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Ted Koppel, Seattle, Elian and the Day I Lost Faith in Television News, 1999

By M.A. Nystrom
Man on the Street in (the Republic of) China
April 11, 2004

1. Introduction

Since Ted Koppel announced that he is leaving ABC and his long-running, late night news program "Nightline," journalists have been coming out of the woodwork to eulogize Koppel as the last of a kind — a bona fide serious journalist in an era of handsome-but-empty, slick-talking bubbleheads, not afraid to focus on a controversial story and ask the tough questions.

It is true that in the early years, Koppel managed to cover interesting stories from fresh perspectives, explore depths not possible on the six-o'clock news, and to capture an audience in rapt attention without screaming, yelling or otherwise making an ass of himself or his guests. Because of this, Nightline effortlessly captured a big audience in spite of going head to head with the always popular but ever vapid late night comics. And because of this, I was a longtime fan of Nightline and Koppel.

But somewhere along the way, Koppel and Nightline jumped the shark, and their ratings declined dramatically as a result. This story tells one reason why. This is the story of the day I lost faith in Ted, Nightline and TV news in general, and how it happened.

2. Ted, Dad and Me

I was in the sixth grade when "America Held Hostage", hosted by Ted Koppel, made its debut during the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis. It was during this national crisis in my formative years that watching late night news became a sort of tradition for my Dad and I. In the days before the internet and cable TV, "America Held Hostage" was the best, most in-depth source of the latest news and analysis on subject. When the crisis finally ended and the series morphed into Nightline with Koppel at the helm, the tradition of winding down the day by discussing the day's big news with Ted, Dad and me continued.

It wasn't like we were TV zombies, and we didn't watch Nightline every night. But whenever there was a big story - the shooting of the Pope, the stock market crash, or the fall of the Berlin wall, for example - we looked forward to the take that Ted and Nightline would have. Even as a pre-teen, I was already beginning to have my doubts about the quality of television news, but in my mind, Ted was different.

At 12, I had already begun to notice the repetition, sensationalism and lack of substance of local broadcast news. Back in those days, Seattle was still a small town that rarely made the national news, but one winter there was a particularly bad snowstorm that shut the whole city down. That meant no school, playing in the snow, and staying warm indoors - an all around happy, special day. It just so happened that one of the local news stations captured video of a big old boat shed on Lake Union collapsing under the weight of the snow. No one was injured, but for the rest of the evening the footage was replayed, over and over on the local news. So spectacular a sight it was that the footage even made the national news, which talked of the "blizzard" in Seattle.

The problem, I realized, in my not-so-naive, pre-teen brain was that the footage was not really representative of what had happened in Seattle. Could you really call these big, wet, peaceful falling flakes of snow a blizzard? And sure, a building collapsed, but what about all the others that managed to stay up, heroically supporting the weight of the snow on their roofs? And what about all the sledding, snowball fights and grand snowmen that were built on that day? Wasn't that more newsworthy in the end? "Kids Have Fun on Snow Day in Seattle," is what I thought the news should have said.

3. WTO in Seattle

In spite of my growing concerns about the quality of news, there was still Nightline and there was still Ted, a news anchor I trusted above all others and who was in my mind beyond reproach. Then came a crisp clear autumn day in Seattle, November 30, 1999 that changed everything. The WTO had come to Seattle to hold its Ministerial meetings and a swarm of protestors from around the world had come to greet them. I arrived downtown in mid morning to a scene that I had never before witnessed in person.

I am a child of the sixties, literally born in one of the most tumultuous years in modern U.S. history, 1968. It was a year of social unrest, riots, assassinations, and huge protests against the government. The year that rocked the world, according to one author.* But by the time I'd come of age, the sixties were over, the hippies were history, and the protests were gone. I read a lot about the 60's and romanticized that period, which is why the scene in Downtown Seattle that day rocked my world. It was like the 60's all over again! The streets had become a sea of people, stretching out in all directions as far as the eye could see, singing, chanting, waving signs, protesting peacefully and dancing in the streets. On the other sides of barricades, mounted police and officers in full riot gear patrolled the borders. I met friends, neighbors, and co-workers that I didn't know would be coming to the rally, and we shared information, laughs and our concerns about what was happening in the world. The day was sunny but crisp and our breath came out in white clouds, and mingled hanging in the air. It was the largest single assemblage of people I had seen, save perhaps for a Seahawks game, and the experience was all new and exhilarating to me.

The protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, and the majority of participants exercised a total respect for the rule of law. The storefront plate glass windows of Starbucks and McDonalds had already been smashed by the time I arrived on the scene, but there was no organized violence or looting. As the day wore on, there were occasional, isolated sparks of violence. Some protesters chose to challenge the police lines and were dealt with forcefully. A few garbage cans were overturned, and fires set in the streets. In the early evening, a group of about 10 sweatshirt-wearing, hooded troublemakers went about trying to kick in the windows of Nike Town and Nordstrom. But an even larger group of peaceful protesters joined hands, placing themselves between the troublemakers and the buildings chanting, "non-violent protest?on-violent protest." Overall, it was a peaceful day.

Information was passed through the crowd that Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had declared a curfew, that the streets were to be cleared by nightfall. A curfew! In an American city and not during wartime! This was unprecedented - such things simply didn't happen, not in America, not in 1999.

4. Elian Gonzalez and The Day I Lost Faith in Television News, 1999

Night was falling as I made my way through the downtown core to the outskirts where the busses were still running. As I walked briskly through the chilly autumn air, I thought about what it all meant, and couldn't wait to hear the take that Nightline would have on it. I imagined the different angles he could talk about - why there were 50,000 people in the streets protesting - it had to be the biggest protest in a US city since - since when? The 60's? And a curfew - when was the last time a curfew had been instituted in an American city? And the meetings themselves - some of them had been shut down because the delegates couldn't move through the streets! What was the take from the inside? These were all burning questions I had about the day and I couldn't wait to hear the answers. There was no doubt in my mind that this would be Nightline's topic. When I arrived at my Dad's house, I told him breathlessly of the day of protests in the streets. The local news was on, and I was dismayed at the portrayal of "Violence in the streets tonight in Seattle?

At 11:30, my dad and I were positioned in front of the TV, waiting expectantly to hear the take that Nightline would have. The program began. The top story was . . . Elian Gonzalez.

Elian Gonzalez?

Surely you remember Elian, the Cuban boy who had been plucked from the sea by the US Coast Guard only to immediately become an international political football.

There is no question that the story of Elian was a tragedy. But was it a bigger story than the WTO protests?

No.

So what was going on?

It must be a mistake.

Are we on the right channel?

This was a human-interest story of the kind shown when there are no big stories to report on. So what was going on? There was clearly a huge story to cover. It felt to me like a news blackout. It felt like I was transported from the 60's straight to George Orwell's 1984.

For the rest of the week, the protests continued in Seattle, and for the rest of the week, Nightline ignored them and focused on the story of Elian. This was my final break with broadcast media. By the end of the week, my faith in Ted, Nightline and TV news had been completely shattered.

5. Turn Off the TV and Think!

Over the ensuing weeks and months, the story of Elian grew bigger and bigger, into an ‘international diplomatic row' but I couldn't help the feeling that it was manufactured to shift the attention of the nation away from issues of real importance. That's when I stopped paying attention to the content of TV news and began wondering about its real purpose.

Broadcast media is simply that - a narrow-minded monologue designed for minimum reflection and maximum commercial exploitation. Unfortunately, the busy, stressed out modern lives that most of us lead today have caused us to outsource one of our most important responsibilities - thinking. And worse yet, we handed it over to the media in the belief that they were part of us, here to serve us, and would therefore look out for our best interests. Nothing could be further from the truth, for in fact the masses simply represent streams of revenue and the potential to ‘harvest' profits though the marketing of useless goods to hypnotized "consumers."

In my conversations with people, I have found frustration that there is little opportunity for the discussion of diverse viewpoints. Our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must be exercised lest they be lost. We needn't merely demand answers to the tough questions, we must take responsibility to provide them ourselves. We needn't wait for media talking heads to interpret the news for us. Like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, we have brains of our own, it's just that we forget to turn off the TV long enough to remember to use them. The two major political parties have, unfortunately, come un-tethered from reality, no longer representing the interests of the citizens they have been entrusted to serve. The political process is drifting down the dead end street of "he-said/she-said" partisan politics in which one side must be invalidated, chagrined and destroyed in order for the other side to ‘win', score points and look good. The essence of debate and the spirit of the search for truth have been all but lost. If this trend continues, we will all lose in the end.

6. Conclusion

Maybe this is why Ted Koppel is leaving ABC and Nightline. An interesting fact about his departure is that even though he's been in broadcast media for 42 years, he has made it clear that he is not retiring. I like to think that he is a man of integrity, justice and honor, but is finding it increasingly difficult to express those values in the every tightening noose of broadcast media.

I have thought about the Elian episode of Nightline on the night of the WTO many times over the last several years, and wondered just what happened in the newsroom on that day. "Say it ain't so, Ted" is what I always think.

Maybe one day we'll hear the truth. If Ted is not retiring, maybe we will see what a man of his stature and integrity might do outside the bounds of tightly constricted, corporate news.

* 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World, by MARK KURLANSKY

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