01.28.2020

Ted Koppel: Trump “Very Good for the Business of Journalism”

Ted Koppel is an iconic journalist and member of the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, having made his name as anchor of ABC News’ Nightline for over two decades. Amongst his many achievements, in 1988 he hosted an unprecedented town hall meeting between Israelis and Palestinians live from Jerusalem. Koppel speaks to Walter about the state of journalism and democracy today.

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AMANPOUR:
Tonight. Now our next guest is an expert in bringing people who are worlds apart together. Ted Koppel is a member of the broadcasting hall of fame, who made his name as anchor of ABC news Nightline for over two decades. And in 1988 before there ever were any formal peace negotiations at all, he hosted and unprecedented town hall between Israelis and Palestinians live from Jerusalem. Look at that picture there. He was sitting on a symbolic wall created between the two sides. He’s been speaking to our Walter Isaacson about the state of journalism and democracy today with the United States in the throes of this impeachment trial.

ISAACSON:
So you’ve been to a lot of these Wars before and these scandals before. Tell me how you think the press is covering this one in some respects extraordinarily well.

KOPPEL:
I mean there is some phenomenal reporting going on. On the other hand, I think it is, it is too easy for people to quite literally a sort of divide the price down the middle, uh, and establish quite easily who’s for and who’s against. Uh, and I think that is troublesome because it means that we have lost our, to be viewed as a objective observers of what’s going on.

ISAACSON:
Do you think newspapers, like the Washington post in the New York times in particular have moved away from objective journalism, especially when it comes to president Trump?

KOPPEL:
Let me tell you a story. Walter. Um, it, it goes back probably about 30 or 35 years. Uh, I was doing Nightline at that time and I was the managing editor and I called up a reporter at the New York times who had done a particularly good story. And I asked him if he would come and appear on Nightline that evening. Uh, and he said, I’m going to have to check with ape. Abe Rosenthal at the time was the executive editor of the New York times. And he called me back a little while later and he said, Abe said, uh, sure. If you want to go do Nightline, you go ahead and do Nightline, but then don’t come back to the New York tar. The point being, and there were actually two points. One Abe didn’t want his reporters sharing whatever their reporting had been with arrival news organization, but also he didn’t want his reporters as he put it.

KOPPEL:
Uh, if you go on couple’s gonna ask you some tough questions and you may end up expressing your personal opinion. I don’t want my New York times reporters expressing their personal opinions on TV. That clearly has changed. You can’t watch MSNBC or CNN for that matter without seeing a whole bunch of spear carriers from the New York times, from the Washington post. Uh, and I must tell you, and I say this, I say this to you and I, I see you occasionally on, on morning Joe. Um, when a reporter from the New York times or the Washington post ends up on one of those programs, uh, sitting next to Mika Brzezinski, it’s very hard for that reporter at that point to lay claim to absolute objectivity. Whether or not anything that he or she says ends up being subjective or ends up being perceived as being in favor of one side or the other. The mere fact that they are on a program that is perceived as being very left of center and very anti-Trump, I think undermines the public perception of those people as being objective.

ISAACSON:
But don’t you think that opinionated journalism is in some ways more honest that reporters have always had biases, but now at least they get to express their opinions and we know who’s on Fox, who’s on ms, who’s on CNN, what they’re saying on Twitter and Facebook?

KOPPEL:
Yeah, I mean, it’s not as though, uh, we’ve never had the opportunity to express opinions before. It’s just in the past we’ve limited those opinions to the op ed pages, uh, and that’s no longer the case. Uh, and, and that I think is a step in the wrong direction. It is too easy for enemies of really good journalism. And I don’t want anyone to think that, that I’m, uh, in, in any way deprecating, uh, what appears on the front pages of the New York times. And the Washington post, I think there’s some really brilliant journalism going on. Uh, but a, I don’t really like seeing analysis pieces on the front page of a major newspaper. I think they belong in the back, uh, on one of the op-ed pages a and B, when those reporters whose reporting may be absolutely objective appear on programs that are perceived by almost everyone who watches them, uh, as having a vested political interest in one direction or another. Uh, I think the reporters end up being perceived as, as having, uh, too much of a stake in the game. Uh, no, I don’t think it’s a good thing.

ISAACSON:
And so you’d think that cable TV news in some ways has undermined, uh, objective journalism?

KOPPEL:
Well, I think cable TV news in, in many respects, uh, look, obviously what happened is the first to do it, uh, was Rupert Murdoch, uh, over at Fox and it became hugely profitable. Uh, you know, you may know the numbers better than I do, but I think Fox these days probably earns about one and a half billion dollars a year. That’s real money. Uh, and at the time when Fox started doing that, MSNBC was nowhere doing nothing, making zero. Uh, and it is only when the folks over at NBC decided that they were going to turn MSNBC into a liberal counterpart, uh, to what Fox was doing, that they started really improving their ratings and therefore also improving the amount of money they were making. Uh, I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. Donald Trump has been very, very good for the business of journalism.

ISAACSON:
Do you think that democracy is getting undermined by the fact that people are getting their news and information from more partisan and ideological sources?

KOPPEL:
I don’t think democracy is being, is being strengthened by it. Um, is it being undermined? Yes. I think that a democracy requires desperately needs what are widely perceived by people of all political stripes as objective sources of news. Otherwise, it’s too easy to dismiss what is being said by one side or the other simply because they don’t share your political point of view. Uh, you know, that doesn’t mean that, uh, network news or cable news or the major newspapers cannot be very tough in terms of the reporting they do. But I don’t think their reporters should be perceived as siding with one group rather than the other. I think that’s, I think that does undermine democracy. Yes,

ISAACSON:
it is true though that some stories can be very, very anti-Trump but also be true. And that may be journalists shouldn’t be saying on the one hand, and on the other hand they should be saying this is just the objective truth and it may feel like we’re attacking Trump. But it’s true.

KOPPEL:
I totally agree with you. Totally agree with you. I mean, it, it used to frustrate the hell out of me. Walder when I would see people going out and doing men on the street interviews one side for one against and one not sure, uh, that’s not journalism. Journalism requires that you, that you have the capacity to at least lay out the facts so that your readers, your audience can then draw their own conclusions. Uh, and when there were, you know, when the laying out of facts looks like an indictment, I don’t have any problem with that.

ISAACSON:
To what extent do you think that the internet and social media has exacerbated this problem?

KOPPEL:
Hugely. Hugely. I mean, I think the internet has been a, you know, the internet is on one level, uh, one of the greatest gifts to mankind that we’re going to imagine on another level. It is a weapon of mass destruction, uh, and is being used as such. The fact of the matter is, it is the internet, uh, which has created things like Twitter. Uh, it is the internet that has enabled people of extreme ideologies on the left and on the right to get in touch, not just with the half a dozen people sitting at the bar who may share their opinion, but all of a sudden anyone with access to a laptop, anyone with access to an iPhone has the capacity of becoming a publisher, a broadcaster, someone who potentially can reach hundreds, thousands. Uh, you know, when you and I were young journalists, if you wanted to reach a large audience, you had to work for ABC or the New York times or the associated press or UPI. Uh, it wasn’t possible for an individual to put something out and make sure that it would reach tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people at attack. The internet makes that possible. That is both a blessing and a curse,

ISAACSON:
but isn’t it in some ways a, not just a blessing, but it really democratizes as opposed to allowing gatekeepers like you and I once were to say, here’s the news.

KOPPEL:
Yeah. And, and if you thank the democratization of journalism is a good thing. I disagree with you. I don’t think it is. Um, because whether, you know, you wouldn’t dream of democratizing any other profession. You wouldn’t democratize medicine. You wouldn’t democratize the law. You wouldn’t democratize plumbing or carpentry. You expect a certain level of expertise. You expect a carpenter to have had some training in his trade. I expect a journalist who have had some training in the industry by the democratization of journalism. You make the process available to people who have absolutely no background in trying to present a fair, balanced point of view? None. Uh, so in that sense, you know, obviously we like to think that democracy is in and of itself an unimpeachable word. Uh, you know, if something is democratic, it has to be good. Not necessarily. So

ISAACSON:
do you think there’s any way that the country gets back to what I guess you and I would call the old normal?

KOPPEL:
No, no. Not a chance.

ISAACSON:
So how does this movie go?

KOPPEL:
Well, um, I think we can, we can only express a hope, a prayer even that it doesn’t go in the direction of violence. Um, you know, on one level, and I’m not the first to say this and won’t be the last, uh, we clearly are already engaged and in a sort of ideological civil war in this country, uh, for the time being, it has been waged with at least a, a minimum of bloodshed. Um, I am wondering, for example, what’s going to happen, let’s save for the sake of argument that whoever the democratic candidate is defeats Donald Trump in November. We then have a period from early November until the 20th of January, that interregnum period when Donald Trump is still president, but he knows that he only has a few months left to sir. How do you think that period will go? Do you think he will be a gracious loser?

KOPPEL:
Do you think that he will accept to feed, uh, and, and reach out the hand of friendship to whoever is going to replace him? Uh, I don’t think so. Uh, can I, can I see Donald Trump at that point making the argument that, uh, the election was stolen, um, possibility. And I think there are unfortunately millions of people in this country today who would respond to that in a fashion that, you know, I’m not even sure. I, I, I really want to consider all the consequences of where that might go. Could it lead to violence, your zip code?

ISAACSON:
You’ve been a pretty bleak, uh, assessment of where we are and how it could get worse in some ways. Uh, people have compared this to sort of an authoritarian, uh, tamale even the way it was in Germany in the 1930s. Your family, your parents escaped Germany, uh, I think in 1937 got to England. Is that comparison in any way valid?

KOPPEL:
I don’t think so. No. I mean, um, there, there is still, and I hope to God that we can, that we can defend it. There is still something unique about America and, uh, the, the many, many voices. I mean so far, at least it, and that’s why it bothered me so much when, uh, when some people, uh, on the left began talking early on about the resistance. And when I think about the resistance, I think about courageous Germans and in Nazi Germany who were, who were confronting, uh, the possibility of imprisonment, torture, death. I think about, uh, the French resistance to, uh, Nazi Germans who occupied France during world war II. We’re nowhere near that in this country yet. Uh, and no, I don’t see that yet. Is it possible? Uh, we are not immune to the laws of history and if we give up our protections, if we, if we no longer have value, the rule of law and the, the appropriateness of, of journalism, uh, that is much heavier on objectivity than it is on opinion.

KOPPEL:
Uh, if we don’t value those things appropriately, then I fear not that we’re going to become Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, but it’s not going to be a happy place. And we have, we have seen periods like that in this country. Uh, the McCarthy era in this country in the early 1950s was much closer to that. People lived in fear. People lived in fear of expressing honest opinions out loud. Um, so we’ve, we’ve come dangerously close in the past and I think we, we are at least in a position today where it’s not beyond the question. I mean, it’s not beyond possibility, uh, that we could slide more in that direction. But do I see a, a precise parallel with Nazi Germany? I do not.

ISAACSON: Ted Koppel. Thank you so much.

 

KOPPEL: Thank you. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Jared Kushner discusses President Trump’s Middle East peace plan and experts Aaron David Miller and Marwan Muasher analyze the proposal. Plus, legendary journalist Ted Koppel tells Walter Isaacson how the internet, social media and cable TV have affected the field of journalism.

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