Koppel Biased? Let Me Count the Ways
by L. Brent Bozell III
March 13, 1997
No doubt feeling like a pair of Daniels in the lion's den, ABC's Ted Koppel and NBC's Tim Russert bravely trod into the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 7 to defend their industry against the charge of liberal bias. While Russert was solicitous, Koppel would have none of it. "It's nobody's business whether I'm a liberal or a conservative," he snapped, then added:
"I make a challenge to any one of you here...if any one of you wants to point to a particular broadcast that I have done, and by pointing to that broadcast to seek to infer from that what my politics are, please do so...I don't need to apologize for my reporting." With pleasure I'll take him up on that challenge. Will ten separate examples do?
1. On October 18, 1989, after a San Francisco earthquake killed hundreds in a bridge collapse, Koppel asked if this couldn't be blamed on tax-cutting conservatives: "Any instances where the money was not spent because of the rollback of Proposition 13, where money would have made a difference?" (For the record, as The Wall Street Journal reported, California's roads and bridges were funded by state and federal gas taxes, not the property taxes cut by Proposition 13.)
2. On February 23, 1990, Koppel devoted his show to how the U.S. would normalize relations after the Sandinistas defeated Violeta Chamorro in a free election: "Almost certainly, the Sandinistas will still win." (As with so much of "Nightline" reporting on Nicaragua, they had no idea what was happening: the Sandinistas were routed at the polls.)
3. On October 19, 1990, and January 18, 1991, "Nightline" reporter Jackie Judd proclaimed Gulf War protesters were not "oddball fringe elements" and that among them "Saddam Hussein is recognized as a menace." (In fact, print reports from the largest protests in 1991 documented how podium speakers preached victory for Iraq - and were cheered.)
4. On June 20, 1991, "Nightline" devoted a one-hour special resurrecting the October Surprise myth that Ronald Reagan's operatives delayed the release of American hostages in Iran. When congressional investigations again proved the theory a farce, a "Nightline" spokeswoman told us: "That is not a broadcast for Nightline. That's a headline. That's not a half-hour show."
5. On October 15, 1991, after the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, Koppel complained conservatives won with "hardball tactics" while the Democrats were "largely ineffectual counterpunchers." On November 2, 1994, "Nightline" devoted a half-hour to Thomas-trashing reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer; author David Brock, who took the contrary position with "The Real Anita Hill," was never booked.
6. On February 12, 1992, Koppel read Clinton's "thank you for saving me from the draft" letter, calling it "remarkable... eloquent and revealing." He insisted: "And indeed, if we were electing that 23-year-old man, what he said and thought and felt at that time would be germane." Compare: When the Quayle draft controversy erupted in 1988, Koppel pounced on Bush flack Craig Fuller, charging it "leaves this image now of having said 'Here I'll hold your coat, you go and fight in Vietnam. I'm going to join the National Guard.'"
7.On August 18, 1992, Koppel began a program on Hillary Clinton by declaring: "Let us not for a moment be confused into believing that this is only a conservative Republican thing, this business of some people feeling threatened by smart, assertive professional women." (Presumably, there are life forms even lower than conservative Republicans.)
8. On January 28, 1994, Koppel began an interview with Oliver North: "Mr. North is tough, smart, and extremely hard-working.... He is also an accomplished liar and a shameless self-promoter." Koppel never described Clinton this way, complaining instead on August 16, 1994 that "he is receiving little or no credit for his accomplishments."
9. On November 18, 1994, Koppel concluded a series from a North Carolina prison: "Crime doesn't happen in a vacuum...we are disproportionately hard on the poor and ill-educated in this country...to be poor and uneducated in America already constitutes two strikes, and to automatically sentence someone to prison for life on a third strike, without regard to circumstance or context, is unjust, imprudent, and will not solve our problems."
10. On February 23, 1996, days after Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary, Koppel spent a half-hour attacking him. He falsely charged Buchanan's father listened to Father Coughlin's anti-Semitic radio show, and used an anonymous source to accuse his little brothers of beating up Jewish kids in the 1950s. He ended by quoting a Buchanan endorsement by Vladimir Zhirinovsky: "It's not that Buchanan hasn't expressed some of the views that Zhirinovsky echoed, but perhaps he'd never realized how ugly they sounded until he heard them in the mouth of a genuine bigot."
On the whole, Ted Koppel is no Bryant Gumbel, and "Nightline" is no "Frontline." But to challenge his audience to document bias in his reporting is like Gary Hart challenging reporters to document his infidelity.