So Ted Koppel is said to be furious after hearing reports that ABC is trying to woo David Letterman away from CBS and into “Nightline’s” time slot. Perhaps he should talk to Sela Ward; I bet she’s hopping mad about reports that “Once and Again” is about to get the ax. That show is also well received critically and has a loyal but small audience. But no one thought to ask if Ward was furious.
Koppel’s anger is newsworthy because he occupies the moral high ground of journalism. But does anyone really believe that he receives a seven-figure salary because he’s a journalist? Ted Koppel, like all the high-profile news anchors, is a celebrity. And when you price yourself into the realm of celebrity, you are subject to the same vagaries of audience and market share that all celebrities are.
ABC’s negotiations with Letterman and the network’s decision last year to move “20/20" from the Friday night time slot it had occupied for more than a decade have pundits across the land proclaiming that this marks the beginning of the end of news analysis on network television. Could this really be a surprise to anyone?
The broadcast networks haven’t been in the news-analysis business for quite a while, and all of the celebrity-driven news shows haven’t been much more than infotainment for the last decade. Barbara Walters’ “20/20" is one of the worst examples of this kind of facile and pandering “news” show. But surely the People magazine reporting style of Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung is also responsible for a few nails in the coffin of serious news programming.
The sad fact of the matter is that network news is about entertainment. And ratings. Network executives influence the kind of news covered and the way it is covered.
Koppel, with his aggressively bad haircut and his phlegmatic speaking style, appears to be quintessentially anti-celebrity and a paragon of journalistic disinterestedness. But this is his shtick, like Letterman throwing pencils. Though it is cloaked in the nobility of journalistic integrity, “Nightline” hasn’t been for years the probing news show it is touted to be. It recently has made efforts to recapture the power of its past by looking at the complicated issues of foreign policy after Sept. 11. But the show has been just as likely in recent years to focus on prurient topics such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey and the sexual adventures of President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit.
Even when covering more serious subjects, the best part of the show is the long (by news programming standards) produced segment, something rarely seen even on the cable news channels. But the cult of celebrity requires a personality, on the spot preferably, and this precludes the kind of thoughtful reporting Koppel made his name doing.
The talking heads that follow rarely discuss anything in depth. And though once a formidable journalist, Koppel doesn’t really have the time to develop a probing dialogue with his guests.
Depending on the topic, the usual cast of characters is lined up and they say exactly what you would expect them to say. The few minutes they get on “Nightline” are just another chance to spin their version of a story. There is nothing as fresh or revealing as what occurs on, say, Charlie Rose (partly because Rose is such a flawed and egocentric interviewer), or Letterman’s show, for that matter.
With the increasing absurdity of American politics and the seeming inability of news outlets to thoughtfully challenge it, perhaps the best way to get a realistic take on things is from a smirky guy like Letterman. How else but through comedy do you make sense of a president who is lionized in the media at the same time he is up to his ears in the Enron scandal and alienating every other country on the globe?
If difficult topics are going to be reduced to the superficial and made audience-friendly, I’ll take mine with a side of humor.
Lisa Colletta is a Sherman Oaks-based writer whose book, “Dark Humor and Satire in the Modern British Novel,” will be published later this year by Wayne State University Press.