Veteran television journalist Ted Koppel likens the contentious relationship between President Donald Trump and the news media not as a fight to the death but “a dance of life.”
“He needs us, we need him,” Koppel told an audience at Trinity University on Wednesday night. The man who anchored the late-night ABC news show “Nightline” for 25 years explained that even as Trump rails against “fake news,” such media outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and Fox News “are making a ton of money, and how are they doing it? By focusing day after day after day on what the president – who is one hell of a salesman, you’ve gotta admit – is saying.
“He tosses out a little piece of bait – an early morning tweet at 5:30 – and the little media mice come and nibble and take it back home and chew on it all day long. The problem is it’s not really serving you well.”
In analyzing the current media landscape, Koppel was critical of journalists who appear on television to provide analysis of the news that he said too often veers into opinion. Likewise, the prevalence given to opinion over factual reporting on most cable news outlets is damaging, he said.
“A nation like ours cannot survive if we are incapable of agreeing on something as simple as what is factual and what is not,” Koppel said. “… And beyond that, we need to arrive at a point where our political representatives then believe that it is possible, on occasion, to cross the aisle in the interest of reaching solutions that are necessary for the public at large.”
Koppel criticized journalists who regularly appear on television to provide analysis he finds too often tinged with opinion.
He also sees danger in Americans’ increasing reliance on Facebook as a source of news when information shared on the social media platform has no standards for accuracy or mechanism for fact-checking.
“Half the American public now gets all its news from Facebook,” Koppel said. “… Social media is bound by none of the disciplines that we had to exercise as journalists, even in Vietnam in 1967 or Iraq in 2003.
“Even though I was the managing editor of ‘Nightline’ and the anchor of the program, my script would be read by the executive producer, by the senior producer, by a fact checker, before I could put it on the air.”
Appearing at Trinity as part of the university’s distinguished lecture series, the 77-year-old Koppel reflected on his years in the field as a reporter covering John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s visit to China, the end of the Cold War, and the Iraq war.
Koppel also touched on the subject of his most recent book, Lights Out, about the nation’s vulnerability to a cyberattack on its power grid. He noted that Russian and Chinese operatives have the capability to take down power across a wide swath of the nation. “The good news is we’re also inside their systems,” he said.
He expressed concern that the news media, in its often frenzied coverage of Trump’s administration, is overlooking important issues such as cybersecurity.
“Don’t think for a minute I don’t believe the … potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians isn’t important – I do,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s not important to the exclusion of everything else. … Every day offers us a new evolution of this story, and it’s a lot less complicated than talking about cybersecurity and the danger of cyber attacks.”