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Commencement speaker Ted Koppel on journalism, Iraq and Berkeley

– Veteran journalist Ted Koppel was chosen by graduating seniors to deliver the keynote address at UC Berkeley's 2004 Commencement Convocation. He has never been to Berkeley previously, despite having attended Stanford University, where he received a master of arts degree in mass communications research and political science.

Koppel is the anchor and managing editor of ABC News "Nightline." A 39-year veteran of ABC News, he is an award-wining journalist who has covered every important story in the past four decades. Prior to "Nightline," Koppel was ABC News’ chief diplomatic correspondent and Hong Kong bureau chief. He joined ABC News in New York as a full-time general assignment correspondent at the age of 23.

UC Berkeley Media Relations spoke with Koppel earlier this week about his journalism career, the conflict in Iraq and what he’ll tell graduates at the ceremony.

Q. You receive many invitations to speak at graduations each year. Why did you accept Cal’s invitation this year?

A. Because you gave me absolutely nothing in return, so I knew there was no hidden agenda! No, the snotty remarks aside, I know the University of California, Berkeley, is a great, great university, and I try to pick one commencement speech each year I want to give. And this was the one I wanted to give this year.

Q. Why do you give a commencement address each year? Is it an attempt to reach a younger audience?

A. That, and in writing a commencement speech, you have to sit down sometimes for a day or days and focus your thinking a little bit. In broadcast journalism, I’m afraid you tend to get into the habit of forcing very complex thoughts into a very limited amount of time. On "Nightline," I have more time than I would normally have if I were just doing a report on the evening news. Nevertheless, everything tends to be tightly put together. The chance to give a 10-15 minute address to as large and smart a group of people as the Berkeley graduates and their families is an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

Q. The graduates you will be addressing are part of the generation that is increasingly getting their news not from network television, but from the Internet, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s "Daily Show," Jay Leno and David Letterman. Does that concern you?

A. Yes, it does actually. What concerns me, though, is not so much people like Jon Stewart , Jay Leno and David Letterman. They are very, very smart, very funny guys. I’m not really concerned if they are dealing with issues of importance. Satirists have been doing that for hundreds of years, and they do it extremely well. I’m much more concerned about the fact that newsmen are trying to act like entertainers than I am by the fact that entertainers are pretending to be news people.

Q. Is "Nightline" trying to reach a younger audience?

A. I don’t go out of my way to reach any particular group. Frankly, once you start doing that, why not say we’re trying to reach young men between ages of 18-25. That’s exactly what the advertisers I think would have us do. But I don’t think that’s an appropriate thing for a news program to do. Of all the programs that are on network television, the ones that really have to try and resist that pressure to shape the news to fit a particular audience is the news programming division. We’re fortunate on "Nightline" that we probably come under less pressure than any other broadcast in television to do that.

Q. You think the show can still be relevant to a younger audience?

A. Of course I do. Is the economy relevant to the young? Is going off and fighting in Iraq relevant to the young? Is disease or the environment relevant to the young? If the answer to those questions is no, then I guess I’m in the wrong business. There is nothing inherently new about the fact that young people tend to be less interested in the news when they’re in college, when they’re still relatively carefree, when for the most part they’re not yet married, they don’t yet have families. Once people start to have families of their own and start to worry about taxes and health insurance and terrorism and wars and all the things that are going to have an immediate impact on them and their own lives, that’s when they start to read the newspapers and watch television or, these days, consult the Internet. I have no doubt this generation, if it isn’t already doing it, will do it in a few more years when they feel the need to.

Q. You were an embedded correspondent with the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division as they invaded Iraq last year. Based on what you saw, did you have any sense that we would be where we are now?

A. Absolutely. But it wasn’t based on what I saw, it’s based on conversations I was having with senior military people at the time who were saying to me that they had few if any major concerns about their ability to win the first phase of the war. But they were much more concerned about what they perceive to be a failure to create a realistic plan for what was optimistically referred to as the postwar period, after the major fighting was over. And I think they all felt, at least the ones I spoke to, that there was insufficient planning, insufficient personnel, and that the post major-combat period would be the most difficult period of all.

Q. Recently, there was a great deal of controversy over the "Nightline" show you called "The Fallen," in which you read the names of the soldiers killed in Iraq. Sinclair Broadcasting decided not to air the show on its ABC stations. Were you surprised by the reaction?

A. When you say reaction, I infer from that, the negative reaction. When I hear the word reaction, I have to tell you, we got, after the program was on the air, in that 24-36-hour period before, during and after, we got about 75,000-80,000 e-mails in which about 90 percent were positive. So, the reaction was overwhelmingly good. But the reaction that got most of the attention was that which was bad.

Q. What does it say about the climate of journalism that the Sinclair Broadcasting group would exert its opinion and pull the show?

A. Unfortunately, that is quite old. If you go back to the early 1950s, there were lists that were issued by anti-Communist organizations putting pressure on advertisers to drop certain programs because the host of that program or the person who was the star of that program was perceived for one reason or another to be pro-Communist. And pro-Communist in those days could be anyone who was seen as, you know, one inch to the left of center, was frequently smeared with that label of being pro-Communist. So we’ve actually gone through worse times in years past. But that happens periodically.

Q. What other trends in journalism concern you?

A. As I said at the outset, one trend that concerns me is the tendency of a lot of my colleagues these days to drift too much in the area of entertainment. I don’t think that’s what we’re here for. I don’t think the purpose of journalism is to entertain. That doesn’t mean we should make an effort to be as dull and boring as possible in our presentation of the news. I think there are thousands of interesting subjects that can be presented in a fascinating way. But I think when we arrive at a point that you can sometimes watch a cable television network and get the impression that the three most important things going on in the world are Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson, there is something wrong with that perception of what television news should be about.

Q. Are there one or two stories that have not received significant mass media attention that you believe should receive major attention?

A. Inevitably, the business of being in journalism involves on a daily basis excluding 90 percent of the stories that are arguably just as important as the 10 percent you include. Is the prisoner abuse story from Abu Ghraib in Baghdad truly the most important thing going on in the world today? Certainly we have focused a great deal of attention on it on "Nightline." I’m sure you can make an excellent argument that the environment deserves just as much attention or tax policy deserves just as much attention or universal health insurance deserves just as much or more attention. On any day, that’s the process we go through. We debate among ourselves as to whether we should be doing yet another program on the prison abuse story or yet another program on what’s happening in Iraq rather than focus on some of the domestic stories that are arguably are just as — or even more important — to an American audience.

Q. With all the stories you’ve reported, all the people you’ve interviewed, what were the one or two most memorable stories you’ve covered?

A. I’m asked that often. Let me try to explain why I have such a hard time answering it. I’ve been doing "Nightline" for almost 25 years. We do it 256 times a year, so that’s well over 6,000 programs. We tend to have a couple of guests on each program, so that’s 12,000-plus guests. There was a time when Tammy Faye Baker was the most interesting person in the world, and I was delighted to be able to talk to her and her husband, Jimmy. There was my old friend, Morrie Schwartz, who really gave millions of people around this country a sense of how to face and treat the prospect of dying in a common and graceful manner. I would have to tell you talking to Nelson Mandela on the afternoon that he came out of prison after 25 years was certainly one of the most exciting moments of my life. So was sitting on a stage with Israelis and Palestinians back in the mid-'80s and doing the first town meeting in which Israelis and Palestinians actually spoke to one another. I’ve been blessed to be present at some of the most interesting times talking to the most interesting people over the last 41 years that I’ve been with ABC News. So, it is hard to put a top one on the list.

Q. You have won every award there is to win for a journalist and you’ve covered the major stories. What keeps you going, what keeps you motivated?

A. I love the work. I really do. I can’t think of anything more interesting or exciting than beginning the day by looking around saying, ‘What’s the most interesting thing happening today? Who are the most interesting people I can talk to?’ And, periodically, ‘What are the most interesting places I can go to?’ And to be allowed to participate even once removed in the most interesting times of our lives or certainly in my life. In the early mid-'60s, I was down in Alabama, marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. In the mid-'60s, I began the first of three-and-a-half years in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I was with Gorbachev, in his office in the Kremlin, when the Soviet flag came down and the Russian flag went up for the first time. I never would have been privy to all those events or meeting all those people if I hadn’t been a journalist. And the question of what keeps me going is that tomorrow I have the chance of doing it again.

Q. There will certainly be aspiring journalists in the audience. What’s your advice to those want to pursue a career in this field?

A. Only go into journalism if you really feel the quiver going down your spine at the thought of being able to go to cover whatever the story may be. Don’t get into it because of the money. Don’t get into because you think you get to be well-known. Because if you don’t love the industry, if you don’t love what I’ve been describing, if that doesn’t strike you as the most exciting way of spending your life, no amount of money or fame will compensate you for the high cost of doing that, the disappointments inherent in doing that.