Ted Koppel Snipes at Rush, Sympathizes With Rather

On the Wednesday "Today" show, Ted Koppel joined NBC's Matt Lauer in refusing to expose the lie behind the Media Matters and Democratic attack on Rush Limbaugh over "phony soldiers", choosing instead to write the controversy off as just another "foolish" thing the talk show host had said. However when asked about Dan Rather's lawsuit of CBS, the former longtime host of ABC's "Nightline" expressed sympathy: "I feel great pain for Dan."

Koppel's compassion wasn't just reserved for Rather but he extended it to criminals too, as he was invited on "Today" to promote his latest Discovery Channel documentary on overcrowded prisons. During the segment, Koppel criticized "three strikes" laws and griped about the state of prisons in this country:

"It's, it's a national problem. And again, it comes back to the subject we started on, the stupidity of the sorts of things that we debate and argue in, in our political process today. Any politician who is trying to get elected and who says, 'You know what we really need is more vocational training for prisoners, we need anger management programs.' That man or woman is not going to get elected but we should be talking about that 'cause all these people are coming back into our society again."

The following is the full segment as it occurred in the 7am half-hour of October 3 "Today" show:

Matt Lauer: "Let's bring in veteran newsman Ted Koppel who just received two news and documentary Emmy awards last week including one for lifetime achievement. First of all, congratulations on that, Ted. Nice to have you here."

Ted Koppel: "Thank you very much, thank you."

Lauer: "I watched you smiling as we were just discussing this Rush Limbaugh thing and with all due respect to the general and to Rush Limbaugh and the members of Congress, is this really, in your opinion, what Americans want their senators to be talking about on the floor of the U.S. Senate?"

Koppel: "No let's, let's have them focus on something really important like Britney Spears. I mean, no! It's ridiculous! I, I, I cannot understand. I mean this is not the first time Rush Limbaugh has said controversial things or foolish things, certainly not the first time I've said foolish things. But if, if that's the best that the U.S. Senate can, can find to debate and discuss, God help us."

Lauer: "I want to talk about your new documentary because it's something very important but I don't get you here very often so let me hit you on a couple of topics."

Koppel: "Sure."

Lauer: "Presidential politics right now. A lot being made over the fact, on the Democratic side, that Hillary Clinton is leading in a lot of the national polls and she's raising more money than Barack Obama. You've covered a lot of these races. What's important? What should we be looking at, at this stage of the game, three months out from the early primaries?"

Koppel: "Well, unfortunately, the money is important. That's what it's come down to. I mean the whole process now has been degraded to the point that whoever is up there in money and whoever is unable to raise that kind of money is effectively barred from the rest of the campaign. They're not gonna be able to keep up. It's not too late for people who are not making a ton of money, still to raise it, but unfortunately that's become the bar."

Lauer: "If you're Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side and you seem to be doing pretty well heading into these first primaries how worried should you be about the chatter that's come out, lately, from some Christian conservatives that they may go for a third party candidate, simply because they don't think Rudy is conservative enough, conservative enough on social issues?"

Koppel: "I think, I think on the Republican side there is simply has not been any, you know on the Democratic side you can say, Hillary Clinton-"

Lauer: "Broken out."

Koppel: "-is clearly the one to beat, and she, she has broken out. On the Republican side that hasn't happened so if I were Rudy Giuliani, at this point, that would disturb me."

Lauer: "Your, your new documentary is on overcrowding in the California prison system. First of all, why did you tackle this subject?"

Koppel: "Well, I mean, I think we have 2.2 million people behind bars in this country, Matt. That's more people than in any country in the world. We have more people in jail, in prison, than any other country. We have four times as many people in prison as we had 25 years ago. The overcrowding in California, which in some, in some respect, is a function of the 'three strikes and you're out' law, was intended-"

Lauer: "Because these guys are sentenced to prison terms whether they are violent or non-violent offenders."

Koppel: "Very, very long. Now the whole purpose, you, remember the Polly Klaas case, the little 12-year-old girl who was raped and then murdered. It was awful, it just outraged the whole country, it outraged voters in California. And they passed this law which now doubles the sentence for anyone who gets a second felony and then for the third felony they get 25 to life. California prisons were built to hold no more than 100,000 prisoners-"

Lauer: "What are they at 170,000 now?"

Koppel: "173,000 now. And, and the conditions are awful."

Lauer: "And 70 percent of the, of the prisoners who were released on parole return to the prison system. So you look at California but this should be, this has impact on the rest of the country."

Koppel: "It's, it's a national problem. And again, it comes back to the subject we started on, the stupidity of the sorts of things that we debate and argue in, in our political process today. Any politician who is trying to get elected and who says, 'You know what we really need is more vocational training for prisoners, we need anger management programs.' That man or woman is not going to get elected but we should be talking about that 'cause all these people are coming back into our society again."

Lauer: "As I, I prepare to let you go, Dan Rather is suing is former network, CBS, for violating his contract. I don't want to get into the case. Personally, though, how do you feel about the way this is playing out with a guy who's been a colleague of yours for a long time?"

Koppel: "It, it just hurts me. I mean, I feel great pain for Dan and you know he was with CBS for about the same length of time I was with ABC, 42, 43 years and I just hate to see a man whose career was so distinguished, you know, reaching that point right now."

Lauer: "Ted Koppel, congrats on the Emmys."

Koppel: "Thank you."

Lauer: "And that Iran documentary I watched before a recent trip I took to Iran, it was incredibly helpful and well done."

Koppel: "Well and when you do your prison story a couple of months from now."

Lauer: "I'll check this out. You're my new researcher. Ted, thanks very much. Appreciate it."

Koppel: "My pleasure."

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.