Friday, March 25, 2011

Tell ‘em how it’s done, Ted

KoppelThursday evening, I was very pleased to attend a lecture given by journalist Ted Koppel. He’s well-known for his amazing hair, and I was delighted to find out that he’s much more than a pretty ‘do.

He began by talking about how he wanted to conduct his lecture and subsequent question and answer session in a way that we seem to have lost lately...he wanted to have a civil discourse. He bemoaned the lack of civility in the current atmosphere of discord and hatred, and he seemed to transcend party politics, showing that it IS possible to be a voice of reason in an unreasonable world.

He spoke at length about the state of journalism today. When he started out, news divisions were not moneymakers for the three networks. It was a given that they would lose money. They operated under the credo of reporting what people needed to know. Matters of importance to the national interest, things that they deemed worth knowing. They felt they were providing a certain level of public service, and reported accordingly. With the advent of “60 Minutes,” the networks realized that news could make money, and that’s when things changed. Instead of giving the people what they needed, they made the shift to giving people what they wanted. After all, ratings meant money, and if people wanted lighter news and entertainment stories, they drove the ratings. He gave the obvious example of the news cycle last week: Libya, our budget crisis, the devastation in Japan...and what was the number one news story? Charlie Sheen, of course. He seemed saddened by this, and so am I.

This was a fairly conservative crowd, but Koppel pandered to no one. He said that FoxNews is obviously biased and partisan...but so is MSNBC. He said that talk radio is most definitely not journalism, said that NPR is great journalism (with a full disclosure that he does occasional work for NPR) and we must continue to fund this national treasure, and that the New York Times is the best newspaper in the world (while admitting that there would be some there who disagree and think the NYT is far too liberal). He talked about the travesty of not raising taxes in a time of war, saying that it was negligent to go to war without funding it by raising taxes, and that it has never been done in our country until now.

He spoke at length of what is going on in Libya, and had some thought-provoking questions. If our goal in Libya is a humanitarian one, why didn’t we intervene in Sudan? The Congo? Ivory Coast? Millions are being slaughtered in these places, so why did we not stop those regimes from killing their own citizens? His point was that there is always more to the story, and there are always national interests that might not be expressed overtly. He illustrated this with a story about a supposed conversation between Charles DeGaulle and David Ben Gurion. Some argument or incident occurred, and Ben Gurion told DeGaulle, “I thought you were my friend.” DeGaulle replied, “Men have friends; nations have interests.”

Ted Koppel2Someone asked him a question and said that it seems that Israel is our only friend in the middle east. After the questioner rambled on a bit longer, Koppel began his response by saying, “I’m going to have to disagree with your basic premise there, about Israel being our only friend in the middle east.” He went on to say that we may not like everything that certain nations do, but when it comes to diplomacy, friendship is a relative term. After all, the Shah of Iran was our good buddy for quite some time, despite his oppressive regime; when the people finally gave him the boot, we ended up with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He brought up the point that although we may get rid of Mubarak in Egypt, or Qaddafi in Libya, we have no way of knowing who or what will replace those regimes. Will they be friendly to us? We don’t know that yet. He said that we seem to think that democracy just somehow magically happens, but it is actually a long, drawn-out, and often bloody process.

I thought he struck a very realistic note about international diplomacy. It’s not always black and white, and we walk a fine line between helping people and intervening in their affairs. (I’m reminded of the Star Trek Prime Directive.) In our current situation, it’s very easy for anyone not in the President’s shoes to be talking about what they would or wouldn’t do. I suspect that any of us in that situation would struggle with the decisions that need to be made, and not make any of them lightly.

One thing that Koppel mentioned several times was that we “need to be informed.” It’s a complex world out there, with complex problems, and as citizens, we need to pay attention to what is going on out there. Although he didn’t say this, I’ll continue the thought. There is nothing wrong with being entertained. I think we all need that if we want to keep our sanity in an increasingly insane world. I enjoy my books, my music, movies, TV shows...but balance that with knowing what is happening in your community, your state, your country, and your world. It belongs to all of us, and we owe it a little more attention than we do some drug-addled pseudo-celebrity’s latest shoplifting spree or coke-fueled Vegas party

I enjoyed his lecture immensely. Ted Koppel is a class act, and we are all better informed because of him. He worked hard to do his job for many years, and he inspired me to continue to work hard at being informed.


  1. Thanks, Ted, for standing up for NPR!

  2. I love Ted. I love Tom. I miss Walter and John and Peter.

    Sounds like your lecture was a great time... we need more of these things... everywhere... and often!

  3. Wow... that was so cool. Unfortunately, Ted himself is one of the endangered species that he speaks of...

    What gets me is how people are willfully ignorant of the circumstances surrounding them. Not so much as far as world affairs are concerned, but the level of knowledge about national or even local politics and issues. Has information been corrupted by the need to entertain? That is what makes NPR such a target, less that it is a liberal voice as much as it is a largely unbiased one. That is what makes it a target on the right, who has always represented the interest of business for much of the last century or so, to be sure...

    If we don't demand more from news agencies they will continue to feed junk and useless trivia us rather than inform us... and that is a shame.

  4. Beth, I'm envious, and thank you for posting this thorough entry on what Koppel had to say. When I worked overnights at an ABC affiliate back in the mid 1990's, it was always pleasant to have Ted on the TV in the office after the 11 o'clock newscast ended. I don't think many of us really appreciated what he brought to the news while he was on the air until he delivered his last good night. He is a class act in an industry that has almost completely lost its class.

  5. Nice commentary, Beth. I feel like I was there! I remember when the news provided us with facts, now it just seems to be the opinions of the host or network. What a great opportunity to see & listen to a veteran in the business!

  6. It was a very enjoyable presentation and evening :o)


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?