Koppel Criticizes Network News, Defends Meeting With Al Jazeera

Jan 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Facing reporters at the Television Critics Association’s press tour, former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel said his new position at Discovery Channel will allow him to explore smart and serious news topics, and he suggested that commercial networks such as his former ABC home are devaluing such coverage.

“What’s been happening over the past 20 years or so, with the advent of all the cable outlets, is the competition has become so fierce that all news divisions and all networks are focusing on particular segments of the audience, and with an emphasis on youthful demographics,” Mr. Koppel said. “News divisions are focusing on — not necessarily less serious stories — but staying away from some serious stories. That’s not a restriction we’re going to face here at Discovery Channel. … I think there is still a great deal of room for great news coverage on television. And if it isn’t going to be available at the commercial networks, I think we’ve found a home where it will be welcome.”

Added, Mr. Koppel’s longtime producer, Tom Bettag: “[Discovery told us] we want you to make very smart television. … It’s been a very long time since we heard a network talk that way.”

Last week Discovery announced that Mr. Koppel and Mr. Bettag are joining the network in a multiyear deal to develop a slate of long-form programming on major news topics.

In addition to discussing the state of network news Mr. Koppel also took a shot at the cable news channels.

“We don’t need 36 hours on some woman missing on a Caribbean island,” he said, referring to the disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalie Holloway in Aruba. “It is not as important as what’s going on in Iran. It’s not as important as some of the reasons we’re at war in Iraq.”

One critic grilled Mr. Koppel on his meeting with Arab news service Al Jazeera, which is launching a 24-hour English language network this spring. Yesterday, Al Jazeera announced it hired former “Nightline” correspondent Dave Marash.

Mr. Koppel defended Mr. Marash as being “honest as the day is long,” but also said, “I don’t think Tom and I entertained [joining the network] for 38 seconds.”

“I know it’s fashionable to look at Al Jazeera as a propaganda outlet for al-Qaida,” Mr. Koppel said. “It’s a huge step up from where the Arab world’s journalism was during the past 40 years.”

When asked if his meeting with the network might have been used for “propaganda purposes,” Mr. Koppel laughed. “I routinely meet with some of the nastiest people in the world,” he said. “I meet with terrorists and murderers behind bars.”