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National Press Club

Ted Koppel: Networks must invest in serious journalism to save democracy

November 26, 2012 | By Gil Klein |

Marvin Kalb hosts Ted Koppel on The Kalb Report at The National Press Club, November 19, 2012.  The two veteran journalists discussed "The Twilight of Network News.

Marvin Kalb hosts Ted Koppel on The Kalb Report at The National Press Club, November 19, 2012. The two veteran journalists discussed "The Twilight of Network News.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Technological changes, viewer tastes and demands for profit have undercut the quality of television news, but the pendulum should begin to swing back, legendary ABC News anchor Ted Koppel told host Marvin Kalb at “The Kalb Report” on Nov. 19.

“When Americans finally realize how bad things are and what political straits our system is in, they will turn back to good journalism,” Koppel predicted at the National Press Club forum.

Information is spread so quickly that the system will collapse if reliable sources don't provide accurate information, he said. Yet many reporters have little time to do adequate reporting because they must feed around-the-clock demands for news, he said.

The networks, he said, “are simply not putting the money into the type of journalism that is vital to our democracy.”

It has become increasingly rare for television news reporters to prepare a script, he said. Instead, he said, too many of them are “just talking off the top of their heads.”

The big switch in television news came in 1968, when CBS launched "60 Minutes," which showed that great journalism could make a profit, he said. Before then, the networks saw news as a public service paid for by profits from entertainment shows. News was not expected to make money.

Networks began thinking that all news should make a profit, he said. As a result, the mentality of news directors changed from giving the public what it ought to hear to giving the public what it wants to hear, he said.

“When what you worry about is making money, you focus on those thing that draw an audience and cost the least amount to produce,” he said.

That led to networks closing most overseas news bureaus and parachuting reporters into hot spots where they don’t understand the situation as well as reporters who used to be stationed in those countries, he said.

Cable news has found that the cheapest thing to do is put a couple of people on the air to yell at one another, he said. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes realized they could make a good profit by creating Fox News to skew conservative and MSNBC to skew liberal, he said.

Lost is serious reporting without political agenda, he said. Critics from the left and right insist objective reporting does not exist, he said, but professional journalists are trained and willing to provide objective reporting.

“The Kalb Report” is a joint project of the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College, the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the George Washington University and Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The program is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.