After anchoring more than 6,500 Nightline broadcasts, Koppel’s image as the unflappable newsman is freeze-framed in the public consciousness. “He’s a cool cat,” says Ben Bradlee. And in the weeks leading up to the final Nightline broadcast on November 22, Koppel had been mostly just that. He had done the farewell-tour newspaper interviews and talk shows—Larry King, NPR, Letterman—and generally struck a genial, measured tone. “He is at peace,” Tim Johnson, ABC’s medical correspondent and a longtime Koppel pal, told me. Yet here in his office, Koppel is by turns outspoken, reflective, funny, and, at times, yup, pissed.
At the moment, he’s howling against the sorry state of television news. “When I look back 30 years ago, we had 25 foreign correspondents, and now we have five.” His voice rises. “To just dismiss foreign news because it’s boring is idiocy. I understand that corporations need to make money. I also remember that broadcasters in exchange for their licenses are supposed to operate in the public interest, and that means covering the news.”
When I ask him later for his reaction to CNN’s dismissal of Aaron Brown in favor of Anderson Cooper, Koppel describes Cooper as “bright, passionate, committed, and hardworking.” Then he uses the question as a launching pad to rail against network executives who use focus groups to determine whom to hire and promote. “If your way of designing a program is to bring in a couple dozen folks in three or four cities and hook them up with galvanic skin tests to see whether they get hot flashes when they see this young man or that young woman, you’re destined to fail.” Had such techniques been available years ago, Koppel adds, he wouldn’t have had much of a career. “God knows, who the hell would have picked this jug-eared diplomatic correspondent?”
Twice in the past two years, Koppel has raised the ire of the Bush administration with segments called “The Fallen,” in which he read aloud the names of the soldiers who had died in Iraq. “I didn’t do it to piss them off,” he says. “It was to honor the people who have lost their lives, to remind us that a tiny fragment of the population is bearing a disproportionate burden.” His voice drips with contempt as he talks about the Bush team’s spin tactics on Iraq. “There’s this sense, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little heads about what’s going on over there—just do what we tell you, don’t question it. We know what we’re doing, leave the grown-ups alone.’ It’s not smart, it’s not healthy, and in the final analysis, it doesn’t work.”
Eventually, I get to Koppel’s breakup with ABC. At first, Koppel tries to frame the split as a simple economics problem. “For all programs that last a long time with the same anchor or central figure, whether it’s Johnny Carson or me, by virtue of many, many years of negotiation, you start making an obscene amount of money,” says Koppel, whose salary has been estimated at $10 million a year (he won’t comment). “Given the emergence of cable TV, and more and more competition, the income line is going down. There’s all kinds of economic imperatives to saying, ‘We can have three anchors, and they aren’t going to cost nearly as much as one anchor makes.’ ”
But I thought this was a squeeze play, I say. “I got the impression they gave you an offer—”
He interrupts, “—that they knew I wouldn’t accept?”
“Wasn’t that done to get you to leave?” I ask.
“You’ll have to ask David.”
“What did you think?”
“I’m not a stupid guy,” Koppel says. “I have long understood what the pressures are that cause people up the line at Disney to say, ‘Could we be making a lot more money if we didn’t have a news program?’ David confronts the issue of ‘How do I best keep Nightline alive?’ I’m not the easiest guy in the world to convince that you need to be doing the program a different way.” (In a conference call with reporters last week, Goldston kept saying he planned to “modernize” Nightline and took a swipe at Koppel by saying, “My hope and expectation is that we can make the show vibrant again.”)
Koppel seems sincere when he tells me he hopes the new version of Nightline succeeds. “There are a lot of people I care about,” he says. Still, he’s not above a little critique. For all the ballyhoo that Nightline will be live every night, Koppel says many interviews will be pretaped because guests don’t want to come to a studio late at night. He wonders if using three anchors on a 22-minute broadcast could lead to a three-way slugfest over air time. “I don’t know Martin. I know Terry a little and Cynthia a little. I assume that each of them has a healthy ego. That means each of them is going to be looking at ‘Does she get top billing? Does he get top billing?’ ”