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Ted Koppel: One of America's most experienced and well-known journalists.

Feb 15, 2018 04:00PM
As one of America’s most experienced and well-known journalists, Ted Koppel has established himself as one of the most trusted names in journalism today. 

Hailing from Lancashire, England, Koppel established his career as an anchor and editor for ABC News, later becoming the anchor for television’s first late-night network news program, ABC’s Nightline from 1980-2005. During his run, Koppel became the longest serving news anchor in United States broadcast history. 

Having a career in both radio and television, Koppel has been recognized with a great deal of professional honors, including eight George Peabody awards, 11 duPont-Columbia Awards, and 42 Emmys. In 2012 he was named one of the “100 outstanding journalists in the United States in the last 100 years” by New York University. 

“This is something I wanted to do from the time I was a small boy. I truly cannot remember a time I didn’t want to be a journalist. If you think about it, at its most basic, you spend your day focusing on the most interesting thing going on, talking to the most interesting people, going to the most interesting place, and someone pays you to do that. That’s not a bad combination.”
– Ted Koppel

After a speech by Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, regarding the dangers of a cyber-attack, Koppel became so intrigued that in 2015 he published his own book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.” The book spent two weeks on the Nonfiction New York Times Best Sellers list. 

The Maryland resident has served as a news analyst for NPR and a contributing columnist for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s also a Senior Contributor to The CBS Sunday Morning Show

Catch this journalistic icon on Thursday, February 22nd, 7:30 p.m. at the Weinberg Center for the Arts as part of their Frederick Speaker Series. Tickets are $50–65

As someone in the field of journalism, this has always been something I wanted to do. What initially intrigued you about journalism and why did you take on the subject matter you did? What has been your key to success as a professional journalist?

This is something I wanted to do from the time I was a small boy. I truly cannot remember a time I didn’t want to be a journalist. If you think about it, at its most basic, you spend your day focusing on the most interesting thing going on, talking to the most interesting people, going to the most interesting place, and someone pays you to do that. That’s not a bad combination. 

I worked as a war correspondent and I’ve been interested in foreign affairs. I guess it’s a function of having been born and growing up in England and coming over here to the United States and still being interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world. It’s kind of nice to be able to pursue your interest and have someone else pay for it. 

It’s sort of a combination of good luck and good timing. And by the time the possibility for a program for Nightline came along, I had already been with ABC for 17 years and I covered an awful lot of stories raging from presidential campaigns to civil rights to working with and traveling with president Nixon to china, traveling with Henry Kissinger to the middle east. 

By time the hostage crisis happened, I had been working as a correspondent at the state department for eight years already. There was a natural intersection between the experience I had and the opportunity that suddenly became available.  

Throughout the years, whether you’ve tried to or not, you’ve become an icon in the journalistic environment. How would you say this has benefited your career? Has it caused any downfalls?

Not really. There’s a difference between the kind of fame you get as a tv news anchor, a Rockstar, and a movie star. It’s nice and a lot of people recognize you, say hi, and feel they have a connection with you, but it’s not of the high intensity variety that people in showbusiness have to put up with. 

Since the beginning, how would you say that journalism has evolved and do you believe that it’s evolving in a positive way or do you see it taking a turn for the worst? What are your thoughts on the many media outlets developing including twitter and the rest of social media?

Well I don’t think you can look at a lot of journalism today and say it’s taken a turn for the better. I think a part of the problem lies in the technology. If you think about it, what you have today is the ability for anyone, I mean anyone, with or without experience people, who follow the discipline or don’t follow it by virtue of the internet, with a laptop can put out any piece of nonsense they want to whether it’s based on real reporting or based on a fevered imagination. 

And that does lend to the perception. The President has taken advantage of this. There’s a lot of fake news out there. Matter of fact there is a lot of fake news out there and hardly any of it is coming from the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, etc., but there are literally millions of people now who get online and post their own blog without any kind of journalistic background or discipline. 

In that sense I think it’s been harmful to the business. Of course, it has. Some of it, I’m not suggesting it’s all bad, but I’m saying it’s one explanation for why there is so much nonsense that’s being put out there. 

In today’s news climate, what is your advice to the average American seeking unbiased journalism?

I’d say sample both sides. If you’re looking for something that’s totally unbiased you’re going to have a hard time finding it. But there are still great institutions of journalism out there, whether it’s the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the three major networks, PBS or NPR, there’s still good stuff out there. 

But, if you want a real sense of where the truth lies, you need to sample what’s on the extremes on both sides. I would recommend to people that they not focus only on news coverage that is sympathetic to their own point of view. 

While reporting for ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Post, what was, in your mind, the hardest story to produce? What has been your favorite piece of information that you’ve covered? 

I’d probably spent the most time in terms of any single story with the danger of cyber-attack against the electric power grid, the United States electric industry. I wrote a book about it. That took about a years’ worth of research. 

That’s a little hard to say, just at Nightline alone, I did 6,000 programs. Out of 6,000 programs and after 17 years of other reporting, and that doesn’t count the 13 years since I left Nightline. We’re taking about probably 10–15 thousand different stories that I’ve covered over the last 50 years. That’s a little hard to pick out just anyone of them. 

One of the most impactful experiences was when Nightline when to South Africa and spent a week there doing five programs each of which was an hour to an hour and a half long. That had an enormous impact in both South Africa and the United States. 

I was with Mikhail Ghorbachev inside the Kremlin on the last day of the Soviet Union. The last day to say goodbye to George H.W. Bush sitting across from him. I was one of the first two or three people to interview Nelson Mandela when he came out of prison. Those were very important stories and stories that had a tremendous impact on me. 

Tell me more about your book, Lights Out and why you’ve decided to write it? What are you hoping people will take away from it?

I heard a speech that Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, in which he talked about the danger of a cyber-attack on the United States infrastructure on being the cyber equivalent of a pearl harbor. So, I started looking into it and I become more intrigued. I believed he was absolutely right and I don’t think the American public has been, to this day, given the right background and preparation to take care of themselves in an event there was such an attack. 

I was asked to testify before senate committee, the electric power industry has issued some denials that there as vulnerable as I said they are. There’s been quite a lot of debate on the book. It sold about 17–-175 thousand companies. For a serious book on a serious subject, I’d say that’s not bad. It was a New York Times Best Seller. I’m very pleased with the impacts it’s had. 

What topics are you looking to discuss at the Frederick Speaker Series? Is there anything you’re hoping to do with your time in Maryland?

The same kind of topics you and I’ve been talking about. Cyber warfare, the face of journalism, the danger of a divided country, and what we can do to begin to turn it around again.

Maryland’s a great state. My wife and I rent a house down in Southern Maryland on the water and the opportunities for relaxation are wonderful. Maryland has some of the most extraordinary universities, the John’s Hopkins Medical facilities in Baltimore, and there’s nothing like a soft-shell crab from Maryland.