"Nightline" On The Rocks

Imagine the pain - the embarrassment, really. ABC News was blindsided by a scoop within its own network. The Disney bosses were quietly negotiating with talk-show star David Letterman, who'd obviously pre-empt "Nightline" if the deal was made. Even worse for the news division, one exec declared their late-night news show now lacked "relevancy."

Predictably, TV news stars took exception, starting with "Nightline" host Ted Koppel, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that "Regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever. It is at best, inappropriate, and at worst malicious to describe what my colleagues and I are doing as lacking relevance."

The controversy inspires several observations.

1. Is "Nightline" irrelevant? In a medium caught in a dangerous trend of dumbing down, TV news needs the concept of a "Nightline," a focused, comprehensive examination of one topic. Obviously, "Nightline" elevates the intellectual discourse on late-night television dominated by stupid pet tricks and movie stars promoting their latest pictures.

But the proposition that "Nightline" is less relevant is unquestionably true. When the show began in 1979, viewers in Idaho or Louisiana or Alaska relied on the Big Three broadcast networks for their world news. But today, in virtually every remote corner of the United States, Americans can get on the Internet and read the New York Times, or newspapers from around the world. They can read entire Congressional reports, or watch Pentagon press briefings. They can find out the latest headlines at any minute of the day or night on cable news.

Today, by the time "Nightline" hits the air, cabinet officers and senators and academics have already talked on "The News with Brian Williams" and "Hannity and Colmes" and "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." That doesn't mean that "Nightline" can't use its unique formula of in-depth reporting and interviews to make a unique contribution to serious journalism.

2. What about those "Nightline" exclusives? Koppel fans are all talking about the fabulous series he did in the Congo in January. It's important to bring remote corners of the globe to an American television audience, especially considering the massive death toll there. At a time when network news has dramatically scaled back on foreign coverage, a "Nightline" series on faraway Africa is a welcome change of pace.

But Koppel's last few years of shows have not always provided "regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy." If five shows in the Congo are worth doing, why weren't there five shows on the findings that the Chinese stole our nation's nuclear missile secrets? Why not five shows dedicated to the bombing of our embassies in Sudan and Kenya? Or five shows on the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole? If "Nightline" is part of the way America stays vigilant in a dangerous world, vigilance wasn't always Koppel's watchword - at least not in the Clinton era.

3. Dan Rather wrote a letter to the New York Times declaring, "Anybody who cares about the state of our world and our country had better hope that what Ted Koppel does for a living will never go out of date or out of fashion, and that there will always be a home for it. Because what he does is look at both sides of important questions and arrive at something close to the truth - or as close to the truth as we are likely to get."

Does Koppel "look at both sides" for the truth? Sometimes yes - and sometimes, no. Worse, he can't admit his mistake. He spent thousands of ABC man-hours trying to prove that Ronald Reagan delayed the release of the Iranian hostages for political gain. The accuser turned out to be a liar. Koppel has never corrected the record.

Over the years conservatives have found many holes in the "evenhandedness" argument for "Nightline." Start with the Bill Clinton draft interview in 1992, when James Carville was pumping fists in the air at Koppel's amazing softball questions four years after Koppel lectured Republican guests in 1988 about Dan Quayle's National Guard service. Or compare Koppel devoting an entire show in 1999 to unproven charges of George W. Bush's alleged cocaine use, made possible because Bush favored tough drug laws. Later, when Newsweek reporter Bill Turque found a friend detailing Al Gore's marijuana use in the 1970s, Koppel not only did no show, but insisted to viewers that Gore hasn't a "hint of personal scandal."

Television needs a forum for informative, in-depth, balanced news coverage. "Nightline" can be that forum. I hope it survives. I also hope it gets better.