Incisive to the end

Ted Koppel's style on Nightline was never to soft-pedal an interview, and as he puts the show to bed Tuesday night after 25 years, he doesn't intend to start now.

Published November 22, 2005

By ERIC DEGGANS Times Media Critic

Even when answering questions about his interviewing technique, outgoing Nightline anchor Ted Koppel has an instinct for cutting through the nonsense.

"I think, in an interview, you've got to be prepared to be unpopular at the end of it," said Koppel, speaking by cell phone on his day off from ABC's late-night news program.

"People these days, because of all the competition that is out there, are too worried about possibly offending their interviewee by asking tough questions, or by pressing the subject of the interview hard, when he or she doesn't want to be pressed," the anchor added. "People tend to look only at Fox and the Bush administration and say the Bush people seem to prefer going on Fox - yeah, they do, and Jimmy Carter used to prefer going on CNN."

Today is Koppel's last day on Nightline, wrapping up 25 years leading the network's weeknight news show and 42 years chasing stories for ABC. The last thing the 65-year-old anchor is likely to be remembered for is providing a safe haven for subjects with cushy questions.

Indeed, Koppel's incisive interviews have become a trademark of the show, which started in 1980 as an outgrowth of ABC's coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. The list of those who have felt the lash of his pointed questioning is long - from former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown during Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, to a Serbian man in 1999 who heard the anchor denounce his response to a question about atrocities in Kosovo as B.S.

"Actually, I don't know if if you can use it in a family newspaper, but I never said B.S., I said b---s---," Koppel corrected with pride. "And twice in one interview, as I recall. And we put it on air without bleeping it. "Koppel's gone, no more b---s---'; there's your headline."

Modest as Koppel can be sometimes, he has a clear strategy in conducting interviews. One of them involves concern for how he comes across - not with interview subjects, but with viewers.

"He's said (in tough interviews) you have to be conscious of what the audience is thinking . . . you can attack too soon . . . (and) if you do that, you'll lose their allegiance," said Tom Rosenstiel, head of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "He (didn't) want to let people get off the hook, but he also didn't want to appear so rude he was offending the audience."

Those who know the industry say that unique mix of confidence, in-your-face honesty and penetrating intelligence has set Koppel apart from his TV anchor colleagues.

"In this age of media-savvy viewers, they appreciate when someone is being genuine or not being put on . . . (and) there's nothing put-on about Ted Koppel," said Jeff Puffer, who coaches anchors and TV reporters at the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. "He may not be Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, but he's being genuine. It's the old notion that you cast the actors for the play and not vice versa, and Ted Koppel is well cast for the play that he's enacting."

Marc Gunther, a reporter for Fortune magazine who wrote the 1994 book The House that Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News, said Koppel never had the same overarching drive and insecurities of his co-workers - including Good Morning America host Diane Sawyer and the late Peter Jennings, who was anchor of World News Tonight.

"Ted is a genuinely secure person who is comfortable in his own skin - which has given him a tremendous advantage at ABC News," Gunther said. "With his wife, he negotiated his own contracts, and he was often as interested in time off to spend with his wife and his kids than face time (on camera). In an odd way, he intimidated the people he was working for (because) . . . he didn't feel he ever needed the job."

That resolve was tested in recent years, as it became obvious ABC was reconsidering what to do with Nightline's time slot. Five years ago, Koppel said he worked out a deal to transition out of the show for backup anchor Chris Bury and executive producer Leroy Sievers.

But in 2002, word leaked that ABC executives had attempted to woo late-night talk show host David Letterman from CBS. And even though an avalanche of negative publicity helped convince Letterman not to jump networks and be the guy who killed Nightline, ABC News president David Westin soon presented Koppel with plans to expand the show into an hourlong program aired live weeknights.

"I think David knew that was a non-starter for me," said Koppel, who was hosting the show about three nights a week and had often resisted regularly hosting live. "I'll be cheering from the sidelines."

Sievers, who quit the show a year ago, said one comment from a meeting with an ABC executive stuck with him.

"I was told that people like to go to bed happy and "You're not letting them go to bed happy,"' said Sievers, who spent 14 years at the show. "The Letterman thing was a shock and a wake-up call, (because) we always thought we were masters of our own fate. We were doing what we thought was the best that we could do . . . (but) that episode led us to realize that probably wasn't enough. It was a little like being told, "You really are adopted and your parents really don't love you."'

Over the years, Nightline mostly tackled a single subject in-depth each night, covering everything from apartheid in South Africa to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War and atrocities in Rwanda. The atmosphere at the show was so egalitarian that Sievers fondly remembered Koppel pulling him aside after six months to tell him, "You don't disagree with me enough."

What bothers Sievers now, years later, is the sense that viewers appreciated the show more than they watched it.

"We got to be like PBS," he added. "People like to know it's there. But that doesn't mean they always watch it."

Boosting Nightline's viewership is a key goal for new executive producer James Goldstone, who moved the show's headquarters from Washington D.C. to ABC's glitzy Times Square studios, he has drafted three new anchors: former White House correspondent Terry Moran, former legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden and the lead reporter from the infamous Living With Michael Jackson documentary, Martin Bashir.

Offering several topics each night, the new Nightline debuts Nov. 28 with Moran reporting from Baghdad for a week. The second week will feature reports on the war from the home front, and each broadcast will end with a wry item dubbed the "Sign of the Times."

Eventually, Moran will anchor from Washington D.C., while Bashir and McFadden stay in New York. Goldstone predicts those who expect a deluge of dumbed-down news will be disappointed.

"Much of what we're doing with the show is a back to the future (approach)," he said. "The show will be live as it once was live, and the concentration on getting big, impactful journalism, as the show always has. Nightline remains the ultimate blue-chip brand name. ... It's an amazing heritage, and we'll do everything to respect that and build upon it."

But others look at the changes already planned - moving the once-independent show to ABC News' New York base, featuring multiple anchors and multiple stories like many other network newsmagazines - and wonder if ABC isn't playing to lose.

Jeff Alan, who co-wrote Anchoring America, a history of network TV anchors, said ABC might find it easier to cancel a failed Nightline revamp than the classic, Koppel-hosted version.

"They could put an entertainment show in there and make a gazillion dollars," Alan said. "Nightline is a great news show, and it would be a shame to see it go away. ... (But) the networks are still chasing these elusive younger viewers who are growing up with technology, getting more news off the Internet and cell phones."

Koppel has chosen to say goodbye on a curious note, avoiding a retrospective show to focus on Morrie Schwartz, the former Brandeis University professor whose death from Lou Gehrig's disease - and touching interviews on Nightline - inspired former student Mitch Albom to write the best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie. (He won't ask Albom about the recent controversy in which he wrote a detailed column describing two pro athletes attending a college basketball game that they actually missed.)

"By now people should know what I've done. . . . It's kind of late to be saying, "In case you missed the last 26 years . . ."' said Koppel, explaining his resistance to an on-air retrospective. "(Our) most requested DVD or VCR was the series that I did with Morrie. It just struck all of us working on the show, that if you're going to do a last broadcast . . . it might appropriately be something that everybody cares about."

Born Edward James Koppel in England, he moved to America at age 13, becoming a citizen in 1963 - the same year he married attorney Grace Anne Dorney and became ABC News' youngest reporter. Installed at Nightline after nine years as the network's chief diplomatic correspondent, Koppel has weathered criticism he favors establishment power brokers (especially friend Henry Kissinger) while racking up scores of journalism awards.

He shrugs off talk of the End of an Era in news anchoring ("People said the same thing when Tom Brokaw replaced John Chancellor"), journalism scandals such as Dan Rather's Memogate ("He got caught in the meat grinder between national politics and network politics"), and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's on-air emotionalism ("It might play well now, it ain't gonna play that well 10 years from now").

He also won't say what his next jobs will be - refusing to address rumors he and longtime producer Tom Bettag are heading to HBO's documentary unit, while assuring a persistent interviewer he'll be doing more than one thing after Nightline.

"I don't think people should notice journalists too much," Koppel said, when asked about the moment in a recent Nightline story when a Katrina survivor looked up from her flooded home and shouted his name.

"It's hard not to do when you're anchoring a television program, because there's a certain amount of show biz and notoriety that goes with it," he added. "But ideally . . . the story should be at the center of what we're doing. The people we're interviewing should be at the center."

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimesphotos.com/blogs/media