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Veteran journalist Ted Koppel on Election 2016: ‘It has the atmosphere of a three-ring event'

Anders Krusberg | Wikimedia Commons
Ted Koppel at the 62nd Annual Peabody Awards.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Ted Koppel, former “Nightline” anchor and commentator for NPR, joined guest host Steve Potter to discuss the responsibility of the media during the 2016 election.

“It certainly has the atmosphere of a three-ring event,” said Koppel. “The tone of it probably owes as much to entertainment as it does to the serious pursuit of politics. … I don’t think it has ever been at a lower level of politesse as it has been in the last fifteen years.”

Koppel, of course, is referring to Donald Trump. He said that the media are responsible for playing into the circus-like mentality. 

“Clearly Donald Trump has learned how to turn the media’s sense of drama and its appetite for drama to his own best advantage and he has done it brilliantly,” Koppel said.

Koppel did say that he thought it is extremely hard for broadcast journalists to hold Trump to account during a live interview because he just doesn’t seem to abide by a normal interview format—the journalist asking the questions and the interviewee answering the specific questions.

“The better way of dealing with all the candidates is to do a piece of reporting that gives the viewing public, or the listening public, a sense of what the facts are,” said Koppel. “That’s what we used to do on ‘Nightline.’ It tended to focus the conversation a little better. Whether that would have worked with Donald Trump as a presidential candidate? Maybe not, but I think it would have been more helpful.”

Trump’s rise and media infatuation with him are part of a larger issue that Koppel sees with commercial media and “ideological divergence” of news networks such as Fox News and MSNBC.

“You have people tuning in not to get an objective view of events in the world but who are deliberately picking something that has an ideological slant or tilt,” Koppel said. “That doesn’t lend itself to a lot of compromise in the political process—I think it has been terribly damaging to the political process.”

Koppel said that he feels sad for the journalism business as a whole.

“When I got into the business, my heroes were Ed Murrow and Howard K. Smith,” Koppel said. “They were people who, as I did, regarded journalism as a calling, almost a mission. The mission was to give people the information that they needed to have in order to be an informed electorate. … More and more these days, people are getting what broadcasters and the owners of cable networks believe people want to hear rather than what they need to hear.”

"You can't imagine anyone in the media be considered the most trusted man or woman in the country."

People just don’t want to accept authority figures, political or media-wise, telling them what to think, do or pay attention to.

“There was a time, not so many years ago, when you had a television journalist, Walter Cronkite, who was seen as the most admired man in the country and the most trusted man in the country,” Koppel said. “That seems quaint today. You can’t imagine anyone in the media be considered the most trusted man or woman in the country.”

Related Event

What: Fifth Gateway Journalism Review Benefit Featuring Ted Koppel and David Yepsen
When: Thursday, April 21 from 6:00 - 8:30 p.m.
Where: Edward Jones Headquarters Lobby, 12555 Manchester Road, Des Peres, MO 63131
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards,Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.