Monday, February 8, 2010

Happy griping Ted!

It’s Ted Koppel’s birthday today, his 70th. Congratulations. A good day perhaps - or not - to revisit a diary he wrote throughout 1999. Although not so well known in Europe, Koppel is one of the most highly respected journalists in the US, having fronted ABC’s top news interview show, Nightline, for 25 years. He is the epitome of the formal, well-mannered, objective, and impersonal journalist, says one media watcher, but the diary reveals, in fact, that he’s not only full of gripes in his daily life, but that he’s never really comfortable being ‘off camera’.

Edward James ‘Ted’ Koppel was born in Lancashire, England, on 8 February 1840, the son of Jewish parents who had fled from Hitler’s Germany. In 1953, the family moved again, this time to the US, where Ted studied science at Syracuse University before doing a masters in Mass Communications Research and Political Science at Stanford. In 1963, he became a naturalized US citizen, and he married Grace Anne Dorney, with whom he has four children. That same year he was taken on by ABC Radio News and thus became its youngest ever correspondent.

By 1966, Koppel was working for ABC Television and went to Vietnam as a war correspondent. He returned in 1968 to cover Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and then was sent to Hong Kong as bureau chief. From 1971 to 1980, he was ABC News’ chief diplomatic correspondent, an assignment that included covering Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, a tour of duty that took him, ABC says, more than a quarter of a million miles during the days of Kissinger’s ‘shuttle diplomacy’.

In 1980, Koppel was given the role of anchor for Nightline, then television’s first late-night network news programme. He stayed with the show, becoming its managing editor also, until 1985. In its short biography of Koppel, ABC says he has won ‘every major broadcasting award’ and lists a good many of them. Wikipedia notes, however, that Koppel was criticised ‘for being a conduit for the government’s point of view’. After his retirement from Nightline and ABC in 2005, Koppel has worked with National Public Radio, The Discovery Channel, and the BBC among other organisations, and earlier this year he was reportedly in negotiations for a return to ABC (see Politico)

In 2000, Alfred A Knopf (part of Random House) published a diary that Koppel had kept all through 1999, the last year of the century - Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public. Random House says that in this book, Koppel ‘finally lets us know the man behind the face we’ve trusted late at night for almost twenty years’; and that, with ‘riveting insight and lucid prose, [he] chronicles the year of Monica and Y2K, of shootings at Columbine, of the death of JFK, Jr’. It concludes: ‘Witty, provocative, and wise, this book is indispensable.’

Reviewers did not agree. Paul Martin Lester makes this pithy point near the start of his review for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics: ‘For the entire year of 1999, [Koppel] kept a day-by-day diary that ‘contains opinions I would never express on the air’. And after reading his journal, I can objectively say - that’s a good thing.’ He says the book reveals that Koppel ‘is never really comfortable with being ‘off camera’ ’. For the rest of the review, Lester gripes about how much of the book Koppel spends griping. Here is Lester in full flow:

‘[Koppel’s] book is filled with gripes for every day of the year. He complains about the price of Cap’n Crunch cereal at his local market. He calls Valentine’s Day cards, ‘the cold-blooded commercialism of our most tender moments’. He dismisses traveling in the Balkans with this direct quote: ‘The toughest thing about traveling in the Balkans is traveling in the Balkans’. He calls ex-President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in The New York Times criticizing ex-President Bill Clinton’s Kosovo strategy ‘tacky’. He doesn’t like the violence portrayed by the World Wrestling Federation. He calls 900 telephone sex operators, ‘verbal prostitutes’. And over several days he tediously describes and unnecessarily complains about his trouble in getting a caller id feature installed on his home telephone. Who would have thought that Ted has the same troubles, as you and me?’ And Lester has nothing better to say about Koppel’s attacks on his own industry: ‘He wails against the media without offering a day’s worth of thinking about possible remedies.’

Lester concludes: ‘This is an ill-conceived, egotistical, colossal waste of time - not because it lets us inside the life and mind of one of the nation’s most respected journalists, but because that life and mind, as presented in this work, is so banal. Having to report his daily events and thoughts in which he admits, ‘there have obviously been days when my only motive has been ‘to get the damned thing done’ ’ leaves him with little time for self-reflection. But perhaps that’s a good thing. I want to like Ted Koppel the interviewer. I really don’t need to know that he threw up behind a haystack after smoking for the first time as a child growing up in England.’

Bruce Fretts at Entertainment Weekly is no less scathing, unfortunately. Many of the entries, he says, deal with such mundane matters as grocery shopping and shoddy airline and phone-company service. Worse, Fretts goes on: ‘He obsessively wrings his hands over Americans’ lack of concern for foreign issues, droning on for days on end about far-flung conflicts (he spends much of April and May overanalyzing the US’ role in Kosovo). After the networks fail to provide live prime-time coverage of an earthquake in Turkey, he grouses that ‘neither Princess Di nor JFK Jr was among the dead or injured, so I suppose the two thousand or more dead Turks are of insufficient interest.’ It’s a fair point but one he runs into the ground. Koppel offers his own most accurate critique when he writes, ‘I'm beginning to sink into old-fartism.’ ’

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