A little over two years after “Nightline” was nearly displaced by ABC’s pursuit of David Letterman, anchor Ted Koppel warned again of entertainment values undermining the integrity of broadcast news, in an address to the Hollywood Radio and Television Society on Tuesday.
Given that Disney president Robert Iger introduced him, Koppel couldn’t help but note that “things are happening at ABC today,” referring obliquely to the wholesale shakeup at the studio’s entertainment division. As for how Iger could spare several hours in the midst of apparent chaos, Koppel drolly compared it to the christening scene in “The Godfather,” where Michael Corleone’s minions carry out the executions. “Just a theory,” he quipped.
Joking aside, Koppel expressed grave concerns that the pursuit of younger demographics and profits are leading to a dumbed-down form of journalism that is alienating older viewers while younger audiences are simultaneously “leaving in droves,” gleaning their information from the likes of Jon Stewart, Letterman and Jay Leno.
Koppel stressed that he didn’t have a problem with comedians dispensing news through entertainment, noting, “My problem is with journalists pretending to be entertainers.”
Evoking legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, Koppel quoted his “prophetic warning” that Americans have a “built-in allergy” to unpleasant information, adding that in terms of downplaying hard news for fluff, “These are perilous times for our country and us to be letting that happen.”
The esteemed anchor also cited the preoccupation with adults ages 18 to 49, TV’s principal demographic currency, saying that he fears the corporate mandate to dismiss those over 50 is oozing into news. “If the people who control our budgets don’t care, how long can it be before we don’t?” he said.
Youth and good looks obviously aren’t a negative in television, Koppel conceded, “but they are an insufficient substitute for background and experience.”
During a question-and-answer session, Koppel declined to discuss his future at ABC News, saying that he and Iger “don’t have those conversations in front of civilians.” He expressed confidence, however, that the 24-year-old latenight broadcast could continue beyond his eventual departure.
Asked about complaints emanating from Washington regarding allegedly indecent entertainment content, he offered little consolation to broadcasters. “If we don’t want government agencies to police us … then we have to learn to police ourselves,” he said.
Despite the commercial forces dictating that news operations offer lighter or more titillating fare, Koppel argued that the industry owes it to viewers to “aim high” and see what transpires. “Quality sells,” he said. “It sells in every other field. Why not in ours?”
One of the students in attendance also questioned Koppel regarding what young journalists should do when compelled to work on pieces that they feel compromise their integrity.
“Quit,” he said flatly. “If you start doing those things … you’re never going to be able to get out from under it.”