Ted Koppel Bemoans The Death Of Real News, But All Howie Kurtz Wants To Focus On Is Liberal Bias

I'm probably dooming the chances for any C&L blogger to appear on CNN (Home to Blogger Extraordinaire Erick Erickson!), but it has to be said: Howard Kurtz is a big friggin' idiot. Huge. For a person with a purported focus of examining how the media covers the news, he has a dumbfoundingly shallow understanding of journalism. Or maybe he just plays dumb to further his own agenda...

Like for example, when he talks to veteran newsman Ted Koppel on the state of television news and the death of true journalism. Koppel famously wrote an op-ed complaining that the prevalence of opinion on cable news has killed giving viewers information, i.e., journalism. Now this is an area near and dear to my heart, and the subject with which I spend the vast majority of my time on this site. And while an pretty considerable argument can be made to the fact that Koppel is ignoring the plank in his own eye when it comes to failed journalism, it's Kurtz whose sole focus appears to be bringing up examples of that evil liberal bias in news, in the form of Keith Olbermann and NPR.

In the sixteen minute interview, Kurtz is really only interested in bringing up the dangers of opinion media when it pertains to MSNBC or NPR. Koppel tries to play the equivalence game, but Kurtz keeps going back to Olbermann, showing a clip from the Special Comment did on the false equivalence of Koppel comparing Keith to anyone at Fox News. Koppel blandly defends himself in saying that Olbermann probably didn't watch every Nightline, which is probably true but distracts from the more salient meta-point: the metamorphosis of news divisions from being loss leaders to being required to make a profit for their parent companies has turned them less into information disseminators to entertainment arbiters. And that has hurt our democracy greatly.

KURTZ: But, you know, [Olbermann] got good ratings at MSNBC.

KOPPEL: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have good ratings at Fox. CNN has struggled a bit with an approach that's probably closer to the objective news you're talking about. There are exceptions, Eliot Spitzer.

KOPPEL: You're describing the problem, Howard.

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: I mean, if they were not getting good news doing --


KOPPEL: -- you know, wildly-opinionated material, they wouldn't be doing it. They're only doing it --

KURTZ: Why is it a problem if people like to watch it?

KOPPEL: Because we're not talking about entertainment, we're talking about news. And news is important in a democracy because the idea that a voting public actually have access to objective information and that the focus of the journalism be on issues that are of genuine importance, not just of wide-ranging interest

And Howie's next question? "Isn't Charlie Sheen news?" *sigh*

Kurtz also throws in O'Keefe's debunked video smear of NPR for good measure, of course abdicating any responsibility for providing that contextual bit of information.

How ironic in a conversation about how the media is failing us.

I'm also going to let you contemplate all the oblique references Kurtz made to Koppel's wealth ("in his converted barn office", "pictures of Koppel with the notables in his career") and questions about his friendship with Henry Kissinger as to whether Kurtz felt that needed to be taken into consideration when evaluating the truth of Koppel's statements on the death of journalism.

Transcripts below the fold

KURTZ: Network news was a very different business decades ago, with plenty of bureaus around the world and owners who were willing to lose money on these operations. They were seen -- and it sounds kind of quaint to say so -- as a public service.

These days, ABC, NBC, CBS must compete with increasingly opinionated cable channels, with millions of blogs and Web sites and Twitter, and not surprisingly, some broadcast veterans believe the business is -- and this is a technical term -- going to hell in a hand basket.

Ted Koppel has become an outspoken voice in that debate more than 30 years after he launched the late-night ABC program that came to be called "Nightline."


TED KOPPEL, ANCHOR, "NIGHTLINE": Good evening. This is a new broadcast in the sense that it is permanent and will continue after the Iran crisis is over. There will also be nights when Iran is not the major story.

I'm Ted Koppel in Ramallah.

This is Ted Koppel in Mogadishu.


Wilmington, Delaware.



KURTZ: I sat down with Koppel in his home office, which is in a converted barn in the Maryland suburbs. We're bringing it to you now. Our conversation took place before the Japanese earthquake and the military action in Libya.


KURTZ: Ted Koppel, welcome.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

KURTZ: Thank you for having us out to the barn.

We are in a rare period right now where the media devoting significant reasons to international stories. First, Egypt. Now Libya.

Is that refreshing or rather temporary, in your view?

KOPPEL: I think it's one of these regular occurrences that happens when there is an international crisis. And it lasts for a couple of weeks, sometimes even a couple of months. And, I mean, is there any doubt in your mind that we're not going to be hearing much out of Egypt a month from now, or much out of Tunis a week from now or --

KURTZ: Very little doubt. And why is there, in your view, so little appetite on American television in particular, the media in general, for covering the rest of the world? I mean, there's a war in Afghanistan going on 10 years now, and it almost seems to be a forgotten war.

KOPPEL: You're absolutely right. There are two reasons. One, it is incredibly expensive, as you know, to cover overseas news, and particularly to cover war zones.

KURTZ: But it was expensive back in the day when you did a lot of globe trotting. KOPPEL: It was. And back in those days -- I mean, back in the 1960s and '70s, networks tended to look upon news organizations as being loss leaders. They were making their money on the comedy shows. They were making their money on the cop shows. And they were very possibly losing money, although there's some argument about that, on their news divisions.

And they were prepared to do that because, among other things, the FCC, in those days, had some clout. And, among other things, the FCC, in those days, actually had the ability and an apparent willingness to take the licenses away from radio stations, television stations and, although it never happened, even hypothetically, a television network.

KURTZ: And now, news is expected to be profitable.

KOPPEL: That's correct.

KURTZ: And therefore you think -- but I also wonder whether it's not just the expense. That's clearly a major factor. Isn't there a sense that there's been a great appetite among the public for coverage of the rest of the world?

KOPPEL: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Howard. I mean, if you tell people long enough, you don't have an appetite for foreign news, and if you convince yourself that the American public doesn't have an appetite for foreign news, then, after a while, you say well, they don't have an appetite for it, we don't have the budget for it. Perfect.

I would argue it's our responsibility to develop an appetite. Most people don't start life, you know, enjoying a good steak. They only learn to do that --

KURTZ: An acquired taste.

KOPPEL: It's an acquired taste.

KURTZ: Let me ask you about a "Washington Post" opinion piece you wrote a while back that caused a bit of a stir. You said you were saddened by the partisanship in prime time --

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: -- on Fox News and MSNBC. Why saddened? A lot of people say, well, look, by evening time, people know the headlines, they've seen them online, they've read the newspapers, they like opinion.

KOPPEL: Again, if we're only talking about it through the prism of entertainment, I take the point. But if the purpose is to provide some journalism, then I think the journalism requires and our times require a little more serious objectivity. And I think there has to be a willingness on the part of the public to accept that journalism is trying to do an honest job of giving them an objective accounting of what's going on in the world and an objective appraisal of what's really important in the world. In the face of what Fox is doing, and in the face of what MSNBC is doing, there's no reason for the public to assume anything other than that what we're doing is putting forth our own opinions.

KURTZ: You particularly went after Keith Olbermann pretty hard. You said that he was avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan.

KOPPEL: Well, I went after -- I went after Mr. Olbermann at that time because he was very much in the news. You may recall at that point, he had been suspended for, what was it, two days or three days?

KURTZ: It ended up being two days for contributing money to three Democratic candidates. And, in fact, the fallout from that episode led pretty directly to his leaving MSNBC.

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: Did that --

KOPPEL: I mean, I could just as easily have picked on someone over at Fox, or other people at MSNBC. It --

KURTZ: As you know, he came back at you pretty hard.

KOPPEL: He did. He did.

KURTZ: And he wrote among -- he said on the air, among other things, that you were "worshipping the false God of utter objectivity." That's a word you've already used. And then he brought up the run-up to the Iraq War.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: The stories of Mr. Koppel's career will emphasize the life he's so admirably shown on the Iran hostages. Those stories though will probably not emphasize that in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005, Mr. Koppel did not shine that same light on the decreasingly coherent excuses presented by the government of this nation for the war in Iraq.


KURTZ: I'm sure you'd like a chance to respond.

KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure I feel I need a chance to respond. He clearly didn't see all the "Nightlines" that we did. And most particularly, he cannot have seen a 90-minute or even two-hour town meeting that we did, the title of which was sort of self-explanatory, "Why Now?"

And we did that in early March of 2003, literally a couple of weeks just before the war began. And the whole point of the program was, why is it so important that we go in and that we invade Iraq?

So I don't expect Mr. Olbermann to have seen all the programs. But before he makes a wide-ranging charge like that, I do expect that he'd have someone else do the research.

KURTZ: But, you know, he got good ratings at MSNBC.

KOPPEL: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have good ratings at Fox. CNN has struggled a bit with an approach that's probably closer to the objective news you're talking about. There are exceptions, Eliot Spitzer.

KOPPEL: You're describing the problem, Howard.

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: I mean, if they were not getting good news doing --


KOPPEL: -- you know, wildly-opinionated material, they wouldn't be doing it. They're only doing it --

KURTZ: Why is it a problem if people like to watch it?

KOPPEL: Because we're not talking about entertainment, we're talking about news. And news is important in a democracy because the idea that a voting public actually have access to objective information and that the focus of the journalism be on issues that are of genuine importance, not just of wide-ranging interest -- I realize that Mr. "Two and a Half Men" --

KURTZ: Charlie Sheen.

KOPPEL: -- Charlie Sheen, Charlie Sheen clearly is entertaining an awful lot of people in his real life role. But is that really important? Is there --

KURTZ: Your former network gave Charlie Sheen an hour in prime time on "20/20." Other networks gave him a platform. Look, he's a highly-paid television star --

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: -- who got a very public divorce from CBS over a popular show.

Is that not news in some fashion?

KOPPEL: Sure it is. Is it worth a primetime documentary? I don't think so.

And I don't think so in particular in a world in which however many people it is now -- and the numbers vary -- 15 to 20 million people unemployed in this country, 6,000 Americans who have died over the course of the last eight or nine years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole Mediterranean, North Africa, Persian Gulf up in flames, in danger of going up in flames. I think there are things we need to know about as an informed electorate.

KURTZ: So you see the media as kind of chasing the shiny, superficial, the sensational?

KOPPEL: I see the media --

KURTZ: Too often?

KOPPEL: I see the media as trying -- as chasing the -- what are we going to call it, the popcorn rather than the broccoli, and even the steak and the baked potato. I think the media, these days -- with notable exceptions -- I think the media is so desperate to try to turn a buck at a time when the competition has become much fiercer than it's ever been in years past, that the inclination to do hard news over the kind of fluffy news that draws a big audience is irresistible.


KURTZ: More of my conversation with the longtime ABC anchor in a moment, including Koppel's thoughts on that undercover sting against NPR and whether the taxpayers should keep subsidizing the embattled network.


KURTZ: More now of my conversation in his home office with Ted Koppel.


KURTZ: From this very office you do commentaries for National Public Radio.

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: Obviously, NPR suffered a big embarrassment with the hidden camera video that found a top executive making very disparaging remarks about the Tea Party. An NPR chief executive resigned this week, which helped fuel a debate that was already on the way, which is why should, at a time of huge budget deficits, an organization like NPR get taxpayer dollars?

KOPPEL: Well, I must confess, I'm not the best person to tell you about the financial breakdown. But my understanding of it is --

KURTZ: Ten to 15 percent of its budget.

KOPPEL: Yes. But most of the stations that will be hardest hit are, by definition, as I understand it, the smallest stations in the smallest communities. And that those stations tend to get as much as 50 percent of their annual budget from that congressional funding, whereas NPR itself, I think, gets a relatively minor amount.

It's not NPR per se that is going to be most damaged by this. It's going to be the smallest stations in the communities that have the fewest options anyway, that probably don't have a local newspaper, that may not have a radio or a television station with a news department that depends almost exclusively on NPR for any sort of insight into what is happening both in the country and in the world outside.

They're the ones that are going to be hardest hit.

KURTZ: That debate will not go away.

Let me come back to your "Washington Post" piece.


KURTZ: You wrote that, "Broadcast news has been now outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options."

Was this inevitable? How did they lose this war?

KOPPEL: The same way that radio initially lost the war to television, the same way that newspapers lost the war to television news.

KURTZ: Technology?

KOPPEL: Technology. Technology always has to be addressed, but, you know, when one technology -- I mean, there's no question in my mind that television did a lesser job of covering the news than newspapers did in their heyday. But the technology was so attractive, that people just flooded over to television by the tens of millions. And newspapers had to accommodate to it.

So, too, I think network television is -- has had to accommodate already to cable television, is going to have to accommodate to the blog sites and the Internet, and eventually even to Facebook and Twitter. But there is a danger there, you know.

KURTZ: A lot of TV people are on Facebook and Twitter.

And what is the danger? What is -- what are we in danger of losing as we migrate online to sites that we like, perhaps opinions that we like or agree with?

KOPPEL: In and of itself, when you frame it as narrowly as that, the danger is not all that great. But when we find a large segment of the information-consuming public consuming information that is limited to 140 characters, consuming information that, by virtue of Facebook, for example, tends to deal with some of the more frivolous parts of our lives, that's attention, then, that is not being given to some of the issues out there that are of much greater importance.

There is a need. You know, there's no way of saying this, Howard, without sounding a little bit like an old man who is losing touch with new technology, but the fact of the matter is that in a democracy, an uniformed electorate is the greatest danger that there is. If we confuse just the rapid-fire exchange of small morsels of information on trivial subjects with real information, then I think we knock the props out from under a really functioning democracy.

And there's a certain irony in the fact that at precisely the time when we are celebrating what we perceive to be the rise of democracy, encouraged by Twitter, encouraged by Facebook, in places like Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, that we fail to see that that is just the first step in the process. And already in Egypt, we're beginning to see that what we thought was the revolution was just the overthrow of a tyrant.

KURTZ: Right.

KOPPEL: The process is going to take a long, long time.

KURTZ: Before we go, you have a very nice life here. You do the NPR commentaries.

KOPPEL: Right.

KURTZ: You do commentary for BBC, as well.

After so many years of "Nightline," do you miss the adrenaline of daily journalism?

KOPPEL: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I don't think anyone who has loved this business as I've loved it can honestly say that, you know, when stuff starts happening in Benghazi and Tripoli and Cairo and Tunis, that --

KURTZ: You want to get on a plane.

KOPPEL: -- I'm not, you know, sort of in my mind's eye, packing a backpack and trying to get on the first jet, yes.

KURTZ: Ted Koppel, thanks very much for letting us visit you here at your office.

KOPPEL: My pleasure.


KURTZ: After that conversation, Koppel showed us around his converted barn. I saw all the editorial cartoons that he was in, magazine covers and newspaper headlines, particularly around the time when ABC tried to replace "Nightline" with David Letterman. And then, of course, the photos of him with various famous people. We see there Kermit the Frog.

One of them that caught my eye was Henry Kissinger. Here's what he had to say about the former secretary of state.


KURTZ: When you get to know some of these people over the years, Kissinger, for example -- I'm sure you've interviewed him dozens and dozens of times -- do they become friends and not just interview subjects? KOPPEL: Henry Kissinger has become a friend over the years. And that happened before I came to the conclusion that being friends with people who were still policy makers was not a good idea. We became friends, we are friends, we will remain friends. I never will allow that to happen again.

KURTZ: So you took a lesson from that, not to get too close?

KOPPEL: Exactly.


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