My Life As: Ted Koppel

By Rachael Eyler

It was a full house at the Staller Center for Performing Arts at Stony Brook University on Nov. 15 when Ted Koppel, the legendary anchor of ABC News’ Nightline, spoke as part of the School of Journalism’s My Life As Speaker Series.

Koppel, who spent 40 years working for ABC News and has received 42 Emmy Awards, didn’t start his career as the top news anchor for Nightline, but as a college radio broadcaster at Syracuse University.

Koppel said he was inspired to become a journalist by Edward R. Murrow, whose broadcast he would listen to with his father.

“I knew by the time I was eight, I wanted to be like Edward Murrow,” Koppel said. “I could never think of a single time in my life when I wanted to be any other than a journalist.”

However, other opportunities did arise. Koppel spoke about how former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered him a job as his spokesman. Koppel said he thought about the offer, but realized he could never switch careers because he belonged to “an old school of journalism,” meaning if he left journalism to work in government, he would never be able to return to being a journalist.

Koppel wittily pointed out that this is no longer the case today, adding that government officials who become journalists are one of the reasons “journalism is in the toilet today.”

Journalism is about giving an objective rendition of the news, Koppel said, something he was reminded of in 1965 when covering the civil rights peaceful protests in Birmingham, AL. Koppel said he felt he needed to quit journalism and stand with those protesting.

“I feel I ought to be marching with these people and not marching just as an observer,” he said.

It was his wife who reminded him of his love for journalism and helped him understand that he needed to detach his personal emotions from his reporting.

“Our job is to remain impartial, in our reporting at least,” Koppel said. “Our job is to report the story and report it without resorting to opinion or excessive analysis.”

Samuel Hoffmann, a sophomore computer science major at Stony Brook University, agreed with Koppel. He said objectivity should be one of the goals of journalists.

“Reporters need to go back to reporting the facts and move away from an opinionated voice,” Hoffmann said.

After working in radio and becoming one of the youngest news correspondents for ABC News at age 23, Koppel moved into television and became a war correspondent in Vietnam. Koppel said traveling and reporting from a war zone helped him learn a lot about becoming a reporter and how to put more context in a story.

Koppel, who currently serves as a news analyst for NPR and a contributing columnist for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, said there is more “chatter” now in journalism because younger broadcast journalists work their own camera, audio and even edit their own package or just report live.

“There is not the opportunity to report,” he said. “There is not the opportunity to check with multiple sources. There’s not the opportunity to put something into context.”

Koppel advised future journalists to stay true to their reporting and advises that saying if they want to change then they have to be the agents of change.

Koppel also spoke about the rise of the internet and social media, which he said is making a travesty of journalism. Koppel said he believes the technologies have resulted in the democratization of journalism, where anyone can publish and spread a claim.

He explained how journalists are no longer needed as an intermediary with the public, which leaves the an illusion of pure communication.

“It ignores the fact that journalism is a pretty interesting trade; it is a discipline,” said Koppel said. “Journalism practiced well is not a one-person profession.”

Photos by Nicholas Musumeci 

Video by Kunal Kohli