“I spent 15 years working side by side with Ted Koppel. He was the best boss I ever had in my life, bar none. Smart, tough, demanding, compassionate and fair. In terms of his intellect, we were all in awe because he’s just sort of naturally very smart. But beyond that, he was just so curious about every story and wanted to get it exactly right.”
~Chris Bury, former ABC News correspondent, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
Edward James Martin “Ted” Koppel was the main anchor of ABC News Nightline from March 1980 until November 2005. This late-night news program was the brainchild of the legendary Roone Arledge. The program’s roots can be traced back to November 8, 1979, just four days after the start of the Iranian hostage crisis. It was a great privilege and pleasure to spend time with Ted at affiliate meetings and other events during the 25+ years that he anchored Nightline.
In October 1993, I was the outgoing chairman of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. Ted graciously agreed to give the keynote address at the organization’s annual dinner meeting. But a constitutional crisis between the Russian president and the Russian parliament almost prevented Ted from attending; only some creative travel arrangements at the 11th hour allowed it to happen. We flew Ted from Florida to Chicago’s O’Hare airport on a commercial flight. I talked the airport manager in to meeting Ted’s flight at the gate. He boarded the plane, escorted Ted off it, and then drove him across the tarmac in a security vehicle with lights blazing to a private jet in which I was waiting for the quick trip to Sioux City. That would never happen in a post-9/11 world! In any event, Ted and I made it to the dinner with 15 minutes to spare.
Another story involving a trip with Ted on a private jet is even more memorable. In April 1994, we worked together on a special edition of ABC News Nightline called Viewpoint: Whitewater: Overplayed Underplayed? It was presented on April 19, 1994 across the ABC television network from 10-11pm ET and 11:30pm-1:00am ET and originated live from Old Main Hall on the campus of Drake University. The Whitewater controversy, which involved Bill and Hillary Clinton’s real estate investments in the failed Whitewater Development Corporation, was a hot button topic. As the title suggests, this special delved into the media’s coverage and treatment of the story. Guests included longtime Clinton advisor James Carville, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, attorney Floyd Abrams (coincidentally, his son Dan Abrams is currently the chief legal analyst for ABC News), The New York Times managing editor Max Frankel, The Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser, Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, and ABC News White House correspondent Brit Hume. It was a spirited, informative and highly-rated broadcast.
Now, about that second jet trip. We made arrangements for me to pick up Ted, James Carville, and Brit Hume in Washington, DC for the trip to Des Moines on a private plane. The on-board conversation was quite cordial until an hour or so in to the flight when Ted and Brit challenged James on how it was that Hillary Clinton had yet to publicly address her role in Whitewater. The turn in the discussion was not a surprise in that Ted had tipped me off beforehand that he might try to “rile up James as a bit of foreplay” ahead of that night’s program. The plan no doubt worked as James became, literally, spitting mad as he vehemently made it clear that “no First Lady in the history of the Union has ever held a press conference and Hillary won’t be the first … it’s never happened and never will happen.” Brit pushed back, calmly and respectfully pointing out that no other First Lady had ever been on point for her husband’s administration in the manner Hillary was on the issue of health care. The hypocrisy was evident and it was clear that it would be “game on” during the broadcast later that evening.
As interesting as the broadcast was, it was even more fascinating to see what happened later that same week. On April 22, 1994, Hillary Clinton held what many called the “Pretty in Pink” press conference in reference to the hue of her attire. The Q&A lasted 72 minutes and came months after reporters began demanding that she discuss her role in Whitewater and several highly-criticized commodity trades. While it was later learned the Clinton’s had for weeks been considering holding just such a press conference, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Nightline special – and to some extent the exchange on the plane preceding it – pushed their thinking over the top.
One final postscript to this story: Richard Nixon coincidentally passed away on April 22, 1994 as well. The media coverage of the historic Hillary Clinton press conference was greatly overshadowed by that for Nixon’s death. The timing was perfect for Hillary, and there was little doubt that the Clinton’s and Carville calculated the likelihood of things playing out in just such a manner into account. As Ted Koppel would tell me later, “That s.o.b. Carville, he got the last laugh after all!”
Ted departed Nightline in November 2005 after 25 years as anchor of the program, and also chose to leave ABC News as well after 42 years with the network. The final broadcast could easily have featured a retrospective on the many interesting subjects and memorable moments over the preceding 25 years: Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Yassar Arafat, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger (his first live television interview), Bishop Desmond Tutu, George H.W. Bush (who referred to Ted as “Dan” after apparently confusing him with Dan Rather), Philippines outgoing president Ferdinand Marcos (and his wife’s extensive shoe collection!), Gary Hart (a prelude to the Colorado senator’s withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race), Nelson Mandela in a revealing “town hall meeting” format, Madonna (her controversial music video which had been banned by MTV was played in its entirety), Jim and Tammy Faye Baker (following a sex scandal that brought down his church), and the infamous exchange with longtime Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis (whose unfortunate, racially insensitive comments led to his subsequent firing by the team).
Instead of a walk down memory lane, the final Nightline broadcast focused instead on an extraordinary series of programs presented ten years earlier about a dying Brandeis University sociology professor by the name of Morrie Schwartz. After seeing Ted’s first interview with Morrie in 1995, sports journalist Mitch Albom began making regular visits to see Morrie who had been a favorite professor of his while attending Brandeis himself. It was those weekly conversations that resulted in Tuesdays With Morrie, a best-selling book containing warm and insightful advice about living life and facing death. The book would later be turned into a TV movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and an off-Broadway play. For the farewell edition of the program he was so instrumental in building, Ted chose to interview Mitch Albom about the manner in which the interviews on Nightline prompted him to reconnect with his old professor, and how the powerful lessons contained in Tuesdays With Morrie resonated with so many people. Ted found an unusual way to step away from Nightline with the kind of grace and dignity that Morrie would have respected.
Around the time that Ted signed off from Nightline, television critic Tom Shales wrote the following: “In the 25-year history of Nightline, millions tuned in not because Koppel seemed like a man who thought he knew everything but because he gave the impression of wanting to know everything.”
Ted was presented many honors throughout his distinguished career: 25 Emmy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007), eight Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards and two George Polk Awards. It was my honor to personally witness his induction into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ted Koppel is a WINNER who had an innate sense of world affairs and the role of journalists in holding governments to account. He surrounded himself with people who believed passionately in his mandate to report stories, really serious stories, and report them well. And he worked relentlessly to “bring people together who are worlds apart” during his long and remarkable run as anchor of Nightline.
“1993 Russian constitutional crisis” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Ted Koppel – Nightline’s Longtime Anchor” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
“Nightline: Whitewater: Overplayed Underplayed?” Retrieved from www.tvnews.vanderbilt.edu
Goodman, Walter (April 24, 1990). “Review/Television; 10 Years of Koppel and ‘Nightline'” Retrieved from www.newyorktimes.com
Ryan, Maureen (November 22, 2005). “Ted Koppel signs off ‘Nightline’ on Tuesday…with Morrie” Retrieved from www.chicagotribune.com
Shales, Tom (November 23, 2005). “An Anchor Who Carried Weight” Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
(July,2007). “Ted Koppel To Take Lifetime Achievement Award At The 28th Annual News & Document Emmy Awards, Sept 24” Retrieved from www.emmyonline.com
Albom, Mitch (March 25, 2017). “Mitch Albom: 20 years later, ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ still teaching” Retrieved from www.freep.com
Last Updated: October 30, 2022