Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

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

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.