Ted Koppel: To Save Democracy Networks Must Put More Money Into Serious Journalism
Technological changes, viewer tastes and profit demands have undercut the quality of television news, but the pendulum should begin to swing back, ABC news legend Ted Koppel told host Marvin Kalb Monday on the latest edition of “The Kalb Report.”
“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 on the National Press Club’s premier forum, which for the first time is co-produced by UMUC and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“We have more media available today and more and more ways to tell a story than ever existed in the history of the world,” he said. “Information is spread so ubiquitously and quickly, that if we don’t have reliable sources, then the system collapses.”
Yet most reporters have little time to do adequate reporting because they are caught up feeding around-the-clock demands for news, he said, and the networks, “are simply not putting the money into the type of journalism that is vital to our democracy.”
He said he sees how rare it is for a television news reporter to prepare a script. 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, 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. But in that year, CBS launched “60 Minutes,” he said, which provided great journalism – and made a profit.
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.
“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 has resulted in the 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.
Cable news has found that the cheapest thing to do is put a couple of people on the air to yell at each other, he said. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes realized they could make a good profit by creating Fox News that skews the news to conservatives and MSNBC responded with a cable channel that skews news to liberals.
What is lost, he said, is serious reporting that does not have a political agenda and attempts to get at the truth. Critics from the left and right insist objective reporting does not exist, he said, but professional journalists still are trained and willing to provide objective reporting.
Today, he said, too many people believe they can have their own set of facts. The country should be prepared to accept that a genuine effort toward objective journalism is possible.
Joining UMUC and the Philip Merrill College in producing “The Kalb Report” are the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the George Washington University and Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
The series is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.