Ted Koppel: We Hardly Want to Know Ye

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Review for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Volume 16.2

Koppel, T. (2000). Off Camera Private Thoughts Made Public.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pp., $25.00 (Cloth), $20.76 (Audio Book).

Quick. Think of Ted Koppel, that no-nonsense, erudite host of ABC's "Nightline." That should be easy. We've been able to see his face on television for almost 40 years.

If you need help, you can look at the cover of his new book, Off Camera. Except for a change in clothing and location, he looks exactly as he does on television, although that might not have been the intent. The portrait by Michael Wilson is an obvious attempt to make him look friendly and engaging, in keeping with the title of the book, but the effort falls flat.

He leans against a huge, brown trunk of a tree in a black cotton shirt, leather jacket, and cargo pants-certainly an outfit you don't see on "Nightline." But look closer. Although his eyes are directed right into the camera, they are dark and suspicious. His attempt at a smile looks forced. He looks tentative and shy as if he doesn't really want us to know him. Additionally, a low camera angle gives the impression he's looking down on the reader. The picture reveals, as does his book, that Koppel is never really comfortable with being "off camera."

In the 20-plus years as head honcho of "Nightline," the premier, long-form news interview show, he has always been a gently probing gentleman. Koppel is one of the most respected journalists, having won every significant television award. Unlike many, mostly cable questioners, Koppel doesn't interrupt a guest in the middle of a response. He doesn't attack someone personally. He never loses his temper. We never really know what he's thinking on any topic of conversation. He is the epitome of the formal, well-mannered, objective, and most strikingly, impersonal journalist. It's that last trait, I suspect, that inspired him to tell his "private thoughts" in his book.

For the entire year of 1999, he kept a day-by-day diary that "contains opinions I would never express on the air" (viii). And after reading his journal, I can objectively say-that's a good thing.

Koppel is kind of a cranky guy with few friends and a yacht near his get-away home on Captiva Island, Florida. His 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" (50). He dismisses traveling in the Balkans with this direct quote: "The toughest thing about traveling in the Balkans is traveling in the Balkans" (109). He calls ex-President Jimmy Carter's op-ed piece in the New York Times criticizing ex-President Bill Clinton's Kosovo strategy "tacky" (125). He doesn't like the violence portrayed by the World Wrestling Federation. He calls 900 telephone sex operators, "verbal prostitutes" (235). 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?

Naturally, with his vast experience as a top-tier newsperson, he rants about his own medium. But when his complaints are nestled between the high price of gas and playing with his grandson, his criticisms are, to say the least, diluted.

He spends parts of days complaining about all the media mergers, the under-funding of news departments, the general competitiveness of the media, the fact that television doesn't provoke thinking on serious issues, the overwhelming coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s funeral compared with the death of King Hassan II of Morocco, the shrinking right of privacy of ordinary persons, the lack of appreciation for the work of a creative journalist, Robert Krulwich, and computers-he hates computers.

And here's my rant. Simply identifying and describing a social condition is not helpful. I sometimes get and give bad reviews to research papers that usually use surveys or content analysis as their chief research methods. In the conclusions, the researchers simply restate the descriptive nature of the study without any attempt to address in a critically way the concerns expressed through the research. This objective retelling of facts doesn't move the profession to any higher plane. It is at best short-sided and at worse an academic magic act-a form of non-analysis, analysis.

Ted Koppel, with his years in the business, and his ease in getting a publishing contract (yes, he wrote about that too), should know better. He wails against the media without offering a day's worth of thinking about possible remedies. For example, on July 7 he writes, "If television isn't covering the story and Americans are reading less and less, I suppose it's inevitable that we will become dumber and dumber. And that's very dangerous indeed" (162). Unfortunately, that's about as penetrating as his comments get in his book of days. It's one of several Koppel Kop-Outs.

But lucky for him, he can get away from all his Virginia manse and DC media frustrations and enjoy the sunshine on Captiva. In fact, I counted how many days out of the year his diary was written from that island resort-42. But even in paradise he writes, "A Huey helicopter flew over the Gulf of Mexico" (75). Hope it didn't block the sun.

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'" (319) 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.

By the way, the website for Captiva Island is: captivaisland.com.