Death of news, Ted Koppel edition

Ted Koppel reached the zenith of his career as part of an effort to exploit the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.  Four days after Islamist thugs took over the US embassy in Tehran, Koppel set up shop in a 15-minute national ABC News broadcast which followed the local news.  It began with ominous music and the dread-inspiring words, intoned by Koppel, “AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE.  DAY 342…”

The crisis lasted so long, Koppel stayed on for 20 years or so.  The hostage crisis, it bin bery bery good to him.

Now he has returned to steal one of this blog’s signature lines.  Ostensibly, the subject is the media fuss surrounding the political donations of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, about which I have absolutely nothing to say.  In reality, Koppel wants to brood on the death of news.

To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.

On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.

Allow me to translate:  the atmosphere breathed by the titans of broadcast news was composed in equal parts of government compulsion and public indifference.

Koppel omits a third element:  information monopoly.  He was, after all, an odd-looking, bizarre-sounding man with no discernible expertise in Iran, hostage-taking, or foreign affairs.  ABC News just threw his face and voice at the crisis and sneered at the American public, “What are you going to do instead, read the blogs?”

His conceit is that he told us what we didn’t want to hear, whereas hacks like Olbermann just rant to the converted.  But again:  what were his qualifications to tell us anything?  What did we not hear, because of what he chose to talk about?  Where was he before the Iranian crisis exploded?

As long ago as 1922, Walter Lippmann knew that news only dealt with eruptive  events rather than their context or causes.  “Journalism” has always been in business to exploit, not  explain.  Keith Olbermann isn’t deep enough to have invented the shallow narrative.

In the petrified forest of Koppel’s mind, however, it is always 1979, and Keith Olbermann is a Ted Koppel who has sold his integrity for a bigger audience and the profits it brings.  The reality is that nobody watches MSNBC – Olbermann, the biggest draw, barely gets a million viewers in a country of 300 million.  On its worst nights, Koppel’s show did better.

Why?  Because it partook of a monopoly.  Where have all the viewers gone?  To other information platforms, every one.  The news are dying not because of a loss of integrity by newsmakers, but because the public has other options, and won’t necessarily put up with an odd-looking, bizarre-sounding man of no discernible talents just because the networks say so.

The public can now talk back.  Information now flows in a wide-open marketplace.  Industrially produced formats – what we have come to call “news” – are too expensive and unprofitable, add nothing of value to the information consumer, and will soon become extinct.

Look, I admit to a sneaking fondness for Koppel and his late-night horror show.  By making us perfectly safe stay-at-home Americans feel like we were bound and gagged by Iranian crazies, they pushed the country to get rid of Jimmy Carter, and – no doubt to Koppel’s dismay – assisted in the rise of Ronald Reagan.

Unintended consequences aside, the only difference between Koppel and Olbermann is the context of the marketplace.


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