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Interview With Ted Koppel

Aired July 18, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): He's reported from around the world, interviewing presidents, foreign leaders and the merely famous. Now Ted Koppel weighs in on the Democratic convention, John Kerry, George Bush, Laci Peterson, the coverage of Iraq and whether he thinks the war was worth it.

And can "Nightline" survive in an era of infotainment?

Also, that anti-Fox movie. Is it fair and balanced?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on one of the biggest names in the news business. Ted Koppel, a 40-year veteran at ABC, has spent the last 24 of those years at the helm of "Nightline." During that quarter-century, the program has continued to be a serious show, with a candid host, trying to do battle with the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

We sat down with Ted Koppel on the "Nightline" set in Washington.


KURTZ: Ted Koppel, welcome.


KURTZ: The Democratic convention opens in Boston next week. Planning on stopping by?

KOPPEL: I'll be -- I'll be outside. I may come inside, but for the most part I will be outside.

KURTZ: You very...

KOPPEL: My friend -- my friend Chris Bury will be on the inside. Yes, I very famously...

KURTZ: Left the convention eight years ago, said that this was scripted, it was stage-managed, didn't require your presence.

KOPPEL: Still is. I mean, it still is scripted. It still is stage-managed. The difference is there are other stories that surround it that are, I think, still worthy of coverage. The fact that one of the main things we're concerned about now is not so much what happens inside the convention hall as whether some maniacal group of terrorists try to blow it up. That's a big story.

KURTZ: That's just-in-case coverage.

KOPPEL: Oh, it's just-in-case coverage. But I'm going to be there, doing, among other things, the security story. And, you know, we'll have the cooperation of the Boston police when we go up there to do it, and their anti-terrorism squad.

The fact that the journalism today -- I mean, even -- that was only eight years ago -- but even in those eight years, as you better than anyone know, the nature of media, what media does, how media covers an event like this, I think is more of the story than the story is.

KURTZ: But if all that is true, then why is ABC, like the other broadcast networks, devoting a mere three hours of prime time over four nights for these conventions?

KOPPEL: No, no, no. That is precisely why that is true. It is not worthy of, as it once was, 20 years ago...

KURTZ: Gavel-to-gavel.

KOPPEL: When it was gavel-to-gavel, when the big question was who is going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party? Who is the vice president going to be?

What kind of a fight is there going to be in the credentials committee? Is the Alabama or the Mississippi delegation going to walk out of there? Right? They were real stories in those days.

Now it is, as I said eight years ago in San Diego, it's a show. It doesn't have the same kind of hard news value that required the networks to give it three hours of gavel-to-gavel coverage.

But in part, that's also true because we've got CNN. You'll do it anyway.

KURTZ: All the time.

KOPPEL: We've got MSNBC.

KURTZ: And Web sites.

KOPPEL: They're going to do it anyway.

KURTZ: And talk radio.

KOPPEL: Exactly.

KURTZ: And CNN will be there as well.

KOPPEL: Yes. KURTZ: All right.

KOPPEL: But the need to do it is not as great as it was 20 years ago.

KURTZ: Speaking of the Democratic campaign, you recently spent a day on the trail with John Kerry. And let me tell you what it reminded me of. Very famously, back in 1988, you interviewed Michael Dukakis, oddly, on this set. And you were pretty blunt with him. And I saw an echo of that in something that you put to the current Massachusetts Democratic presidential candidate.

Let's take a look.



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

The closer you get...


KOPPEL: ... to winning, the more careful you have to be.

KERRY: I don't agree with that.

KOPPEL: You don't?


KOPPEL: You're very cautious. You're very...

KERRY: I disagree with what you say.


KURTZ: You're pretty blunt with these guys.

KOPPEL: That's what I get paid for.

KURTZ: Most reporters wouldn't say, you don't get it, you're very cautious.

KOPPEL: Most reporters are not as old as I am right now, you know. So I think there is -- let's face it, you and I don't have any inherent right to anything.

We are imbued with a certain right because you're representing your viewers right now over at CNN. And I don't know how many folks you have watching. But it's in the -- certainly the many hundreds of thousands who may be watching your program.

And they are sitting there, saying, "Howie, don't let him babble on. Get in there."

KURTZ: Now speaking of that...

KOPPEL: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... get to the point.

KOPPEL: That's what you're supposed to be doing. And that's what I think I'm supposed to be doing when I'm interviewing a presidential candidate.

KURTZ: Are you also trying to get him off the script? He's got all kinds of soundbites he wants to give you about a stronger America, respected in the world.


KURTZ: You're trying to cut through that.

KOPPEL: More today even than back in Michael Dukakis' day. I think these candidates are all so scripted, so programmed. There are people who have been doing so much research.

They've got so many things that they have to get in, little phrases that they want to get in, that I think you have to try to knock them off stride a little bit. That's what we're supposed to do.

KURTZ: When the Kerry campaign lets you and the "Nightline" crew tag along for a day, you're supposed to be giving us a behind the scenes look. Did you feel like you really were seeing what goes on behind the scenes, or basically what they wanted you to see?

KOPPEL: Basically what they wanted me to see, but again, access gives you at least an opportunity to throw in a question that you might not be able to throw in in this kind of a sit-down interview situation.

Being with someone, being able to see John Kerry get off his plane after the third red-eye flight of the week from California, and I look up, and I see the side of the plane, and it says, "John Kerry, President." It doesn't say "John Kerry for President." It says "John Kerry, President."

And to be able to say to him at that moment when he's still a little groggy and sleepless, you know, "Isn't there a word missing up there?"

Those are moments that you get when you're on the campaign trail that you just can't get in a studio.

KURTZ: You made the same request of the Bush campaign.

KOPPEL: Of course.

KURTZ: And their response?

KOPPEL: Their response so far is yet to come. I haven't heard from them yet.

KURTZ: Why do you think the Kerry campaign gave you that kind of access? Are they taking a risk Koppel is going to slice their man up?

KOPPEL: Less of a risk, because, you know, people know who George Bush is. It is becoming quite apparent from what all these surveys are showing is you would think by now they'd know who John Kerry is, but the American public clearly doesn't.

KURTZ: But the president doesn't really need you? Or "Nightline"?

KOPPEL: Exactly. Exactly. And if I had to put money on it, I would say, unless by late September, early October the Bush campaign is in deep trouble, eight points behind, 10 points behind, I probably won't get that day in the life with George Bush.

KURTZ: Now you reported from Iraq during the war. I guess this is about 16 months ago now. Did being there in the desert, and you were on a lot, change your view of the war or of war reporting in the 21st century?

KOPPEL: No. I mean, I was -- I went over because I've now covered, I don't know, 10, 11 wars over the years. The last time I had that kind of access to the military, was, curiously, back in Vietnam, when we had a lot of access.

But back in those days, my copy, the film that we shot didn't get on the air for two-and-a-half days. It would have to be shipped halfway around the world, and then it would have to be processed.


KOPPEL: It does. Now we're getting on the air in two-and-a-half seconds. And I wanted to see how that combination of total access and immediate accessibility to air time, how that was going to work together.

KURTZ: Were you nervous at all about going there?

KOPPEL: I was very nervous about going there.

KURTZ: Now, after you came back, and after major combat operations ceased but Americans continued to be killed there, you did a program called "The Fallen," which you read the names, unadorned, just the names of the people who -- Americans who had been killed in Iraq.

That drew a lot of criticism. One of the broadcast groups, Sinclair, refused to air. Were you surprised that it became such a lightning rod, since after all, all you were doing was reading the names?

KOPPEL: Howie, you're doing the same thing I would do in a situation like this when one says there was a lot of criticism. A lot of criticism? Not really. KURTZ: I watched a lot of cable talk shows where people said, Koppel is making an anti-war statement. Somebody else said, no, he's not. It was fodder for the media mill.

KOPPEL: No question about it. I'm just saying that quantitatively speaking, when we looked at our e-mails the day after the program, I think we had 80,000-some-odd e-mails, about 75,000 of which were positive, "Way to go. Glad you did it."

Was there controversy? Of course there was controversy. I mean, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group did more for our ratings that night than anything we could have done.

But in truth, and your "Washington Post" colleague, Lisa de Moraes, in writing about our doing this for ratings -- I'll give you my word of honor, Howie, when we were sitting there talking about doing this program, our conclusion was people would watch for about five minutes, say, "I get the point" and tune out.

KURTZ: It wasn't great visual television.

KOPPEL: We did not think that it was going to get ratings.

KURTZ: Let's take a look at some of the comments you made on that program.



KOPPEL: The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I'm not.


KURTZ: Why did you decide to say -- why did you feel, perhaps, the need to say, I'm not opposed to the war?

KOPPEL: Because in putting those names out there, and showing the photographs of those young men and women, we really were trying to honor their memory.

And what had happened over the few days preceding all of that made it seem as though it was being reduced to a political football. And I really felt if people want me to explain, you know, that if it's necessary for me to say that I was not opposed to the war, in order for them to accept that this was simply a program in honor of the dead, I felt that was worth doing. And I had no trouble -- if you want to talk about that aspect of it now, let's talk about it.

KURTZ: OK. Were you a supporter of the war? Did you believe that Saddam Hussein needed to be toppled?

KOPPEL: I believed that war might at some point be necessary. I did a 90-minute "Nightline" town meeting, the title of which was self- explanatory. And that was, "Why Now?"

I didn't feel that the war had to be prosecuted at the time that it was prosecuted. I felt that we could well afford to wait. I didn't think the threat to the United States was as imminent as the Bush administration did.

But did I feel that there were ample reasons for going to war against Iraq? Absolutely. Felt it then, feel it now.

KURTZ: With the luxury of hindsight, were the media -- were all the journalists who were covering this, were they skeptical enough? Were they aggressive enough about the claims of weapons and related support for terrorism that Dick Cheney and George Bush were making in the run-up to war? Did the media do their job?

KOPPEL: I think we were probably a little bit too timid across the board. But looking back on it now, Howie, I don't know of anyone back then, not the French, not the Germans, not the Russians, certainly not the British, not American intelligence, I know of no one who did not believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

And in fact, the last time that international folks were in there, back in 1998, it was quite clear that he still had them. And it didn't make common sense. Why, if the man could avoid an invasion by the United States simply by letting folks come in and see that he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction, why not do it? I don't quite understand that one to this day.

KURTZ: But wasn't there a climate in the American media at the time that to raise those questions and to challenge the president of the United States as he was gearing up to take the country to war, would have been seen as unpatriotic?

KOPPEL: I have no doubt that that was an element. But let me put it to you another way.

Let us say that President Bush and the others had said, "All right. We'll wait for a year. We'll let the U.N. weapons inspectors do what they have to do." What do you think would have been the result of that at the end of the year?

At the end of the year, the U.N. weapons inspectors would have come out, shaking their heads, saying, "You know, we can't find any weapons of mass destruction."

Do you think anyone in this administration at that point would have said, "Oh, well, if you can't find them, they must not be there"?

KURTZ: All right. Back to the campaign for a moment. Thursday's "New York Times," front page: "Hear the Rumors on Cheney?" The rumors being everyone in Washington supposedly talking about the fact that maybe he is going to be dumped from the ticket.

Well, there's no evidence of that. "The Times'" story regards -- describes it as "farfetched." The president has denied it. The vice president has denied it. Should news organizations be putting out rumors just because they're interesting?

KOPPEL: God help us if we can't at least deal with rumors if, indeed, they are interesting. Did it warrant a right column lead in "The New York Times"?

KURTZ: Above the fold.

KOPPEL: Above the fold? No, I don't think so.


KURTZ: When we come back, Ted Koppel on news versus entertainment, and the future of "Nightline."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Now, more of our sit- down with Ted Koppel on the set of "Nightline."


KURTZ: Ted Koppel, you said recently, "I have no problem with entertainers. My problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers." What does that mean?

KOPPEL: I said I have no problem with entertainers pretending to be news people. I have a big problem with news people pretending to be entertainers.

KURTZ: Are there a lot of them out there?


KURTZ: How do they get away with it?

KOPPEL: They get away with it because it is an enormously diverse industry these days, because the number of competitors facing you and the number of competitors facing me is so huge that many of us are being reduced to doing things that we shouldn't do on the air.

KURTZ: Is that particularly true on cable news?

KOPPEL: It's tougher for you guys to fill 24 hours than it is for us to fill, say, three or four a day.

KURTZ: Now, a couple of years ago, you and I talked about this a lot at the time, "Nightline" went through a near-death experience, when ABC was flirting with David Letterman. Ultimately decided to keep "Nightline" on the air.

What lesson did you ultimately draw from that?

KOPPEL: Well, it's actually something I've known all my professional life, Howie, and... KURTZ: This was a wakeup call of a dramatic variety.

KOPPEL: ... it simply reinforced what I've known all along, and that is that we are a business. We are not a charity. And that if and when the day comes that the people that I work for, be it Disney, be it Cap Cities, be it Paramount, it doesn't make any difference, if they decide that there is a lot more money to be made in the long run by putting some comedian in my time slot, they'll do it.

KURTZ: At the time, sources said that the agreement was to keep "Nightline" on the air for at least two more years. We're now outside that period. Does it make you any more nervous?

KOPPEL: No, it makes me a lot less nervous. Why should I be more nervous? They've gone way beyond the two years that they committed to. We're now approaching our 25th anniversary, which will be next March. And I have every hope that "Nightline" will not only survive me but outlive me.

KURTZ: But do you feel, perhaps, subtle pressure to do things more pop culture perhaps that you wouldn't ordinarily want to do? Maybe you'd prefer to stick with foreign policy or AIDS or domestic issues, to do things that just boost those numbers a little bit?

KOPPEL: Let me turn the question around on you, Howie. You're a media critic. Have you seen us do that?

KURTZ: By and large, no.

KOPPEL: By and large, we don't.

KURTZ: I don't know what the debates are in your editorial conference over whether you should do more. You did Marlon Brando. That was a big story. That's fine.

KOPPEL: Yes. Whatever the debates, whatever the debates were or have been, we've had two-and-a-half years to sweat what happened with David Letterman. We didn't change thereafter -- immediately thereafter. We haven't changed since. I don't think we're going to change in the future.

KURTZ: You're not trying to be funnier?

KOPPEL: Unless I'm on your program, absolutely not. No.

KURTZ: Now, you mentioned "Nightline" outliving you. In fact, I interviewed you on RELIABLE SOURCES four years ago. I said, "Will you still be doing this in five, six, seven years?"

You said, "By the end of that time period, probably not."

Have you started to think about phasing out of the "Nightline" business?

KOPPEL: I hope not. I mean, if "Nightline" really can go on being a serious news program, and being a serious news program doesn't mean that you think twice about doing Marlon Brando. Of course you do Marlon Brando. It's a big story.

Being a serious news program doesn't mean that during the middle of the -- of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and you don't periodically come back to it and do stories on that.

It does mean that you try to find a serious angle to it. And thus far, we have not felt compelled, for example, to do the Laci Peterson story or to do the Kobe Bryant story. But would I shrink from doing either one of those if the right aspect of the story comes along? Of course not. Why should I? It's a big story.

KURTZ: On that optimistic note, we'll call it a wrap. Ted Koppel, thanks very much for joining us.

KOPPEL: My pleasure.


KURTZ: Coming up, the new film that takes on Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and the gang at Fox News.


KURTZ: You can't see it in any movie theater, but a new DVD called "Outfoxed" is generating plenty of media buzz.


KURTZ (voice-over): Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, a big fan of Michael Moore and "Fahrenheit 911" uses unauthorized Fox News footage to slam the network as pro-Republican and pro-Bush. "Outfoxed" trots out liberal commentators, from Al Franken to Walter Cronkite, and some former employees to depict Fox as shilling for the GOP. And the movie has its moments.

There was this embarrassing exchange when correspondent Carl Cameron sat down to interview George W. Bush in 2000.

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: My wife has been hanging out with your sister.


CAMERON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has been all over the state campaigning...

KURTZ: Cameron told me that despite his comments, his wife never actually worked for the Bush campaign.

Then there's Bill O'Reilly, seen in some heated exchanges with guests.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": You shut up about sex (ph). Shut up. Why don't you just shut up? KURTZ: The movie digs up some memos to the staff from Senior Vice President John Moody, such as this message last April on Iraq coverage -- "Do not fall into the easy trap of mourning the loss of U.S. lives and asking out loud, why are we there?"

But it ignores other memos, in which Moody, for example, says speeches by Bush and John Kerry should be given equal time.

And that's the problem with "Outfoxed." In skewering Rupert Murdoch's network, it's neither fair nor balanced.

The filmmaker says there's a good reason.

ROBERT GREENWALD, PRODUCER, "OUTFOXED": I absolutely never called Fox News and I have two words. Al Franken. They sued to stop him. They sued to stop the book. They're litigious.

KURTZ: But the film makes it looks like Fox never has liberal guests, which isn't true. Worse, there's some misleading editing, such as this snippet involving an anchor seeming to blast the book by former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An appalling act of profiteering.

KURTZ: But that wasn't the anchor's opinion. He was actually quoting Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Fox responded to the film with a challenge to other news outlets. Quote, "If they will put out 100 percent of their editorial directions and internal memos, Fox News Channel will publish 100 percent of our editorial directions and internal memos, and let the public decide who is fair."


KURTZ: There's plenty to criticize at any news organization, and liberals may love this movie, but it would have been stronger if it had laid off the editing tricks and included some contrary voices.

Up next, from the Democratic convention, a new role for Jerry Springer? Stay with us.


KURTZ: When you see Jerry Springer on television, it usually looks something like this. People yelling, chairs flying, raunchy topics on the agenda. But viewers of Cleveland's WOIO will see something else next week. Springer as a correspondent at the Democratic convention. And if that wasn't weird enough, the talk show is also a delegate to the convention, part of the very story he's covering.

So if the convention isn't as compelling as his own syndicated show, maybe we'll see Springer interview himself.

Finally, in the annals of marketing, there may never have been a more audacious pitch than this one from Martha Stewart Living by a woman who had just moments earlier been sentenced to five months in jail.


MARTHA STEWART: Perhaps all of you out there can continue to show your support by subscribing to our magazine, by buying our products.


KURTZ: At least you didn't give out the 800 number.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern, for a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, live from the Democratic convention in Boston. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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