Ted Koppel was disappointed. When he arrived at the Egyptian government guest house in Cairo at 9:30 on the morning of Friday, Aug. 10, Koppel expected an exclusive interview with Tariq Aziz, foreign minister of Iraq, nine days after Aziz’s country had seized control of its tiny, oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. Instead, what Koppel found was a press conference. It was the first of many setbacks the ABC News anchorman would encounter before scoring one of his greatest journalistic triumphs, but Koppel reacted with the unflappable determination that would see him through a grueling, nine-day Mideast reporting trip. First, he captured Aziz’s attention, which was relatively easy. Koppel was the only American anchorman present and Aziz had appeared on his program, Nightline, in 1987. Next, he buttonholed the diplomat, who agreed to appear on the show. ”The added clout of an anchor can make something happen,” Koppel says. ”Aziz knew me.” Nevertheless, it would take five more days, filled with bureaucratic snarls and relentless lobbying, before Aziz would talk with Koppel in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad for 45 revealing minutes.
In the media war that has accompanied the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the Aziz interview was an important victory for Koppel. He became the first Western journalist — broadcast or print — to enter Baghdad after the Kuwait invasion. He beat his closest competitor, CBS News’ Dan Rather, by a day, and his Aziz interview was the first with a top Iraqi official in Baghdad since the invasion. ”It was a rare coup,” says Dorrance Smith, Nightline’s executive producer, who accompanied Koppel. ”In this day and age, with such strong competition, it’s unusual for one network to get ahead of the others on such an important story.” Even the competition praised Koppel’s achievement. A CBS News spokesman said, ”We tip our microphone to them,” and Steve Friedman, executive producer of NBC’s Nightly News, conceded, ”Ted had a clear scoop. He’s a real pro.” Although Rather made up for lost time with dogged reporting from Baghdad, and a number of Western correspondents have since been allowed into Iraq, Koppel’s breakthrough coverage of Aziz and American hostages in Baghdad is still the best television reporting to come out of the conflict.