News Article

At 10, A Memo to Ted Koppel

A decade of ''Nightline'' -- EW reflects on the best and worst moments of Ted Koppel’s career as anchor of the ABC show

After a decade, no one even mentions anymore that Ted Koppel's hair looks like an extremely well-groomed meat loaf nestling on top of his head. In fact, 10 years after Nightline made Koppel a household talking head, such a remark seems impertinent, rude, disrespectful. After all, isn't Koppel an institution, our most esteemed, most trusted, and most dogged television newsman?

Well, yes and no. Beginning on Nov. 8, 1979, as a special broadcast on the Iranian hostage crisis, Nightline has become something more than the place to get the latest information on the evening's biggest story. It has become Ted Koppel's fiefdom, a place where his hooded glare commands all it surveys.

To be sure, the kingdom of Koppel is much appreciated by all thinking TV-viewers, who have come to rely on Nightline's up-to-the-minute efficiency and calm: The world could be exploding, as far as Johnny Carson is concerned — after all, he taped his monologue three hours earlier — but tuning in to Ted, we receive both a news update and the live-body assurance that the universe remains inhabitable.

And certainly Koppel has done some valuable work over the years: smart, breaking-news interviews with Ferdinand Marcos, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Kurt Waldheim; inquisitions of George Bush and Michael Dukakis during the '88 campaign; the illuminating ''Nightline in the Holy Land'' debates between Israelis and Palestinians; and, most recently, lengthy coverage of South Africa timed around the release of Nelson Mandela. (Excerpts, next page)

But Koppel also has done some things for which he should have been criticized. Some of them are minor, almost endearing, such as the way he milked the PTL scandal as shamelessly as the National Enquirer. Watching night after night of Jim Bakker's tears and Jerry Falwell's sneers served as a bracing reminder that Taciturn Ted goes for the ratings gold now and then, just like everyone else on television.

More troubling, though, is Nightline's establishment of the news version of a one-way mirror: Safe in his studio, Ted can see his guests, but his out-of-studio guests can't see Ted.

As a result, their eyes tend to roam and their thoughts frequently seem scattered, distracted; because many guests aren't used to appearing on TV in the first place, they're put off-balance unnecessarily. There's no justification for this sort of media intimidation other than to give Koppel a debater's edge he really ought not to have. The most notable time Koppel abandoned his format — caving in to Gary Hart's demand to appear on the Nightline set to give an exclusive on his 1987 campaign collapse — the result was an even more pointed, probing performance than Koppel usually gives.

As Koppel's influence has grown, so has his propensity to pontificate. His questions are windier, and framed to represent the Cool Voice of Reason, when what they really express is usually the Establishment line on any given issue.

All that said, Nightline is still the best way to avoid the talk shows, and while I'm not suggesting that Koppel drop his ''...and this... is Nightline'' tagline in favor of ''Let's get busy! Woof! Woof!'' there are a few things that could improve Nightline in its new decade.

To the right, Ted, is a short list:

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