Attacks on the Press 2003: Preface

By Ted Koppel

This is not a good day. As I write, pop star Michael Jackson has been arrested for allegedly engaging in sexual misconduct with a minor. His residence cum theme park, “Neverland,” has been invaded by police, sheriff’s deputies, and a team of forensic specialists.

I am not empathizing with Michael Jackson, although this is clearly anything but a good day for him. Instead, I’m feeling helpless; hoist, as I am, on my own petard. I once observed, before many witnesses, that simply because the entire country is obsessed with a given event is insufficient reason for “Nightline” to avoid that story. Several of my colleagues have reminded me of what I said, and so, tonight, we will do the Michael Jackson story, even though there is plenty of other news to cover from around the country and the world.

“Nightline’s” ratings will go up tonight, and we are conscious of our ratings, because ratings mean advertisers, advertisers mean money, and money means survival. But not the kind of survival that preoccupies our colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Unlike local journalists in places such as Bangladesh, Haiti, Russia, and Eritrea, we have no reason to fear execution, torture, or imprisonment. Or unlike our colleagues who remain in Iraq and face danger at every turn, an angry phone call from our publisher or corporate owner about a critical story is about as serious a consequence as any of us working in the United States is likely to experience.

Over the course of more than 40 years, I have had the opportunity to practice our trade in over 80 countries. It has been my observation that, generally speaking, there are only three broad categories or systems in or under which journalism or some facsimile thereof operates: Theocracies, like Iran; political dictatorships, like North Korea; and the democratic/market system, like the United States. Clearly, gradations exist within each of these categories; sometimes even combinations. Whatever the failings of the market system, it is without question the most benevolent and the most tolerant of the lot.
It still produces the best journalism in the world–but not necessarily the
best journalists.

Unfortunately, in the United States, we have been conditioned, however subtly, to apply dramatic and commercial standards to our journalism. As one who has adapted to those standards, I sometimes wonder if I could function in a more threatening environment–one in which survival and freedom are constantly at stake.

One might think that freedom from physical fear would create the most robust kind of journalism; and indeed, there are still many fine examples that flourish. On the whole, however, we American journalists are a flaccid lot–too susceptible by far to the siren calls of circulation and advertising dollars. The U.S. system reduces the incentive for tough reporting on complex subjects by rewarding glittering mediocrity and bombastic banality. Our 24-7 cable news networks are, too often, in a breathless race to be first with the obvious; and we at the broadcasting networks often pant along on the same track. In the face of freedom, we have grown lazy and timid, while many of our colleagues who operate under totalitarian regimes continue to humble us by their example.

And so, if we are going to measure ourselves against those of our colleagues who operate in a police state or under the scrutiny of religious enforcers, we will have to grade on a curve because reporting in countries like Cuba or the Philippines carries a greater degree of difficulty than it does in the United States. And in turn, we must salute the local journalists in such dangerous places who have the courage and ingenuity to penetrate the restraints of their environment and endure hardship, violence, and deprivation to bring news and information to light.

Ted Koppel is anchor and managing editor of ABC News’ “Nightline.”