The Ted Koppel I knew

He was a fine journalist and a decent man  but to stay atop journalism's establishment, even he had to make a deal with the devil.

Published November 23, 2005 9:45PM (EST)

Ted Koppel's retirement in the midst of Plamegate focuses attention on the most pressing issue facing American journalism: its abdication of its responsibility to expose government wrongdoing and lies. It is critical to raise our sights above the minutiae of Plamegate -- what Miller, Cheney, Woodward, Libby, Sulzberger, Cooper, Rove, Russert, Novak and Downie said to each other and when -- to the real issue involved: how democracy is weakened when journalists trade access to high officials in return for direct or indirect support of governmental misdeeds.

The media is particularly critical to democracy at a time like today, when one party and ideology controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Without a media critical of government, America democracy simply ceases to exist -- as occurred when the Bush administration took this nation to war in Iraq by distorting the information it had about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Dana Priest deserves a Pulitzer for revealing the existence of CIA-run secret prisons. Judy Miller was a mouthpiece, turning out biased reporting that was fatally dependent on administration sources pursuing their own agenda. Nicholas Kristof was a real reporter when he quoted Joseph Wilson refuting administration lies on Niger. Robert Novak was no more a journalist than a Pravda correspondent when he transmitted slimy administration attacks on Wilson. Tim Russert is a hack when he throws softball questions at high government officials like Donald Rumsfeld, while mercilessly bullying the few antiwar figures he allows on his show such as Dennis Kucinich. Bob Woodward was a hero for his role in Watergate. He was a shameless opportunist when, in return for access to inside information, he portrayed President Bush as an in-charge leader in "Bush at War" -- a portrait that was convincingly debunked by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who had actual knowledge of our clueless, disengaged and in-over-his-head president.

No one symbolizes the dilemma of establishment journalism more than Ted Koppel, one of America's most honorable and well-respected journalists -- and an unusually decent human being as well. Koppel has done an admirable job for 25 years now of providing in-depth, original and creative coverage of world events from his perch at "Nightline." His job, however, has required maintaining the goodwill of the powerful -- a fact most dramatically illustrated by his 30-plus-year friendship with Henry Kissinger, which continues to the present day. Ted Koppel knew firsthand about Kissinger's war crimes in Indochina. But even this decent man felt he had to turn a blind eye to Kissinger's actions to maintain his powerful position. It is a dramatic illustration of how the incestuous relationship between major journalists and government officials is one of the key structural and fundamental flaws in both our media and democracy.

I spent a week with Ted Koppel back in 1970. He was an ABC News correspondent for Southeast Asia, based in Hong Kong, and was visiting Laos for a series of stories. He hired me to be his interpreter, guide and resident expert. We spent most of a week together, doing stories on refugees from American bombing, CIA support of the Meo army, and the politics of the Laotian war.

During this period I worked and regularly interacted with correspondents from all the major media -- CBS, NBC, Time, the Washington Post, the Jack Anderson column, the L.A. Times, AP, UPI, Newsweek. It was clear to me from the start that Ted, whom I hadn't known from a hole in the wall before our week together, was a cut above the rest.

To begin with, he had charisma, good humor and an unusual mix of professionalism and human decency. The other journalists tended to spend their evenings getting drunk, trading office gossip, and/or chasing women at Laos' over-the-top bars and whorehouses, the most notorious in Southeast Asia. Ted was always busy writing, doing radio feeds or boning up on some of the books and articles I gave him. He was serious and genuinely interested in learning about the war in Laos: the CIA, the tribal wars, the government corruption, the guerrillas, the bombing.

What struck me most, though, was what occurred when I took him out to the refugee camps to interview peasants who had escaped the mass U.S. bombing that was even then daily murdering innocent rice farmers who had been left behind. I had taken dozens of newspeople and peace activists out to the camps in this period, and Ted had a more genuinely human response to the horror than almost any of the others. He was shaken up, touched and moved. Most of the other journalists saw the refugees as just one more "story." Ted saw them as the innocents they were: kind, decent human beings who had escaped mass murder no more justified than Hitler's against the Jews. He cared about them, and he cared that the bombing was continuing, killing more innocents daily.

He put together some moving pieces on the bombing for ABC News, which I remember stood out both for the feeling he put into them, and the hard-hitting nature of his narrative.

His response was of a piece with his basic one-on-one decency. Most of the other reporters just saw me as a hired hand, and after a week of hearing me rail against U.S. war crimes were pleased to terminate our relationship. I remember well how, on our last night together, Ted took more than an hour to teach me how to do radio feeds for ABC News. He cared about me as an individual, was concerned at my lack of money, and went out of his way to ensure I could make some extra income. I remembered his decency when I read some years later that he had stopped working as a journalist for several years to take care of his kids so that his wife could pursue her graduate degree.

A few years after working with Ted in Laos, I returned to Washington to direct the Indochina Resource Center, which sought to end U.S. bombing and other military involvement in Indochina. By 1973 one of our main targets was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had directed a huge expansion of secret U.S. bombing into Laos and Cambodia after 1969, in a cynical attempt to avoid blame for losing the war, without taking any care whatsoever to avoid the mass murder of civilian villagers. I knew by then that Kissinger was more responsible than any other individual except President Nixon for the murder of innocents in Indochina, and would have been executed had the Nuremberg precedent for protection of civilian populations been applied to U.S. leaders. (I discussed Kissingers role in a 2001 Salon article, "Wanted: If Henry Kissinger isn't guilty of war crimes, no one is."

Ted was at that time the State Department correspondent for ABC News, and I decided to call him for lunch to talk about the six-month trip to Indochina I had just returned from -- particularly the new evidence I had amassed that the ongoing Kissinger-led bombing in Cambodia was continuing to murder civilians. Although I realized that Ted had to be circumspect regarding Kissinger's culpability for the war crimes that he had observed on the ground in Laos, I assumed we'd be in as much agreement on the horror as we had been in Indochina, and hoped he might do some stories on my new findings. I still remember the friendliness and warmth of Ted's jovial greeting when I called him up for lunch, and my awe as I entered the beautiful State Department restaurant, filled with important domestic and international dignitaries.

After 15 minutes or so of pleasantries and reminiscences, I brought up the flattering book on Kissinger that had just been published by the brothers Marvin and Bernard Kalb, who worked for NBC and CBS News respectively. Everyone I knew had been outraged by the book, which was a typical establishment journalist suck-up to Kissinger, praising him for his successes and avoiding even a mention of the mass murder that he was even then continuing to conduct. I was particularly annoyed because I had worked with Bernie Kalb as closely as I had with Ted, and Bernie also knew full well of Kissinger's responsibility for what was occurring.

I said something like "Can you believe that garbage by the Kalb brothers?" To my utter amazement, Ted suddenly drew back and said, in what was to be known years later as his full-throated "Nightline" "Voice of God": "I'll have you know that Marvin Kalb is a close personal friend of mine. And so is Dr. Kissinger, for that matter!" Ted was clearly offended, and our luncheon went downhill from there. Shocked, I tried to remind him of Kissinger's war crimes, which he had personally witnessed just a few years ago. He refused to discuss it. I tried to turn the conversation to my new findings on the ongoing bombing of civilians. He wasn't interested. We parted, not to talk again for 30 years.

I realized at the time that it was not Ted who had changed, but his institutional role. In Indochina, on the ground, face-to-face with the refugees, he had been a truth-seeking foreign correspondent. Assigned to cover Kissinger back in Washington, depending upon him for information, susceptible to the secretarys flattery and manipulations, he had become a card-carrying member of the journalistic establishment.

On Oct. 22, 2004, the N.Y. Times published an article (must be Times Select member) titled "In Calls to Kissinger, Reporters Show That Even They Fell Under Super-K's Spell," about 3,200 transcripts of phone conversations between journalists and Kissinger. "Reporters assumed the admiration and affection they expressed for Mr. Kissinger over the telephone would remain private. What they did not know was that he was having a secretary listen in and take down every word," the Times reported. Slate's Jack Shafer also reported on the love-fest between Kissinger and elite journalists.

Ted Koppel was one of those expressing what the Times called his "chumminess" with Mr. Kissinger. "It has been an extraordinary three years for me, and I have enjoyed it immensely. You are an intriguing man, and if I had a teacher like you earlier I might not have been so cynical," Koppel said. "You have been a good friend," Kissinger replied. Koppel ended by saying, "We are lucky to have had you."

To his credit, when interviewed for the story, Ted Koppel told it like it was. "Am I shocked by the notion that people were sucking up to a very powerful official they relied on for information? ... Frankly, no." David Binder, a reporter for 43 years with the N.Y. Times , was even more to the point: "The negative is that if you become too close to a guy you're covering, you become his spokesman."

It is not difficult to understand why reporters "suck up" to powerful officials, and become their "spokesmen." It is not only that official information is critical to getting a story on the TV evening news, newspaper front page, or into a bestseller. It is that the government official in question might give the information to a rival covering the same beat, the single biggest threat to a newsperson's career.

For let us remember: Reporters and officials are not merely flattering each other for the fun of it. They are trading information, the oil of Washington, a commodity that brings careers, money, Pulitzers, influence and fame to reporters, and political support to government officials to exercise the power they so enjoy. Information is literally power: the power to kill, the power to heal, the power to become rich. For all of the surface camaraderie and talk of "friendship," it is a deadly serious business.

And being a "good friend" to Henry Kissinger meant turning a blind eye to misdeeds and atrocities. Throughout Ted's tenure at the State Department, as we have noted, Mr. Kissinger was conducting mass murder of civilians in Laos and Cambodia on a daily basis, overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile, and conducting a wide variety of other illegal and duplicitous acts. One of the key factors giving him a free hand to conduct these crimes of war was the flattering coverage given him by major journalists, and their refusal to regularly report on his violations of the Nuremberg precedent and other laws of war.

In saying this, it is important not to demonize Ted. He was, and is, a decent human being, as evidenced by his making the moving story of the dying Morrie Schwartz his last "Nightline" broadcast. And although he is not identified with a major scoop that exposed government wrongdoing and lies among his thousands of shows since 1980, he has done more than his share of demanding accountability from government officials and allowing critical voices  although rarely ones outside the accepted parameters of national discourse -- on his broadcasts. In recent years, his reading the names of all the Americans killed in Iraq was a major contribution.

It is true that "Nightline" did no better than the rest of the media in exposing the administrations lies about weapons of mass destruction, and Ted indirectly skewed coverage by embedding himself with our troops rather than providing ongoing coverage on the civilians we killed during those same months. But he behaved more honorably than most of the American media.

And that is the point. The issue isn't Ted himself but what he symbolizes: the institutional and structural corruption of an American media that has chosen to define "news" primarily as the information it receives from American officials, and which has traded a critical and independent stance for "access" to powerful figures. As long as the TV lead and Page One stories primarily come, directly or indirectly, from government officials, and as long as critics and dissenting information are ignored or relegated to page A18, Ted Koppel will be the best we get.

Perhaps the most revealing story I know about Ted comes from a young friend of mine who sought his advice about changing careers in Washington, D.C. Ted, in his typically gracious fashion, granted him a private talk. My friend explained that he had had a successful career running a nonprofit group, but was turned off by the lies and deceit he had found. What did Ted think he should do? he asked. Ted answered that he didn't know whether my friends ethical concerns were sincere, or if he was just looking for a job in journalism. If the latter, he seemed like a bright young guy, and Ted would consider helping him out. But if he was sincere, Ted advised, he should get out of Washington immediately. Ted then went on a rant for 15 minutes excoriating the officials he dealt with on a daily basis as liars, deceivers and hypocrites. My friend could not have a decent life and remain human so long as he remained in D.C., Ted explained. He should leave.

I talked to Ted for the first time in 30 years last March to urge him to do a "Nightline" story on April 30, the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. I suggested he consider returning to Laos, and reinterviewing some of the refugees from the U.S. bombing the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, as we had in 1970. I suggested it would add to the human interest to go with a young Laotian-American woman, Channapha Khamvongsa, who had recently started a "Legacies of War" project after being shocked to learn that even she, a Laotian, had not known of the bombing.

If "Nightline" would not remember the millions of innocents we had killed out there, I asked, who would? Wasn't it important for the sake of history, and younger generations of Americans, to at least be reminded once that our country is capable of so great an evil? "I don't do anniversary shows," Ted responded coldly. And he did not respond to the mailing I later sent him on what such a show might look like.

But Ted did respond to one point: He confirmed the thrust of what he had told my young friend about his attitude toward Washington. "I don't remember the specific incident, but it sounds about right," he said after I asked whether he had really told my friend to flee D.C.'s corruption if he wanted to remain a decent human being.

As a devotee of "Nightline," I am happy Ted didn't take his own advice. But I'm sorry for him on a personal level that he did not. I dont understand how he can so publicly bask in the approval of government officials he has such private contempt for. And I can only hope that now, as the dean of American TV journalists, that he will do more to safeguard our democracy by becoming the kind of journalist that America really needs.

For let us be clear. The American media will not be changed from within by Plamegate. Woodward will still write his bestsellers. Hundreds of newspapers around the nation will continue to run Robert Novak's columns. Tim Russert will continue to be at the feet of the powerful and at the throat of the weak. And it is only a matter of time before the next ambitious and unprincipled Judy Miller, who won a shared Pulitzer and a severance package reported to be as high as $3 million through decades of reliance on government distortions and favor-trading, rises to the top of the journalistic heap.

Real change will occur only if and when the public understands the media's institutional and structural shortcomings, and demands a revolution. Only then will the decent Ted Koppels of the future not have to compromise their basic values to do their jobs.

By Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at His Web site is

MORE FROM Fred Branfman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------