Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Ted Koppel of 'Nightline', a TV anchorman who made you think, bows out after 25 years

Share
Related Topics

America's mainstream news media (or MNM, as scornful critics on the blogs refer to them) have had a miserable run of late. Scandals of fabricated stories, the disastrous parroting of the administration's line on Iraq's non-existent WMD, the screw-up by CBS over George Bush's Texas National Guard service, and now the "Plame-gate" CIA leak affair that has made mugs of luminaries such as Bob Woodward and Judith Miller - small wonder, then, that the headline on the cover of the latest New York Review of Books asks: "The End of News?" To the woes of the MNMs must now be added the departure of Ted Koppel, after a quarter of a century on his late-night perch on ABC's Nightline. Koppel was not everyone's cup of tea. He could be a mite pompous and over lofty. Sometimes he was just plain ponderous.

But Nightline, starting at 11.35pm each weekday, was among the rare news programmes on US commercial television that actually tried to make you think. It was confined to a single topic. It relied on that normally dreaded commodity, analysis. Unlike most of his peers, Koppel was not flashy. Polite but probing, courteous yet quizzical, he treated viewers as grown-ups.

In Tuesday's finale, Koppel selected clips from three of his best Nightlines, his interviews in the mid-1990s with a terminally ill professor called Morrie Schwartz, whose mesmerisingly frank ruminations on approaching death became a hymn to life.

Nightline took wing during the 15-month Iran hostage crisis that began in November 1979. And it survived, despite head-on competition from the network late-night comedy kings, Johnny Carson and, latterly, Leno on NBC's Tonight show and David Letterman on CBS.

And Nightline had its own near-death experience a couple of years ago, when ABC bosses toyed with filling Koppel's slot with Letterman or Conan O'Brien, the designated successor of Leno. It weathered the storm, but only as the anchor publicly lamented the mounting pressure from the giant corporations that owned the networks for these latter to tailor their news output to the supposed tastes of their most coveted audience, the young. He resisted.

Ironically, Koppel's Nightline is bowing out just as Good Night and Good Luck has become this autumn's movie succès d'estime, whose star, David Strathairn, is widely tipped to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the great reporter Ed Murrow as he took on the mendacious, malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.

The film begins and ends with a 1958 speech by Murrow warning broadcast executives of the perils confronting them. The industry was "wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent, with a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information". In the main, he went on, television was "being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us ... if we concentrate on the what and how, and ignore the why, we are not really searching for anything".

But the unstated message of the movie deals with 2005, not 1958: why is there no Ed Murrow today? His closest equivalent in modern US television journalism was Koppel. But he is gone.

Tomorrow the new Night Line, debuts, live with three anchors (one of them Martin Bashir of Diana and Michael Jackson interview fame). But none of them is well known, certainly not sufficiently known to persuade viewers to forsake Leno or Letterman on reputation alone.

I hope I am wrong, and that on occasion the trio causes me to stay up past my bedtime. But I suspect they won't have the opportunity for long. Even when sheltered by Koppel's status as a listed broadcasting monument, Nightline came under threat. Yes, after being sliced and diced by commercial breaks, its real running time was barely 20 minutes. And Koppel's final sign-off was poignant and prescient: "Give my successors a fair break, otherwise the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot, and then you'll be sorry."

In the world of TV anchors, as in every other walk of life, no one is irreplaceable. But in this age of instant news overload, from the internet to blogs to 24-hour cable TV, Ted Koppel came close.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice