The protein wisdom interview: Ted Koppel
ABC “Nightline” host Ted Koppel says he’s “surprised” anyone would think his special, “The Fallen,” is a ratings ploy or a political statement of some sort.
For 40 minutes tonight, Koppel will show the faces and read the names of American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq.
Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns 8 ABC affiliated stations in Ohio, Missouri, and some smaller markets, said it would not air the “Nightline” broadcast. The company’s memo said, “Despite the denials by a spokeswoman for the show, the action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.”
ABC’s response: “The ‘Nightline’ broadcast is an expression of respect which seeks to honor those who have laid down their lives for this country. ABC News is dedicated to thoughtful and balanced coverage and reports on the events shaping our world with neither fear nor favor — as our audience expects, deserves, and rightly demands.”
Earlier this morning, protein wisdom spoke with Ted Koppel by telephone about the special and the pre-broadcast response to it. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview:
protein wisdom: “What do you think this special says that needs saying, Ted?”
Ted Koppel: “Just look at these people. Look at their names. And look at their ages. Consider what they’ve done for you. Honor them.”
protein wisdom: “Okay. But then why not just say, ‘Hello, I’m Ted Koppel, I honor those who’ve died defending my freedoms,’ then spend the next 39 minutes pointing out what a messianic, world-destroying demon George Bush is…?”
Ted Koppel: “Well, because this is a special.“
protein wisdom: “Fair enough. On Wednesday, you were quoted in The New York Daily News as saying you were initially concerned that this program not make a political statement…”
Ted Koppel: “Not only initially, I still am. I don’t want it to make a political statement. Quite the contrary. My position on this is I truly believe that people will take away from this program the reflection of what they bring to it –“
protein wisdom: “– which for the typical ‘Nightline’ viewer is a visceral distrust of American military force and an abiding hatred of gun-toting hicks in camouflage — “
Ted Koppel: “– Well sure, there’s that. But I think it is just as possible for a staunch supporter of the war to come away from this program very moved and content that it was done well, as it is for someone who is an opponent of the war to come away with exactly the same feeling. I also have no illusions. I think it’s entirely possible that people who hold those differing points of view will watch the same program and come away wishing it had not been done.”
protein wisdom: “You realize nobody’s going to watch this thing, don’t you?”
Ted Koppel: “We realize we’re up against Cinemax Friday Night, yes.”
protein wisdom: “Okay — and not that I believe it’s possible for a second — but how do you think someone who is a staunch supporter of the war will be fortified in their position by seeing this? How could that happen?”
Ted Koppel: “I always find it kind of strange that when we send young men and women off to war we make a huge fuss about them –“
protein wisdom: “– Wait, you find that ‘strange‘?”
Ted Koppel: “Please let me finish. And indeed when they come back from the war we make a huge fuss about them then, too –“
protein wisdom: “– you’re right, Ted, that is strange –“
Ted Koppel: “I’m not finished. And I don’t like being interrupted. Would you like me to continue?”
protein wisdom: “I’m sorry, please. My bad.”
Ted Koppel: “There are, understandably, joyous celebrations when a unit comes back from any war, although that has, as you and I both know, not always been the case. But it’s certainly the case right now. Why, in heaven’s name, should one not be able to look at the faces and hear the names and see the ages of those young people who are not coming back alive and feel somehow ennobled by the fact that they were willing to give up their lives for something that is in the national interest of all of us?”
protein wisdom: “Are you asking me?”
Ted Koppel: “Yes.”
protein wisdom: “Well, because it’s depressing, it weakens the nation’s resolve, it twists idealistic self-sacrifice into cold material defeatism, and it reeks of the kind of self-serving media sensationalism that makes most Americans want to buggy-whip smarmy blowhards like you with a vacuum cleaner cord. Viciously. And that’s just off the top of my head. Want more?”
Ted Koppel: “No, I believe you’ve made your point.”
protein wisdom: “Good. And I’m asking the questions here big shot, remember?”
Ted Koppel: “Of course, I’m sorry, it’s your dime. Go.”
protein wisdom: “‘Nightline’ has covered lots of wars that have involved scores of US casualites — from Grenada to Haiti to Panama to Somalia to Gulf War I to Kosovo… You didn’t do a special in those instances, so why now?”
Ted Koppel: “I think if you look at that list that you’ve just enumerated, there’s one thing that all those actions or wars have in common. They were very short. They didn’t last as long as this one –“
protein wisdom: “– so duration, then? Interesting. …And you expect most Americans will believe that?”
Ted Koppel: “Well, I do have a very deep voice.”
protein wisdom: “That you do. In fact, I’ve often thought you would have made a wonderful crooner. Had you not, y’know, become a transparent political hack bent on deconstructing traditional American values from your network’s bully pulpit.”
Ted Koppel: “Thank you. Yes, I love to sing. Just never in public, if I can avoid it.”
protein wisdom: “Okay, serious question: Is Iraq today like Vietnam of 35 years ago?”
Ted Koppel: “My executive producer Leroy Sievers remembered, and asked me if I remembered and I did, a two-page spread in Life magazine back in 1969 on the Vietnam war dead for one week and the impact; he reminded me of the impact that that had had. And said, why don’t we try to do something similar? For months and months and months now, in fact, we have been doing a segment at the end of ‘Nightline’ called ‘In the Line of Duty.’ And basically all I can do there, because that’s all the information we have on any given day, today for example, I think so far 10 people, 10 Americans have died in Iraq. And all I’ll be able to say was eight died in this incident and two died in that incident, and maybe I’ll be able to give the branch of the service that they were in, but no names, no pictures, just the number of people who died over the last 24 hours. And we have been doing that for a very long time and our fear was by virtue of the fact that we’ve been doing it for such a long time, people are almost numb to it and really not paying that much attention anymore unless the number is extraordinarily high. And so we wanted to just take one program and say, here, let’s show you the faces and the names of all these who have laid their lives down –“
protein wisdom: “– I’m sorry, is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?
Ted Koppel: “I don’t remember the question, I’m afraid.”
protein wisdom: “Is Iraq today like the Vietnam of 35 years ago?”
Ted Koppel: “If I can help it, yes.”
protein wisdom: “Good. Refreshingly honest. Final question: Are you surprised, in the end, that this program has gotten such pre-air attention?”
Ted Koppel: “Yes. I really am. I didn’t expect that. I thought it would get attention, but did I think it would become so controversial, did I think that people would feel the need to question the patriotism of those who are putting it on the air? Did I think that it would descend to the depths of some people suggesting we were doing this because the networks are going into a sweeps period when ratings become important? You start to wonder after a while. I’ve been doing ‘Nightline’ for over 24 years, I’ve been at ABC for 41 years, if that’s really the impression I’ve left with people then I have failed in such a colossal way that I can’t even begin to consider the consequences of it. But quite apart from that, it seems to me absolutely silly that anyone would suggest that we were doing this for ratings. In point of fact, we were sitting around unaware that it was sweeps, that’s how dumb we are at ‘Nightline.’ But we were actually sitting around saying, you know, what’ll probably happen is that people will tune in for 30 seconds or two minutes or maybe five minutes, but I doubt very much that many viewers are going to hang on for the whole broadcast. If anything, our expectation was that this program might have fewer viewers than normal. It never occurred to us that someone might think we were doing this for ratings.”
protein wisdom: “So you were actually hoping it would fail — that barely anyone would be interested enough to sit through the whole thing — but now you’re pleasantly surprised at all the attention it’s gotten?”
Ted Koppel: “That about sums it up, sure.”
protein wisdom: “I see. But all that stuff about questioning your patriotism — you were just kidding about that, right?”
Ted Koppel: “Well, it’s worked for John Kerry, so I figured what the hell, y’know? Throw it out there, see if it sticks. Truth is, I could care less. I’m from Canada, remember?”
protein wisdom: “– Go Expos.”
Ted Koppel: “Yes. Indeed. …er, who are they again…?”
update: Glenn’s thoughts.
update 2: More from Henry Hanks.
update 4: Somebody calling itself Captain Normal cites the Center for American Progress in order to prove … oh, who cares…? The point is, this person seems to think the Center for American Progress is ideologically unencumbered.
Macroglossius lunarius gothikas, is my guess.
update 5: Oh, and The Fat Guy! Musn’t ever forget The Fat Guy.