Award-winning journalist Ted Koppel is Discovery Channel's managing editor, senior news analyst for National Public Radio and a contributing analyst for BBC World News America. Koppel spent 42 years at ABC News and was the anchor for Nightline for 25 years before leaving the late-night news program in 2005. This is an excerpt from a feature on Koppel that appeared in the April 1982 issue of SUCCESS.
He's the Grand Inquisitor of late-night television, whose penetrating, no-nonsense interviews have won critical acclaim and an audience of millions.
Since his sudden rise from network correspondent to full-time anchorman two years ago, Ted Koppel has labored hard to bring solid journalism to traditionally soft late-night television. And in doing it, he has built a formidable following—some 40 percent of whom, according to ABC surveys, rarely watched TV at that hour before. Given the vital role he plays in elucidating foreign affairs for the American audience, it surprises some viewers to learn that Ted Koppel is not an American by birth.
He was born in Lancashire, England, and, in 1953, at age 13, immigrated to the United States with his parents. “Sometimes people forget that even in this day and age the United States is perceived as the land of opportunity by people in other countries,” he says. “And that certainly was the case 30 years ago, when I came here.”
Koppel studied journalism at Syracuse University, where he earned his B.A., and at Stanford, where he earned an M.A. He worked briefly for a radio station, then joined ABC News in New York as a general-assignment reporter. He was, at 23, thought to be the youngest reporter ever hired by a television network. His work took him to the center of many of the most significant news stories of the '60s. In 1965 he covered the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala. For the next two years he reported the war in Vietnam for ABC's Saigon bureau. He was the network's bureau chief in Miami for a year, its Hong Kong bureau chief for two more.
In 1971 Koppel was named ABC's chief diplomatic correspondent. Today he credits that experience with making him a better listener and, as a result, a better interviewer. Nightline executive producer, ABC's Vice President William E. Lord, who has known Koppel for 18 years, concurs. “Particularly during his years with Kissinger, covering the State Department, Ted had to be able to read between the lines and understand what was being said when the person tried not to say anything,” Lord explains. “I think that sharpened his perceptive powers.”
Koppel was in his ninth year as chief diplomatic correspondent when, in November 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S embassy in Teheran. His late-night updates on the crisis, America Held Hostage, made him as familiar a face as the Ayatollah Khomeini to millions of news-hungry Americans. By March 1980, America Held Hostage had evolved into Nightline, the first regularly scheduled late-night network news program in the history of television. It was expanded from 20 minutes to half an hour in January 1981, and from four nights a week to five the following April.
Koppel's success with Nightline came as little surprise to longtime colleague Marvin Kalb, NBC's senior diplomatic correspondent, Koppel's co-author on the 1977 novel In the National Interest, and a close friend. “My own sense has always been that there are few things, if he puts his mind to it, that he cannot accomplish,” Kalb says. “That Ted is good as an interviewer doesn't surprise me at all. That he writes well doesn't surprise me. That it took ABC as long as it did to recognize what I have long recognized is the only surprise.”
Some news handicappers now view Koppel as a frontrunner for an evening-news anchor spot—at ABC or elsewhere. But Koppel claims he's content where he is. A journalist not given to superlatives, he refers to his Nightline spot as “the ideal job.”
Pressed to explain, he says, “What's ideal about it is that there is a half-hour of one of the most precious commodities in America today—half an hour of access to network time five nights a week to discuss and examine whatever the senior producers of this program and I believe are the most interesting issues of our time.”
Equally important, Koppel says, Nightline allows him more time with his wife and four children. “The jobs that I had for the network over the previous 12 years took me away from home six or seven months out of the year. So even though I may only spend the nights at home now, and Saturdays and Sundays, that's more time than I had at home before.”
Marvin Kalb also thinks Koppel has finally found his niche. “How can you have a better arrangement than Nightline?” Kalb asks. “What are they going to do—coronate him?”
Ted Koppel not only values his private life, he guards it with the tenacity of a grizzly bear. He refuses to allow photographers inside his home and refers reporters who inquire about personal matters (such as the year he spent as a househusband while his wife attended law school) to previously published interviews. “The network has every right to ask me to make myself available to other professionals who want to interview me,” he says. “But the network has no right—nor do they insist on the right—to interfere in my private life. I keep that separate.”
The fact is, Koppel admits, the Grand Inquisitor doesn't much like to give interviews. “I wouldn't care if I never did another radio, television, newspaper or magazine interview,” he confesses. “There is nothing in it for me—except the possibility that one of them is going to go disastrously wrong.”
Such distaste for personal publicity is not uncommon among television journalists who have seen the unintended effects it can sometimes have both on careers and on private lives.
So Koppel insists that the public content itself with his onscreen image, an image he claims he's satisfied with—despite the occasional jokes about his resemblance to Howdy Doody and Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman.
“I think people believe I'm well-prepared for what I'm doing,” he says. “I think that people have a tendency to trust what I'm saying. I can't ask for more than that. I can't ask them to like the way I comb my hair or don't comb it. I can't ask them to like the way I look or dress.
“At the moment I think I'm perceived as fundamentally fair and reasonably honest, and hardworking. That's fine. I'll stick with that.”