Reading between the lines on Ted Koppel interview

Mike Royko

May 15, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

My guess is that Ted Koppel hasn't enjoyed reading his mail the past few days. Not unless he enjoys being called foul names and accused of being a fawning liberal fool.

Judging from the letters I've received, he seems to have offended a sizable number of people who take great pride in having been born with pinkish skin.

They're upset with Koppel because he did a "Nightline" interview with two tough young men who are members, or possibly leaders, of the Crips and the Bloods, the biggest and meanest of the L.A. street gangs.

As one incensed Baltimore man wrote: "Every decent person surely wanted to puke. We see this race-pandering S.O.B. Koppel talking to two snotty gang members with their usual tattoos, baseball caps and earrings.

"The [obscenity] Koppel called them 'eloquent' and addressed them as 'gentlemen' and he allowed them to ramble on with their street talk.

"He almost crawled before them and was a total disgrace. But what can one expect from a member of the race-pandering anti-white media?"

A Chicagoan wrote: "How dare he bring scum like that into our homes. One of them was an ex-convict and a convicted killer. I believe in freedom of the press but maybe there should be laws limiting it if it is going to give a forum to those who are trying to foment a revolution."

And a Wisconsin woman wrote: "Why didn't he ask those two brutes how they make their living, since they both were wearing jewelry and seemed well dressed?

"I know why. Because he knows that they are drug pushers or extortionists and he didn't want to ask because he was afraid they would attack him.

"Or maybe he thinks that there is nothing wrong with pushing drugs. He is a disgrace to his profession."

That's just a sample of a few dozen letters I received about that show. I imagine that far more directed their anger directly at Koppel.

But I don't see what they're so angry about. I saw the show and, yes, they were not Boy Scouts. They were tough men who you wouldn't want to bump into on a dark street. Especially if they were short of cash and you were flush.

They were also poised, glib and street-smart, as are many ghetto tTC gang leaders. You might disagree with what they said about the motives of the rioters but what they had to say was worth hearing. It had as much validity as the views of some distant professor of sociology, Washington pundit, or TV anchor creature.

And Koppel isn't the first person in the news business to interview gang leaders, fiends, or run-of-the-mill mugs.

The most famous criminal gang leader in American history was Al Capone, the king of Prohibition racketeering. His mob thought that a day without a murder was a total waste.

There was no TV in those times, but Capone gave many interviews to newspapers, sharing his views on international politics, law and order, morality, and whatever else was on his mind. It made for entertaining reading, and it provided some insights into the thinking of a thug who had the organizational ability to run a multibillion-dollar bootleg empire.

In recent times, books such as "Honor Thy Father" have been done in cooperation with members of New York's famous Mafia families. I didn't hear anyone demanding that the authors be censored.

A recent hit movie, "GoodFellas," was based on a book about the life of a New York mobster, who turned informer, but said that he had been much happier as a gangster than as a legit citizen. He flat-out said that mowing a lawn wasn't nearly as much fun as whacking someone and getting the best tables in nightclubs. What kind of message is that? But nobody squawked that the movie or book should be suppressed.

Another hit movie was about Bugsy Siegel, the gangster who virtually created modern Las Vegas. True, he killed people, but the movie portrayed him as a loving dad, a romantic, and something of a visionary. Why no squawk over that?

And since I was a kid, I've been looking at sympathetic movies about Jesse and Frank James, the Dalton brothers, and other American folk legends, most of whom were thieves and coldblooded killers.

But Koppel interviews a couple of L.A. street dudes and suddenly the venom is flowing.

Are the two L.A. lads more vicious than Capone? I doubt that. Were they more hostile to authority than the bank and train-robbing James and Dalton boys? Forget it. Were they as weird as mass-killer John Gacy, about whom a TV movie was made, and who is currently giving interviews to TV reporters? Nobody could be that weird.

So what can the difference be? Let us think. Ah, I have it.

The two L.A. gang members wear earrings. And Americans get furious when exposed to interviews with guys who wear earrings.

That must be it. I can't think of any other difference, can you?

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