Monday, September 11, 2006

Koppel on Discovery

Once upon a time, journalists, practitioners of hard news and real reporting, were found on the big three—ABC, CBS and NBC. When I was growing up, it was a ritual in my house to watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News. Keep in mind that this was during the Vietnam War and I still remember the graphic showing the nightly death count, which seemed monumental to me, then only seven or eight-years-old.

The days when Americans hurried through dinner, or ate their meal in front of the television to watch news, aimed at reporting on the events of the day are certainly a thing of the past. While older Americans still regularly watch network news, cable television, which continues its march towards entertainment over journalism, now holds sway with the older set that still values news in a more traditional format, replete with a talking head.

Still, journalists that are holdovers from a time when news mattered—men like Bill Moyers and Ted Koppel—can still be found plying their craft and giving viewers investigative reporting, the likes of the kind some of us remember the mainstream being known for.

While Moyers can now be found on PBS, Koppel has opted to go over to the Discovery Channel, a place where documentaries on UFO’s, mummies and Nazi’s were the modus operandi in programming. Personally, I’ve become a fan of their Mythbusters program. The addition of Koppel shows Discovery’s intention to provide some hard-hitting journalism to their lineup, the kind Koppel became known for during his time on Nightline.

Last night’s 90 minute documentary, "The Price of Security," was an in-depth look at the momentous paradigm shift in our country since 9-11. No longer are issues of freedom, civil liberties and the first amendment tantamount-they now rest secondary to security and fighting the "war on terrah," as our liar-in-chief likes to parrot.

With today marking the fifth anniversary of a day that is one I’ll not forget, simply because I’ve never experienced the kind of fear and human meltdown that I saw around me on that day. I had just started a new job at Unum Provident, in Portland and was in my second day of training when news started filtering in about what was occurring in New York. Our training class was suspended and televisions began being wheeled in for employees to watch the news of what was occurring six hours away in NYC and then, Washington, DC. People were weeping and nearly hysterical. When they allowed us to leave for the day, I was more than happy to accommodate them, as I don’t do well when people lose their emotional bearings.

That memory stays with me, of how people reacted to the events going down. Even my own emotions of anger, confusion and how I was carried by the patriotic and even jingoistic impulses of the aftermath, before I could begin sorting it all out, was with me, while watching the Koppel-produced program, last night.

Sadly, a fraction of Americans watched the documentary, as it was surely not the easy to digest pap that Sunday night programming has become for most, and I’m not even sure the average American would have lasted longer than 10 or 15 minutes, following Koppel’s well-honed technique of building a story, rather than relying on emotion or technological tricks and cutaways for effect. On the flipside, Discovery boasts a viewership of 1.2 billion worldwide, certainly a potential audience for Koppel that is larger than he could have imagined back at ABC.

While most of the programming devoted to 9-11 will be sentimental, feature-driven stories, designed to pull at heartstrings and be woefully short on facts and context, there are still journalists, like Koppel, attempting to build stories and place them within the kind of contextual framework that is necessary for an accurate understanding of issues and stories that by nature, demand more than the usual sound bites we’ve come to expect in our information gathering.

If there are any fans of hard news, back when it mattered and had some meat, then Koppel’s Sunday night news-driven programming might be right up your alley.

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