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Koppel Earns Stripes Riding A Techno-tiger

June 06, 1986

No wonder that TV news at times resembles a jet without a pilot, the highest of high techs, zooming and vrrrrrrooming out of control.

Many news events are beamed in a blur almost as they happen, not because instant information necessarily breeds intelligence but only because the capacity for immediacy exists. So watch out.

"The technology drives the machine," said Ted Koppel, a reflective man in a medium that increasingly delivers far more speed than reflection.

Koppel, one of ABC's greatest assets as host of the late-evening "Nightline," worries about "this great technological fruit salad we put out every day." He said so Wednesday after appearing at ABC's annual meeting in Los Angeles of executives from its affiliated stations.

"The attention span is decreasing with each generation," Koppel said in his 20th-floor hotel room overlooking ABC's Century City headquarters. "People expect their information to come to them in bite-size chunks. When you are in competition for a large, live audience, it's who can make it the fastest, the most enjoyable that counts. We keep speeding it up, throwing out images faster and faster to get viewers and hold them. We're desperately afraid of losing the audience."

Newscasts in TV's younger days were certainly not better than today's, but at least were slower and surer. When Koppel was covering the Vietnam conflict for ABC some 20 years ago, his stories typically took as long as 30 hours to send stateside and process for air. "There was time to say, 'Wait a minute. Maybe we shouldn't put it on.' "

To deliberate nowadays seems archaic and musty. As Koppel notes, when a South African minister makes a speech, the speech, reaction to the speech and reaction to the reaction can be on the air within three hours. "We're getting to the point where reaction time has to be instantaneous," he said. "Leaders are given no time (by the news media) to consider anything. It's, 'Get me something now!' "

In his new book, "Trivializing America," Norman Corwin quotes the lofty Bill Moyers of CBS on the folly of instantspeak: "What a beastly myth that one does his or her best thinking on the spot, under pressure, sweating at the hands of a prosecutorial interrogator. Theater, perhaps; thought, no."

In one sense, "Nightline" is a metaphor for this decade's global techno-news, being in immediate touch via satellite with practically anyone, anywhere, anytime. "We do it about as well as people in our business do it," Koppel said. "I'm riding the tiger as well as it can be ridden. But I'm not sure how to get off that tiger."

The "tiger" is the technology. "Some nights, I wish the satellite wouldn't work," Koppel said. "I'm not so sure that simply to do it first, slickly, instantly, even competently is the way to to it thoughtfully."

What a shame the satellite worked Wednesday when ABC News crassly rode the "tiger" like a camel in front of those visiting station executives.

The occasion was an extravagant news division hype that at once displayed TV's dazzling technical prowess and a large capacity for manipulation and cynicism.

The theme was liberty, an in-house advertisement for 17-plus hours of programming that ABC will air July 2-6 to mark the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday.

Wednesday's star-spangled ballyhoo ended with a Navy color guard noisily marching to the front of the ballroom, followed by a Navy choir singing patriotic songs (while old footage of immigrants arriving in the United States appeared on a 25-foot screen), followed by the color guard's thunderous exit as some in the standing throng of 1,000 wiped tears from their eyes.

Given ABC's jingoism, you half expected the session to climax with Sylvester Stallone swinging in on a rope.

There's nothing wrong with old-fashioned patriotism--unless it's twisted in a contrived, manipulative way to pump up broadcasters about their own programming.

Before that, moreover, ABC News had arranged for recently released Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky in Jerusalem, black South African leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Johannesburg, Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca in Detroit and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill in Washington (the Gipper himself reportedly wasn't available) to be interviewed separately on that enormous screen via satellite.

The interviewers were news stars Koppel, Barbara Walters, David Brinkley and Peter Jennings, who were in the ballroom with the broadcasting executives. Theater, you bet.

Here was a huge pep rally (that's what affiliate meetings are) at which victims of oppression like Shcharansky and the Nobel laureate Tutu were trotted out as sort of a lounge act to entertain and make this group of affluent TV swells feel good about themselves, ABC and the network's acquisition by Capital Cities Communications.

Shcharansky and Tutu, in turn, exploited the occasion to promote their separate causes. You just had to be there.

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