Monday, December 12, 2011

Ted Koppel Is Right--Nightly News Is A Joke

On Monday's Nightly News, Brian Williams introduced two new NBC News Special Correspondents: Chelsea Clinton and Ted Koppel. Chelsea is personable and photogenic, but she has absolutely no aptitude as a news correspondent. And there's no reason she should--she's never worked as a reporter before. She was hired for one reason and one reason only--because of her name. Obviously, the name "Chelsea Clinton" will cause people to tune in to Nightly News and Rock Center and increase those shows' ratings. And that's all that matters to Brian and NBC News President Steve Capus--ratings. NBC News collects children of former presidents like Brian collects his silly little military challenge coins. Jenna Bush Hager is a correspondent for "Today" (and occasionally Nightly News) and Ron Reagan Jr. is a paid contributor at MSNBC. Maria Shriver (alas, only the niece of a president) was a long-time NBC News correspondent (and likely will become one again). And now add Chelsea to the list. Of course, I don't blame her. She was looking for an on-air network news gig, and Steve Capus was all too willing to jump in and snatch her up so he could add her to his stable of presidential progeny. This is what Nightly News is all about. Personalities rather than news. Wannabe actress (and "Access Hollywood" celebrity-stalker) Maria Menounos is a Nightly News contributor. Michael Douglas introduces Brian every night. Bono, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are featured so often on Nightly News that they're like Brian's sidekicks--his own personal Ed McMahons. Luke Russert (son of Tim) is an MSNBC (and Nightly News) correspondent. Brian set Luke Russert up as a correspondent after his father died because he wants to take care of the kid. It's the same thing Tony Soprano did for Christopher Moltisanti. Obviously, Brian is the Godfather of NBC News. He does what he wants, and he hires who he wants. There are scores (maybe hundreds) of seasoned, professional news correspondents out there looking for on-air jobs, and Brian and Steve Capus are just handing them out to inexperienced amateurs like Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager and Luke Russert. That's just shameful. Prediction: Twenty years from now, the new NBC News Special Correspondent will be Sasha Obama. Or perhaps Malia.

Speaking of seasoned professional news correspondents, I was shocked that Ted Koppel would lower his professional journalistic standards to work at NBC News. But I guess that when you get into your 70's, network news jobs become harder and harder to find. Obviously, with his intelligence, insight, gravitas and experience, Koppel should be anchoring Nightly News. He's one of the last of his breed--a hardy journalist-anchor who earned his stripes in the 1960's and 1970's flying around the world covering important, breaking news. Brian is a cuddly house cat. He sits in his comfy studio chair and reads the words off the teleprompter each night. And if Brian ever leaves the studio to go on location--especially if it's out of the country--he flies first class and stays in four-star hotels (while his production crew flies coach and stays in local fleabag motels). Koppel is a direct link to Murrow, Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. Brian's contemporaries are John Tesh, Ryan Seacrest and Jeff Probst. But unfortunately Koppel's ratings as an anchor would today skew way past the age that is attractive to advertisers and news executives. Brian Williams is a lightweight compared to Ted Koppel, but because of Brian's desperate need to be liked (and his unctuous talent for pandering to the viewers), his ratings are high. So what does Ted Koppel really think of network news? Here are some excerpts from an Op-Ed piece Koppel contributed to the 11/12/10 Washington Post (the entire piece can be read at

"The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that 'everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,' seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.

And so, among the many benefits we have come to believe the founding fathers intended for us, the latest is news we can choose. Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.

It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn't know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.

The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.

Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we're now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers. "

Wow. Ted Koppel really laid it on the line. MSNBC doesn't even attempt to be objective. MSNBC is like Bernie Madoff. Those are strong words. It's obvious that Koppel doesn't think much of cable or network news these days--and that obviously includes NBC News and Brian Williams. I only hope that Koppel will have an opportunity to make his opinion heard at NBC News--and about NBC News.

Postscript (Dec. 14)--As if we need any more proof that Koppel was talking specifically about NBC Nightly News when he lamented the reluctance of network newscasts to present international news: On Tuesday (Dec. 13), Nightly News did not report one single story from outside the U.S. Instead, Brian gave us filler stories about a snowstorm in California, the closing of some post offices, an old recording by Alexander Graham Bell, the volume of commercials, a tree that had fallen in Sequoia National Park (the third Nightly News story about the fallen sequoia) and a ridiculous story with no news value about military personnel returning home (Nightly News has done dozens of identical stories over the past few years). Brian also moderated an interminably long six-and-a-half minute "round table discussion" about the Republican presidential candidates. All the information in this story could have been presented in under a minute. There was not a single story from anywhere outside the U.S. Not Iraq, not Libya, not China, not Afghanistan, not Syria. But at least we know all about Alexander Graham Bell and the giant sequoia tree that fell. Ted Koppel is right--Nightly News is a joke.

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