BROOKE GLADSTONE: As has been widely noted, the events of September 11th snapped us into reality. Six minutes before the first plane hit World Trade Center Tower No. 1, CNN aired a segment called Huge Buzz Surrounds Designer Liz Lang's Maternity Wear. While most outlets were busy scrapping their lighter fare, ABC's Nightline had to put on hold a multi-part documentary about the situation in the Congo. It was a rare case of TV programming that was inappropriate for reasons other than being frivolous. It was also typical of Nightline.
The host of Nightline, Ted Koppel, joins us now. Welcome to the show.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Last week we had on Chris Kramer who's the head of CNN International, and he wrote an Op-Ed piece in Le Monde which said: The American networks have forgotten how to make international news interesting. Do you think it's that, or is it that generally the networks aren't encouraged to try?
TED KOPPEL: I think to a certain extent-- it's a function of-- economic imperative, and one of the easiest ways to cut back the budget is to take a look at what costs the most and produces the least, and I think that's been the, the main cause. Are, are the networks still capable of doing interesting stories from overseas? You bet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think Nightline is a niche TV show --that there's just not a core audience in America for more programs like yours?
TED KOPPEL:I don't know! I mean it, it clearly is a niche program; you know, I think by and large-- we do more serious programming than a lot of what gets on the magazine programs, for example. We would have been off the air a long time ago if we were in prime time, because our ratings would not have been high enough. At 11:30 at night they're just fine!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When we asked Don Hewitt about what should other news magazines do to achieve the stature of 60 Minutes he said they can't, because there's only one Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and so on; and he was happy that his show alone enjoyed that exalted status. Would you want a lot more shows that do essentially what your show does?
TED KOPPEL: I, I'm, I'm not sure! On the one hand I think it would be good if an audience would sit still for that kind of programming throughout other parts of the, of the programming day. On the other hand I'm a realist, and I know that if you had a program like Nightline and the series on the, the Eastern Congo for example up against West Wing or ER or whatever else is hot in programming right now-- what's that -- CBS program - the, the really big one with the people out on the-- out in the brush-- trying to--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Survivor?
TED KOPPEL:-- do each other in -- thank you - Survivor -I'm probably the only person in the Western World who has never watched it -- but if we were up against that, we would do very poorly! They would, they would kick our butts, I have no doubt of that!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You are the closest thing we have to a diplomat without portfolio in that you talk to more leaders than anyone not employed by the State Department. If they give you an answer you don't like, you go after them. When interviewing a Taliban official, have you ever had the impulse to pull back simply because you are an American and castigating the Taliban might not be in our national interest. Would you, for instance, ask General Musharraf about India's charge that the government of Pakistan is itself a sponsor of terrorism?
TED KOPPEL: Oh, sure! Why not? My function is not to go over there and either deliver a warning in behalf of my government or try to bring about some kind of a solution in behalf of my government. My function, and it - I think we're all well advised as journalists not to, not to forget that -- we don't operate as diplomats. I hate the term "television diplomacy" because it's an oxymoron. It doesn't exist.
I mean it, it sort of first came into popularity when Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite interviewed Sadat and Begin and, and there was sort of -- the world was left with the impression that they had arranged for these two men to meet together and that it never would have occurred to either one of those two guys that they could sit down and have a conversation if either Walter or Barbara hadn't mentioned it to them.
That's nonsense! That's not our function. It's not what we do. We're out there to get information. We're out there to tell the story to the American public in as clean and direct a fashion as we can. If we don't do that, we deserve to be criticized.
But we shouldn't be criticized for not being good diplomats. We're not supposed to be diplomats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now in the interview we just heard, David Halberstam said that whether the networks continue to cover the story the way it should be covered depends on the character of people like the head of your network, Michael Eisner. What do you think?
TED KOPPEL: Well let's, let's put it this way: over the past few weeks, and Michael Eisner and I have not spoken during that time and I don't know this from anyone inside Disney, but I think I read it in either Time or Newsweek the other day, that, that all of the, the 3 commercial networks lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 4, 500 million dollars -- each of them -- not collectively -- and probably before this thing is over, will have endured well over a billion dollars worth of losses in the interest of, of serving the public -- and therefore the notion that it can sustain losses of an additional few hundred million dollars every couple of months, I just don't think is realistic.
Are they continuing to say by all means go ahead and cover this story properly? Yes, they are! Is it costing them more money than it was costing them before? Yes, it is! Are they going to be able to do this indefinitely? No, they're not!
But fortunately I don't have to worry about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why not?
TED KOPPEL: Because I just keep coming in to work every day and, and taking home sacks of money at the end of every week which this generous [LAUGHTER] corporation gives me for, for being here every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted Koppel, thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
TED KOPPEL: Thank you. My pleasure. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted Koppel is the host of ABC's Nightline.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the show and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfortunately for the last few weeks we've had no access to our e-mail so we can't get back to you, but we will soon. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.