SOLOMON: Ted Koppel -- Myth Versus Reality

Now that Ted Koppel has completed his publicity blitz for a new book about Nightline, the famed ABC anchor is more of a media idol than ever. On one network after another, interviewers kept treating Koppel as journalistic royalty. But this media prince is not what he's cracked up to be.Koppel is legendary as an intrepid questioner who stalks the truth. And -- judging from his recent book tour -- Koppel's colleagues in the national media are among his biggest fans. Forget softball questions. Koppel fielded beachballs.Whether the interviewer was Larry King or Sam Donaldson, the inquiries were fawning and the accolades profuse. Nor did National Public Radio provide a respite from Koppel idolatry: Fresh Air host Terry Gross went into rhapsodies about her guest's brilliance. Clearly, she had come not to query Koppel but to praise him.If Koppel seems like an ideal reporter, that's because we confuse style with substance. He gravitates to power brokers -- and for independent journalism, that's a fatal attraction. As Newsweek observed a decade ago, Koppel "makes viewers feel that he is challenging the powers that be on their behalf" -- yet he "is in fact the quintessential establishment journalist."Long ago, Koppel declared himself "proud to be a friend of Henry Kissinger" and ranked his pal (who orchestrated bloody foreign-policy deceptions from Vietnam to Chile) as "certainly one of the two or three great secretaries of state of our century." Such biases infuse Koppel's TV work, as when he told Nightline viewers in April 1992: "If you want a clear foreign -- policy vision, someone who will take you beyond the conventional wisdom of the moment, it's hard to do any better than Henry Kissinger."ABC News ads have referred to Koppel as a "TV statesman." That's fitting. For the anchor of Nightline, the line between journalism and U.S. diplomatic efforts is thin indeed.In 1988, Koppel commented on his qualifications to be secretary of state: "Part of the job is to sell American foreign policy, not only to Congress but to the American public. I know I could do that." He has already amassed plenty of experience.During the late 1980s, my associates at the media watch group FAIR conducted a 40-month study of "Nightline" -- 865 programs in all. The two most frequent guests were (surprise!) Kissinger and another former secretary of state, Alexander Haig. On shows about international affairs, U.S. government policy makers and ex-officials dominated the Nightline guest list. American critics of foreign policy were almost invisible.Koppel didn't see a problem. "We are governed by the president and his cabinet and their people," he fired back. "And they are the ones who are responsible for our foreign policy, and they are the ones I want to talk to." The public needs wide-ranging democratic discourse, not a conveyor belt for elite opinion, but the distinction seems to be lost on Koppel and many other big-name journalists.Even when Koppel does expose official deception, he's apt to do so years too late -- debunking propaganda that he helped spread in the first place. For insight into Koppel's rise up the TV news ladder, consider an incident when he was on a lower rung as ABC's Southeast Asian bureau chief.From 1969 to 1971, Koppel paid several visits to the Southern Laos site of Pakse, where CIA and U.S. military personnel -- unknown to the American public -- were assisting and directing continuous bomb runs by the Laotian air force. "These guys were all in civilian clothes," Koppel told me in a 1990 interview. "None of them admitted to being in the military -- or with the CIA, for that matter. They all claimed to be civilian contract employees."Koppel acknowledged that, at the time, he knew the facts were otherwise: "I may have known that, but I wasn't in a position to prove it." His news reports made no mention of the CIA and U.S. military involvement, even though it was central to the bombing that he witnessed.Walter J. Smith, a U.S. Air Force officer at Pakse, was present when Koppel showed up with a cameraman at the base officers' club. Smith heard Koppel stress that he would not dislodge the official fig-leaf: "In effect, he was saying, `I'm not going to tell the truth no matter what happens.'"A quarter-century later, Walter Smith -- now an instructor at Cabrillo College in California -- is very willing to talk about what happened. But Smith doesn't expect much interest from mainstream journalists. No need to tarnish the halo of a media icon.**********************************************Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman SolomonSPLITTING THE DIFFERENCES"My view is we can all be Republicans and have different views on different issues." -- Bob DoleIn other words: This gender gap is killing my chances. I've got to figure out how to make the abortion issue go away.***"We talked a lot about how we could reduce the inequality and the wage stagnation that affects some of the people in the bottom half of the wage earners." -- Bill ClintonIn other words: I want to emphasize that I care about the little people as I work out economic plans with the big people.***"Nobody wants us to be the world's policeman. Yet, we can't just turn off the porch light, lock our doors, cross our fingers and hope everyone behaves." -- Bob DoleIn other words: I may want to slash the budget of just about every federal agency, but the Pentagon has got to be an exception.***"The Israeli government is recently constituted, just getting its bearings, and it's going to work. And we believe it's quite important that both sides in the Middle East, the Arab parties and the Israelis, give each other some room here. A little time needs to pass. And we hope that no one, including those of us who are third parties here, will say or do anything which would make the peace process more difficult down the road." -- Bill ClintonIn other words: Netanyahu wasn't my first choice to run Israel, but I still think we can get him to cut a deal with our favorite corrupt Arab leaders, like Mubarak and Arafat.***"We must not continue to entrust American leadership to would-be statesmen still suffering from a post-Vietnam syndrome." -- Bob DoleIn other words: I'm no wimp. I'd be willing to order military attacks with the best of them.

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