Koppel's Cojones

April 29, 2004

Also published at http://www.opednews.com

ABC’s Ted Koppel plans to broadcast on Friday on “Nightline” the names and faces of the American soldiers who have been killed in action in Iraq. The complaints that this does not go far enough have already begun, and I agree with all of them. Koppel is excluding those who have committed suicide or been killed in an accident. He is excluding those who have been horribly wounded. He is excluding his 14 fellow journalists who have been killed by U.S. troops. And above all he is excluding Iraqis. Moreover, he will not be showing the blood and pain, but peaceful portraits. This is not serious journalism, but sanitized story-telling.

And yet, notwithstanding all of the ways in which a truly democratic media would go much further than Koppel, I applaud him. When the Seattle Times printed a photo of coffins coming back from Iraq on April 18, that too was laughably little and yet a courageous step in a country whose media is almost indistinguishable from its government’s propaganda.

Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica’s “Democracy Now,” spoke last night in Washington, D.C., on a stop in her 70-city book tour discussing “The Exception to the Rulers,” the outstanding new book by Goodman and her brother David Goodman. She asked whether, with CNN, NBC, and MSNBC all calling their coverage what the Pentagon asked them to (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”), we could imagine how state media would be any different from what we have.

Amy showed images on a screen of the casualties in Iraq, of the children blown apart by U.S. bombs. She said that much of the rest of the world sees these images of the war on Iraq that we in the U.S. do not. She explained that even CNN International shows images of the wounded in Iraq, while CNN does not. An executive from CNN told her it would be “tasteless” to do so. Amy’s book is incredibly important, and her talk about it is even better. Here’s her tour schedule: http://democracynow.org/book/

Ted Koppel is no Amy Goodman. But it may be that he’s no Ted Koppel either. He’s surprised me. I think Koppel may have found his cojones.

The only time I’ve met him in person was when he came into Dennis Kucinich’s dressing room to say hello prior to a candidates’ debate in New Hampshire last December. Koppel had been quoted in the New York Times a few days earlier saying he’d prefer to have only six candidates take part. Failing to heed his request, all nine had shown up.

Koppel gave that night what has to have been one of the worst performances of his career, while Kucinich gave perhaps one of his best. Certainly it was the high point of the campaign while I worked on it. This was the debate in which Kucinich did not just receive the most applause, as often happened, but in which his presence was actually acknowledged by the media reporting on the debate the next day. And what was mentioned was Kucinich’s shaming of Koppel. Columnists even turned “Koppel” into a verb, as in “Don’t ask Kucinich why he doesn’t drop out unless you want to get Koppeled.”

Koppel struck many people as arrogant, abusive, and misguided in his questioning that night, and this is what Kucinich said to him, interrupted several times by applause, including after the second sentence:

“Ted, you know, we started at the beginning of this evening talking about an endorsement. Well, I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country. To start with endorsements -to start -to start talking -to start talking about endorsements. Now, we’re talking about polls. And then, we’re talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don’t have to talk about what’s important to the American people. Ted, I’m the only one up here that actually -I’m the only one up here, on the stage, that actually voted against the Patriot Act. And voted against the war. The only one on this stage. I’m also -I’m also one of the few candidates up here who’s talking about taking our health care system from this for- profit system to a not-for-profit, single-payer, universal health care for all. I’m also the only one who has talked about getting out of NAFTA and the WTO and going back to bilateral trade conditioned on workers rights, human rights, and the environment. Now, I may be inconvenient for some of those in the media, but I’m, you know, sorry about that.”

Some on Kucinich’s staff had recommended that he say to Koppel: “Ted, your coverage of the war on Iraq should borrow from your coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. You should put across the top of the screen: ‘America Held Hostage in Iraq – Day 288,’ and update it every day.” Dennis didn’t find time to say this, and of course ABC hasn’t done it – at least not yet. What they did do was pull their reporters off the three campaigns they didn’t like the day after the debate. They’d mentioned those campaigns a total of 10 times including a single mention of a policy position, according to FAIR, so it wasn’t a significant change, but it did make Koppel look like a coward the day after he’d looked so horribly uncomfortable being criticized on stage.

Koppel was not driven entirely by ratings. After all, he wanted to exclude the candidates who won the most applause. And he and the rest of the ABC royalty cannot be driven entirely by ratings now in their decision to air the names of the dead. After all, showing the effects of the bombs in Baghdad on human flesh would probably be good for ratings, and ABC will not do it. At least not yet.

I think Koppel is moving in the right direction. Having encouraged thousands of protest calls and Emails to ABC in December, I’d like to encourage polite calls and Emails of gratitude and praise now. That might encourage additional courage in the future as this war worsens. We’re certainly going to need it. Write to nightline@abc.com or call 202-222-7000.

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