is a time when politicians have to appear on "Nightline," and that seems to be when they're in deep trouble everywhere else. You know, if things are going really badly in a campaign, they're much more likely to show up on "Nightline" than when things are going well for them.

You can almost tell how well things are going for a candidate by the scarcity of appearances on "Nightline."

KURTZ: So if the polls are up, things are going great, they don't necessarily need Koppel.

KOPPEL: Exactly. Why bother? Why take the chance? And it's not even so much, you know, that my interviewing skills are better than anybody else's investigating skills, it's just that we have half an hour, and you put a candidate on half an hour, with any one of us, and the chance that they may trip on a shoelace is enhanced. (inaudible)...

KURTZ: Certainly easier than the five or six minutes...

KOPPEL: Much easier.

KURTZ: ... that they're much more accustomed to.

KOPPEL: Absolutely. And they've all learned to do what I'm doing to you right now, and that is not letting you get another question in and just keep talking and just when you think you're going to be able to, you keep on going.

KURTZ: All right, well, let me elbow my way in here and ask you about John McCain, because he was on your show several times. He's been all over the airwaves, all over the print media, largely favorable coverage, although he's taken his docks.

How much did the media, did journalists, contribute to what's become known as the McCain phenomenon?

KOPPEL: Well, it clearly is -- what is that wonderful thing that happens when birds sit on the backs of, you know, cows and they pick off the insects, and both benefit? The bird gets dinner, and the cow gets the insects picked off. You know, that sort of natural phenomenon takes place all the time between journalists and politicians.

KURTZ: But not for so many hours a day as McCain allowed. KOPPEL: Well, they're at -- I mean, the mere fact that he was willing to permit that became a news story in and of itself. What I was just talking about, the fact that a candidate who is doing well in a campaign is probably reluctant to sit down for a full half hour interview with a professional journalist.

KURTZ: Make a mistake, a gaffe.

KOPPEL: Exactly. Now, to sit down in the company of a dozen professional journalists for sometimes 12, 14, 16 hours a day, I mean, with campaign stops in between, is one hell of a high-wire act, very tough to do, very easy for someone to make mistakes.

KURTZ: And occasionally he did.

KOPPEL: And occasionally he did. But the mere fact that he was so accessible, the mere fact that he made himself so available, I think, caused some of us to give him a little bit of a bye. I mean, it's one thing if someone hides out for three or four weeks, then finally shows up for a press conference and makes a gaffe. That gaffe looms very large.

If someone is sitting there talking to you six, eight hours a day and makes an occasional gaffe, I think people are inclined to cut him a little more slack. That's clearly what happened to McCain.

KURTZ: One other incident on Super Tuesday night that created a bit of a buzz, took place on MSNBC, lots been written about it.

Let's take a quick look at it.


MARIA SHRIVER, NBC NEWS: Here you can see John McCain. Senator, how do you feel...


SHRIVER: How do you feel?

McCAIN: Please get out of here.


KURTZ: You're a spectator watching this at home. Who do you think is rude, Senator McCain or Maria Shriver?

KOPPEL: Oh, it -- I don't think either one of them was rude, but I think in an instance like that -- forgive me, Maria -- I think the public out there is going to be saying where to go. It wouldn't -- I mean, if I'd been there holding the microphone saying the same thing, and he had said the same thing to me, please get out of here -- you can understand, the man has just lost a campaign.

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: He really...

KURTZ: He's about to make a speech.

KOPPEL: He's about to make a speech...

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: ... he's got his wife, he's got his kids with him. And a reporter is jamming a microphone in his face and saying, how do you feel? How do you think I feel? You know, I mean, I feel lousy, I just lost my campaign.

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: I can't imagine that there are too may people out there saying, Oh, my God, you know, he dumped all over the First Amendment.

KURTZ: He did say please.

After the blur of the last two months, now the primary season has evaporated, what about the Bush-Gore race? How will the media cover it? Especially since so many journalists in advance have pronounced it boring?

KOPPEL: You make a good point, but now I'd like to turn it back on you and say, You don't think it's going to be boring?

KURTZ: Once they start beating up on each other, I don't think it'll be boring. But I do think the run-up between now and the conventions, because there's no actual delegates at stake and so forth, will create a void that journalists can either fill with sensationalism, coverage of the issues, which would be nice, or maybe they'll go on to some other story.

KOPPEL: Well, coverage of the issues will be fun, but will it have the sort of adrenaline-pumping excitement of, Gee, is it possible that Bill Bradley or John McCain could take this thing away from the guys that we thought were the shoo-ins last summer? That's gone. I mean, I think -- I can understand why people out there sometimes believe that we are partisan in one direction or the other.

But truly, it's less partisanship than just the desire to have a good story. If anybody comes along with a good story -- you know, a few years ago it was Ross Perot. He was a good story.

KURTZ: Speaking of that, and we just have a few seconds left, in 1996 you rather famously left the Republican Convention early. You didn't think it was a good story.

KOPPEL: It wasn't.

KURTZ: Will you be going to any conventions in 2000?

KOPPEL: I think this one could -- theoretically could be a good story, if John McCain, who after all has not released his delegates, has only suspended his campaign, he hasn't ended his campaign, if he wants to go to kick up a little dust in Philadelphia, I'll be there.

KURTZ: OK. We have to hold it there.

When we come back, "Nightline" at 20.



This month, ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel turns 20 years old.


(voice-over): When dozens of Americans were seized in Iran in 1979, ABC turned over its 11:30 time slot to the news division. "America Held Hostage" tracked the unfolding drama each weeknight.

But five months later, that program gave birth to a new venture called "Nightline."


KOPPEL: This is a new broadcast in the sense that it is permanent...


KURTZ: "Nightline" was the first broadcast to regularly use satellite technology to bring together guests from across the world.


OTTO KRAUSE: ... majority of blacks in this country...

PERCY GOBOZA: You are so superior. What, you know better than me? Than my own people?

KRAUSE: I am a...

GOBOZA: Are you so superior?


KURTZ: Over the years, Ted Koppel has conducted interviews with everyone from presidential candidates...


GARY HART (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Have I been absolutely and totally faithful to my wife? I regret to say the answer is no.


KURTZ: ... to discredited televangelists...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES BAKKER, PTL: There is no money missing at PTL. This was a hoax.


KURTZ: ... to a man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.


MORRIE SCHWARTZ, ALS PATIENT: You didn't create your illness, so you shouldn't be punishing yourself for having that illness.


KURTZ: And Koppel often strays from his anchor desk, taking his show on the road in Africa...


KOPPEL: ... we have only one guest...


KURTZ: ... into the Middle East...


KOPPEL: ... never happening...


KURTZ: ... to Central America.


KOPPEL: The rest of the house, of course, is totally...


(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Ted Koppel, there is, the experts tell us, a supposedly shrinking audience for serious TV, yet you regularly cover such subjects as prison, AIDS, Africa, and many others. How do you get away with it?

KOPPEL: Well, I think my colleagues and I do it well, and I don't think there's such a thing as a boring subject. There are only boring ways of telling stories. And Tom Bettag, who's the executive producer of "Nightline," and I genuinely believe that among the most interesting stories in the world are those stories sometimes outside the United States which aren't getting covered as much on American television these days as they used to be.

But there's a big world out there, lots of exciting, dangerous, interesting, sometimes even amusing things are happening out there. And somebody ought to cover it.

KURTZ: When "Nightline" started back in March of 1980, the idea of doing satellite interviews with people from around the world was a pretty novel...

KOPPEL: That was a big deal back then.

KURTZ: ... trick. Right. In fact, I guess it was a couple months afterwards that CNN began. Now you have, I think at last count, 1,250,000 cable shows, often using satellite interviews. So what have you tried to do in recent years to keep "Nightline" fresh and not become a fossil?

KOPPEL: I think probably changing the kinds of stories that we do. I mean, for example, during those first few years that we were in existence, it was fair to say that if you didn't see it on the evening news, and something happened after 7:00 in the evening, folks more or less felt they had to turn to "Nightline." "Nightline" would give them the last wrap-up of the day.

And if there was a major story that happened, you knew it was going to be on "Nightline."

That major story aspect of it is still true, you'll still see it on "Nightline." But these days, with CNN and MSNBC and CNBC and Fox Television, all the others out there...

KURTZ: And the Internet.

KOPPEL: ... and the Internet -- there's no longer the same kind of pressure to say we have to be the last broadcast of record of the day.

KURTZ: So that frees you up in a way?

KOPPEL: Frees us up in a way to focus on things that are perhaps of even greater importance than the day's breaking news. I mean, important news is not necessarily the latest update on -- or the most recent event that has happened in an ongoing story.

Sometimes the most important story can be -- you know, a few days ago we did a three-part series on "Nightline" of AIDS in Africa, focusing in particular on Zimbabwe. That is a pandemic, and it's gone beyond an epidemic. It is so bad that one in four adults in Zimbabwe is either HIV-positive or has full-blown AIDS.

KURTZ: And yet it's barely on the American media radar screen.

KOPPEL: It's barely on the radar screen. Is that something we ought, from a simply humanitarian point of view, to be interested in? You bet. But does it transcend that? Are American interests actually involved? Yes. If all of sub-Saharan Africa, which in fact is the case, is in the grips of this pandemic, eventually the disease itself, but also the impact of that disease, is going to start spreading from Africa into the Middle East, into Europe, and eventually to North America. We cannot exist in a vacuum, in isolation from what's happening in other parts of the world.

KURTZ: Another example along those lines, race relations.

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: You've done many, many programs under the rubric Black and White in America.

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: Do you think that most of the media shy away from the raw subject of race because it is too sensitive, too controversial, too great a chance of offending somebody?

KOPPEL: I think that in part, Howard. I think far more -- you know, television doesn't worry terribly much about offending people. How can anybody doubt that if you look at all the offensive crap that is on television?

KURTZ: But they don't getting letters or getting sponsors upset.

KOPPEL: It -- no, "The Jerry Springer Show," do I need, you know, any more evidence? If people are worried about offending, that is one of the most offensive programs that I think has ever been on television. We don't worry about offending people, we worry about boring people. We worry about losing eyeballs. We worry about viewers going away to something that may be more offensive but also more interesting.


KOPPEL: And again, as I said to you a few minutes ago, I think you can do programs like race relations and make them gripping. I think you can do programs like what goes on -- we have roughly 2 million men and women in prison in this country as a consequence of the drug epidemic, as a consequence of the get-tough-on-crime theme that has permeated American politics over the last few years.

Two million people behind bars, most of whom will be coming out again.

KURTZ: (inaudible)...

KOPPEL: We need to know what's happening to those people. We need to know what's going on behind bars.

KURTZ: You are known, obviously, as a tough, sometimes confrontational interviewer. Let's take a look at some of your work.


GOV. MIKE DUKAKIS (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think all of us have combinations of liberal and conservative about us, Ted, I'm not a liberal. KOPPEL: Governor, forgive me, that's been your answer now for three months.

DUKAKIS: Yes, but...

KOPPEL: With all due respect, let me suggest to you, I still don't think you get it.



GEORGE BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What -- but you just don't like my answer.

KOPPEL: No, what I'm saying is, I find your answer...

GEORGE BUSH: You asked a question.

KOPPEL: ... (inaudible)...

GEORGE BUSH: You asked a question, but you don't like the answer. What do you want me to say?

KOPPEL: I find the answer inconsistent with the evidence...



KOPPEL: Many of your traveling press seem to feel you've withdrawn into a bubble in these last few days.

ALBERT A. GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I'm preparing for the debate.

KOPPEL: I understand, but that you're not available to the reporters who've been traveling with you, and they sense that maybe you don't want to make any mistakes (inaudible).

GORE: No, no. No...


KURTZ: Aren't there some people watching you sitting at home saying, Who does this guy think he is?

KOPPEL: Exactly. And if it's truly who I think I am -- I mean, if I'm doing that because I feel that my importance is either equal to or greater than the people I'm interviewing, than everyone is right to be offended by that.

In point of fact, any time that one of us is sitting in the chair you're sitting in right now, you are the surrogate at the moment for however many people are watching this program at home who are saying, Howie, don't let him get away with that... KURTZ: I got to nail you down.

KOPPEL: You got to nail me down.

KURTZ: But I could appear rude while I'm doing that.

KOPPEL: Well, and if you appear too rude, you will lose people.

There is a -- there's a delicate balance that takes place when people start watching a television program. And I think for the most part, they begin watching a program identifying with the host, because after all, it is the host who, you hope, is going to ask the questions of the guest that you would ask if you were sitting in that chair.

Now, if the host goes over a certain line, if he pushes too hard -- and, for example, I think I did push too hard with Mike Dukakis in that interview when I said, "Governor," you know, "I don't think you get it" -- then I think you're going to lose people.

Then I think people are going to sit there and say, I -- you know, I can't -- I don't like this. And they're either going to switch away or you're going to lose them in terms of their willingness to accept you as being fair.

KURTZ: At the risk of going over the line, every profile written about you often has a phrase that says, Well, he's a little arrogant. Is that a generic requirement for being a successful anchorman?

KOPPEL: No, ironically, that's a word that crept into just about every article that's ever been written about me because 20 years ago, Tom Shales said, So what should...

KURTZ: TV critic for "The Washington Post."

KOPPEL: TV critic for "The Washington Post," Tom Shales said, what's your biggest failing? And I said, I'm probably a little too arrogant.

KURTZ: You plead guilty.

KOPPEL: Plead guilty, and from that point on, you know -- so never give your interview anything.

KURTZ: Never give an inch.

Ted Koppel, we need to hold it there.

When we come back, we'll ask Ted Koppel about the future of "Nightline."


KURTZ: Ted, you've been doing this now for 20 years, and a hell of a career. Is there a burnout factor? You have -- does it ever wear you down? KOPPEL: The subjects change every day. The people I work with have changed over the course of years. I can honestly say that 99 percent of the time, I rejoice in coming to work every day. I really look forward to it. I'm blessed with a wonderful group of colleagues, and they're terrific people.

And the fact of the matter is that it's never the same story.

KURTZ: Are there some built-in frustrations with doing five nights a week?

KOPPEL: Well, I wouldn't know, I only do four nights a week.

KURTZ: Good answer.

Looking ahead a little bit, will Ted Koppel still be on "Nightline" in five, six, seven years?

KOPPEL: Probably not. Probably not. Not that I feel like getting out of television, not that I think that there is at the moment a better job out there. But things are changing so much that I think it may be time to move on to another aspect of the business, and we'll see what that is.

KURTZ: All right. Ted Koppel, that's a wrap. You know what that means. Thanks very much for joining us.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, when we come back, pundits in a panic. Is a two- man race exciting enough for journalists on the campaign trail? That's next.


KURTZ: It may be a welcome respite for normal people, but the sudden evaporation of the presidential primaries has left journalists downright depressed. Just think, no more March madness.



JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, call in the dogs, my friend, the party's over.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": I got to say, I don't want this thing to be over tonight, although it looks like it may be in terms of deciding the nominees, because I don't think neither you nor I want to hibernate for the next six months.

CHARLES GIBSON, CO-HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA," ABC: The speeches from Gore and from Bush were almost road maps of what their fall campaign is going to be.

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": And it's going to be a long, long general election campaign.


KURTZ (voice-over): With McCain gone, Bradley gone, and a Bush- Gore contest that will stretch out over eight months -- eight long months -- the pundit class is looking for a new story line.


FRED BARNES, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, what do you think? We see a shaky stock market, oil prices have tripled. Are you expecting the economy to worsen this year?

KATE O'BEIRNE, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": Gas prices, I mean, there are issues like that that percolate even in the midst of a good economy.

KURTZ: Even before all the returns were in on Super Tuesday, the media speculators were speculating, as they always do, about possible running mates and third party bids.

BILL KRISTOL, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Bush-McCain is a likely possibility, McCain running as a third party is not out of the question.

BRYANT GUMBEL, HOST, "THE EARLY SHOW," CBS: No chance at all that an independent run by McCain.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS POLITICAL CONSULTANT: He's not going to run as a Reform Party candidate.

JIM ANGLE, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Republicans better brace themselves for a relentless assault from Al Gore.

RUSSERT: This is going to be one very difficult, some would even say mean, eight months.


KURTZ: Perhaps wisely, given their track record, some journalists were hedging their bets.


MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: It's buckle your seat belts. This campaign has defied every bit of conventional wisdom...


KURTZ: But just give us a little time, we'll get over it, come out of denial, work through our grief, and find some new bit of drama to inflict on the country.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next, Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we're in New York with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to look back at the windup of the presidential primary season and to look ahead to Gore versus Bush. That and much more right here next on CNN.


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