End of the `Line'

As Ted Koppel anchors his final `Nightline' tonight, he leaves behind a legacy of innovation and integrity.

November 22, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The affiliates didn't want his show, and his network bosses didn't want him to anchor it. Ultimately, they made it all too clear that he was a "last-ditch" choice with what he calls a "fairly insulting" salary offer after they couldn't get CBS anchorman Dan Rather or NBC's Tom Brokaw.

That was the not-so-promising beginning 26 years ago of Ted Koppel's career at the anchor desk of ABC News' Nightline -- a critically acclaimed tenure that comes to an end tonight.

The creation of pioneering TV producer Roone Arledge, Nightline is one of the few network news innovations of the past 30 years that has provided public service and prestige as well as profits. From being the first show to tackle in-depth such issues as apartheid in South Africa and AIDS in the United States, to its unflinching coverage of the deaths of American GIs in Iraq last year, Nightline has been a beacon of journalistic integrity across more than two decades of declining TV news standards.

At the core of Nightline's credibility is Koppel, who generates a sense of trust and moral authority that harks back to a pre-cable, pre-Internet era when the networks dominated broadcast news. If there is a descendant of the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, celebrated onscreen in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck, it is Koppel. And, unlike Rather -- who had tried to lay claim to the Murrow mantle but was forced to step down from the CBS anchor desk in March after a flawed report on President Bush's military career -- the 65-year-old Koppel leaves the ABC airwaves tonight on his own terms, widely respected by viewers and journalists alike.

"In a period when the network TV news divisions arguably lost the courage of their former convictions, Koppel and Nightline stand out for continuing to respect the idea that Americans could handle serious issues, to do so in depth, and to worry about things that may not have been covered elsewhere," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"And consider that in all those years how few faux pas there are on the resume. He is far better known for electric moments of revelation, often tweaked out rather than yanked. Koppel is an intuitive master at writing long, elaborate broadcast sentences, not the short choppy, pop culture cliche writing that characterizes so much of TV. Compare his prose to others, and it reminds one of Murrow."

Koppel's superb skills as an interviewer are on display in his final Nightline broadcast tonight, as he revisits a series of three interviews he did in 1995 with Morrie Schwartz, then a relatively unknown Brandeis University professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. The series inspired Mitch Albom's best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie.

While Koppel is sometimes described as a remote and controlling interviewer -- in part, because the satellite technology pioneered at Nightline often led to interviewees showing up on a screen instead of seated in the studio next to the anchorman -- the series with Schwartz shows a more intimate side. Visiting Schwartz in his home, this is the Koppel described by Rosenstiel, tweaking rather than yanking wisdom from guests.

Describing his mood as a "mixture of nostalgia and good feelings about the future," Koppel seemed to enjoy remembering how embattled he and the broadcast were in those early days after its debut Nov. 8, 1979, as an ABC News late-night special titled "America Held Hostage." Koppel explained that Arledge had been using the special-report format whenever a big story broke since taking over as president of ABC News in 1977 as a way to "prep" the network and its affiliates into giving the late-night time period to news. But the affiliates were unwilling to do so on a permanent basis when they could make more money airing cheap, syndicated, entertainment programming.

It had staying power

"Inevitably, as is the case 99.9 percent of the time, the stories we covered in those late-night specials prior to November 1979 would peter out over a day or two," Koppel said. "But what Roone was looking for all along was a story that would so capture the American imagination that he would be able to seize from the affiliates a time period that they didn't want to give up."

That came with the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants: "And as Day 1 led to Day 15, led to Day 30, led to Month 2, led to Month 3, led to Month 4 [with the Americans still in captivity and ABC providing nightly coverage]," Koppel said, "it became evident to the network that they had a phenomenon on their hands -- that people were talking about what they saw on Nightline the next morning. And, so, the decision was made in late January to make it a permanent program."

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