For 54-years legendary journalist Ted Koppel has dedicated life his life to keeping Americans informed, first as an ABC news correspondent, then as anchor of Nightline, and now as a special contributor for CBS Sunday Morning.
Today, Koppel is casting his critical eye news media itself and the ideological spin within the industry that he said, “has less to do with journalism than it has to do with propaganda.”
Whether it’s The New York Times going after the “excesses of the Trump administration” or Breitbart attacking “the deep state and fake journalism, “Koppel said news organizations often push opinion over facts because “it sells.
“People like to hear echoes of their own particular point of view [and] people like to feel that their own prejudices are justified,” Koppel said. “This has less to do with journalism and more to do with the business of media.”
Things weren’t always this way, Koppel said. In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission revoked the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to devote some of their programming to issues of public importance and give equal airtime to opposing points of view. The impact of the FCC’s decision was “enormous,” Koppel said. But at the time, he had now idea just how much of an impact it would have.
“I don’t think I recognized it until many years later,” Koppel said.
But the impact was almost immediate, Koppel said. Within a year America began witnessing “the rise of a new broadcasting phenomenon by the name of Rush Limbaugh.”
“After the fairness doctrine was removed he became not just enormously popular, but enormously powerful from a political point of view,” Koppel said. “And Limbaugh’s had an extraordinary degree of influence on what’s happened on the broadcasting industry in the intervening 30-years.”
Within two years, Limbaugh accumulated more listeners than any other talk show host in the country at 5 million a week, according to The New York Times, who at the time described him as a “comic blowhard” that bounces “between earnest lecturer and political vaudevillian.”
Limbaugh loved to lampoon liberal activists and protestors, according to the Times. Among his favorite targets were “black activists, gay activists, abortion rights activists, homeless activists, animal rights activists, militant vegetarians, environmentalists, artists with erotic tendencies and, above all, ‘the NOW Gang.’”
Koppel said Limbaugh “did it only because he could.
“Back in 1985 or 1986 he would have been prevented from doing a three-hour broadcast everyday expressing nothing but opinion,” Koppel said.
But Limbaugh wasn’t alone.
In 1989, Bill O’Reilly was named anchor of the TV magazine tabloid Inside Edition, which he hosted until 1995 before moving to Fox News and becoming one of the highest rated news commentators on cable television.
“He was one of the first, if not the first, doing it on television,” Koppel said. “And when it started gathering eyeballs and getting ratings people noticed.”
Overtime, MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, and now Rachel Maddow emerged on the left to combat Limbaugh, Fox News, and Bill O’Reilly on the right.
“What happens in any business is, someone comes out with a fresh product, and it starts selling, and before you know it you have competitors out there who are doing similar things,” Koppel said. “And that’s what’s happened to media.”
Eventually, the media landscape became more and more polarized and viewers began living in different versions of reality.
According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 81-percent of supporters for then presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said they couldn’t even agree on “basic facts.”
In his recent Sunday Morning Special, "A Polarized America," Koppel asked New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet if there was any way for “the influential New York Times to help to close the gap [and] heal the rift.”
Baquet said no.
“I don’t think it’s my job to heal America,” Baquet said. “I don’t think that’s part of the life of journalism.”
While Koppel called Baquet “one of the finest journalists out there” and suggested that he was “merely guilty of excessive modesty,” he disagreed with the editor that the Times does not have a responsibility to help close the partisan divide.
“I believe that it is part of the mission, the goal of a great newspaper or a great broadcasting outlet to heal the country in the sense that, someone has got to be out there who is perceived as doing an honest job and as objective as possible a job of reporting the news,” Koppel said.
It is the function of journalism, Koppel said, to give the people who are battling in the political arena, and the public watching those battles and opportunity to understand where the facts lie.
“These days it’s become more and more difficult to determine what a fact is,” Koppel said. “That’s pretty dangerous in a democracy.
“If we cannot agree, people from the left and people on the right, cannot agree on the nature of a simple fact, then how are we to perform any of the functions of a democracy?
“You can’t do it without agreeing on certain basic facts,” Koppel said.
Adam Sennott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.