Former ABC News star Ted Koppel, a much-honored champion of consequential journalism during his quarter-century anchoring the network’s signature news show Nightline, has become a curmudgeonly critic of his profession in the age of Donald Trump.
The 79-year-old Koppel recently claimed—as reported this week by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple—that the news media in general, and The New York Times and The Washington Post in particular, have thrown objectivity and fairness to the winds in order to bring the 45th president down.
“I’m talking about organizations that I believe have, in fact, decided, as organizations, that Donald J. Trump is bad for the United States,” Koppel said during a March 7 event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The notion that most of us look upon Donald Trump as being an absolute fiasco—he’s not mistaken in that perception, and he’s not mistaken when so many of the liberal media, for example, describe themselves as belonging to The Resistance.”
Koppel lamented: “We are not the reservoirs of objectivity that I think we were.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Times executive editor Dean Baquet fired back: “I think The Washington Post and The New York Times have been fair in their coverage of Trump. It’s an extraordinary presidency. And I think this notion that somehow standards have been thrown out the window...is wrong.”
Baquet was equally dismissive of Koppel’s claim that the Times’ October 2016 coverage of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—in which the paper quoted Trump’s salty, obscene and offensive words without benefit of bowdlerizing—was evidence of clear bias against the then-Republican presidential nominee.
At the Carnegie Endowment, Koppel recalled: “I remember sitting at the breakfast table with my wife during the campaign after the Access Hollywood tape came out. And The New York Times—and I will not offend any of you here by using the language, but you know exactly what words were used—and they were spelled on the front page of The New York Times. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘The Times is absolutely committed to making sure that this guy does not get elected.’”
Baquet responded: “I can’t even fathom the notion that we were supposed to censor Trump’s comment—the comment that he made that obviously was important for people to know, and obviously offended a lot of people.”
In an off-camera, 2005 discussion with then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, Trump boasted that as celebrity he was permitted to “grab” women “by the pussy” and punctuated his remarks with f-bombs. “It’s just unfathomable to me that we would censor the commentary of a presidential candidate that way. I don’t think that’s our job, and if Ted thinks it is, I disagree.”
Baquet added: “I’m also a little bit troubled by this notion that somehow journalism is dramatically different when confronted with difficult leaders. I think Ted should go read coverage of the Vietnam War. He should read more of how traditional newspapers covered the world over time. And I think it would be a little eye-opening. I have done that.”
Baquet continued: “I’m not comparing Donald Trump to Vietnam. I’m more commenting on the notion that the press has been one way and has not adjusted its coverage to extraordinary times. If you look back at the coverage of Vietnam, the language was very powerful, and the newspaper coverage broke the mold because it was an extraordinary moment. Go look at how David Halberstam covered the war in Vietnam”—a reference to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times correspondent of the 1960s who regularly angered both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson with his critical reports on U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia.
“It’s shocking to me that somebody like Ted doesn’t know history better,” Baquet said.
As for Koppel’s insistence that the Times’ Access Hollywood coverage was inappropriate, “maybe Ted should ask himself what that coverage would have looked like if we chose not to tell people what Donald Trump said,” Baquet argued.
“We’ve used extraordinary language in extraordinary times,” he added. “I think when a guy who became president of the United States used that language, it was important for people to know that, and I think readers are grownups, and I think readers can look at that language and judge for themselves whether or not they want to vote for him. And they did.”
Baquet was a rare journalism leader who responded to Koppel’s critique on Thursday; The Daily Beast’s requests for comment to The Washington Post, as well as to network and cable news divisions, went unreturned.
Koppel launched his broadside against the mainstream media—an attack that has been widely celebrated by pro-Trump and right-leaning blogs as well as by disgraced former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s website since it came to light in the past few days—during a discussion of CBS and NBC News veteran Marvin Kalb’s book Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, The New McCarthyism, and The Threat to American Democracy.
“I did not agree with Ted,” Kalb told The Daily Beast. “I thought that Trump had done so many things that could be described and defined as ‘negative,’ that when the press reported on those issues, it would appear to be ‘negative coverage.’ But it’s simply the coverage of the facts of what Trump has been doing and saying.”
Kalb added that the mainstream media have been “for the most part, not always, but for the most part on target” in their coverage of the president. Calling Koppel “a very dear friend,” Kalb said their disagreement over Trump and the media is “painful.”
“We have talked about this issue many, many times,” Kalb said. “I know Ted’s belief. He holds it strongly. He has repeated it many times…It’s something that he feels. I don’t have the same feeling. I do understand why an appearance of negativity could be interpreted, even by somebody like Ted, as negative coverage…But you’re really dealing—for the most part, I stress—accurately with the negativity implicit in so much of the presidential rhetoric and action.”
University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson also took issue with Koppel’s claims of bias.
“What a president says and what a president does are newsworthy,” said Jamieson, who is director of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “And fact-checking a person who is president of the United States is an obligation of journalism. To the extent that what the press is doing is accurately reporting what the president says, and providing a context for seeing that it is historically accurate and then fact-checking it so that we have a reasonable representation of what’s knowable, is fulfilling journalism’s function. It is not a breach of objectivity.”
However, Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, suggested Koppel is correct in arguing that mainstream media outlets generally, and the Times and the Post in particular, have little love for the 45th president.
“I don’t disagree with Ted in that I think it’s pretty clear that those particular publications don’t believe that he should be holding office,” Dalglish told The Daily Beast. “On the other hand, it seems to me that all they’re doing is reporting what’s going on.”
She added: “When I read the mainstream media publications, do I have the sense that they’re outraged? Yeah, I do—and not just the editorial pages.”