In his 34 years at ABC News, Ted Koppel has upheld the highest principles of professionalism and independence and has been a standard-bearer for press freedom worldwide. Landmark broadcasts from Israel and South Africa are prominent examples of the critical role that frank, independent hard-hitting journalism can play in societies where such practice has been rare or suppressed.
Koppel’s signature program, “Nightline” is one of the few serious broadcast news forums providing daily indepth coverage of events and issues in countries around the world where the press is under attack or constraint, from Bosnia, to Russia, to the Middle East to China. “Nightline” has helped bring understanding where enmity long ruled. In South Africa, he brought black people and white people together in a publicly televised open forum for the first time.
In Israel, Koppel’s presentation of Arabs and Israelis on the same stage for the first time was more than a symbolic breakthrough in prospects for peace. In extensive coverage of the Chinese student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and subsequent mass killings and repression, Koppel demonstrated the benefits of a free press in a society where they are unknown.
Ted Koppel has refused to underestimate the public’s capacity for analytical news coverage. In defiance of conventional wisdom, he has brought hard reporting, tough interviewing, and serious debate to television and shown that press freedom is essential to an informed and educated public.
The following are Ted Koppel’s remarks upon receiving the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for distinguished achievement in the cause of press freedom. The award honors the late CBS News senior producer and former CPJ chairman, who died in 1988.
What I have to say doesn’t require a great deal of elaboration. It looms inescapably before us. It is as clear as them and us. They function, when they can, at the risk of their freedom and often their lives. Many of my friends and colleagues here this evening have worked in dangerous places and have certainly taken risks; but the danger has rarely if ever come from our own government. The risks we took tended to be overseas. We could always come home.
And yet, in some respects, journalism in America today may be in greater peril than in some of the more obviously dangerous places that are so clearly inhospitable to our profession. We celebrate tonight the men and women whose dedication to the collection and distribution of facts threatens their very existence. When they antagonize those with money, political power and guns, they risk their lives. We, on the other hand, tremble at nothing quite so much as the thought of boring our audiences. Antagonizing the rich and powerful is our bread and butter. Far from involving any great risk to our safety, it is one of the more reliable paths to professional advancement. The preferred weapons of the rich and powerful here in America are the pollster and the public relations consultant. But they are no threat to the safety of journalists. Our enemies are far more insidious than that. They are declining advertising revenues, the rising cost of newsprint, lower ratings, diversification, and the vertical integration of communications empires. They are the breezier, chattier styles insinuating themselves onto the front pages of our more distinguished newspapers. They are the fading lines between television news and entertainment.
There is, after all, a haunting paradox in the notion that, even as we honor Christine and Ying and Viktor and Yelena and Freedom Neruda for “risking personal and political peril in upholding the highest standards of their profession,” their own stories and the stories they cover are increasingly unlikely to lead any of our broadcasts or appear on any of our front pages. We celebrate their courage even as we exhibit increasingly little of our own. It is not death, or torture or imprisonment that threatens us as American journalists, it is the trivialization of our industry. We are free to write and report whatever we believe is important. But if what is important does not appeal to the reading or viewing appetites of our consumers, we’ll give them something that does. No one is holding a gun to our heads. No one lies awake at night, dreading a knock on the door. We believe it to be sufficient excuse that “we are giving the public what it wants.”
We have the responsibility to do more: To focus on foreign events and to explain to the American public how and why those events have an impact on us. To resist and reject the comfortable illustion that Americans don’t care about what’s happening overseas. They don’t care only because they’ve been lulled into believing that what happens overseas will have no real impact on their own lives. We need to help our readers and viewers find their way through the blankets of fog laid down by spin doctors and press secretaries, media advisers and public affairs officers. We react too much and anticipate too little. We struggle to be first with the obvious. The more important events of the last couple of years have not been the OJ Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana.
We have more tools at our disposal and we are more skillful at applying them than any previous generation of journalists. But we’re afraid of the competition; afraid of earning less money; afraid of losing our audience. They face death and torture and imprisonment; and we are afraid.
That cannot continue to be the case. Those of you assembled here tonight are the very best of our profession. You cannot allow that to continue to be the case. Because it is only when each of us accepts the challenge to reinvigorate what we do with a genuine sense of mission that we can sustain the hope that American journalism will remain a shining example to the rest of the world.
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