Slate's Shafer: Ted Koppel Stinks As A Columnist, His First Piece a "Disaster"

Ted Koppel produced his first column as a New York Times contributing columnist on Sunday, and Slate's "Press Box" media critic Jack Shafer didn't mince words. His headline calls it an "embarrassing debut." He makes it sound like Koppel is the editorial-page equivalent of a one-week wonder on "Skating With Celebrities." He begins by noting...

the invitation [to be a Times columnist] came from an "editor friend of mine," so the fault belongs to whomever assigned, accepted, and edited or rewrote Koppel's self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, late-to-the-party, and punishingly obvious 1,500-word piece about the state of television news. (It's bad.) It's not even Koppel's fault if he thinks he's any good at this columnist thing, when he isn't. If we were to belittle every person who stretched his talents until they pop, we'd have little time for anything else.

So, my critique isn't personal, it's institutional. Based on what did the Times think Koppel could write a compelling newspaper column? Did they not see disaster in this piece? If in his very first column Koppel is quoting his unfinished novel about a "television anchor … who, in the course of a minor traffic accident, bites the tip off his tongue," can his next column quote from his 2000 book, Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public, his column after that quote from a memorandum he wrote to his Nightline staff at ABC News, and a subsequent column cite something Roone Arledge scribbled on a napkin in 1979?

Now, it should be said that Ted Koppel possesses skills and talents that many don't. His ability to master new subjects—seemingly overnight—and conduct tough but fair interviews that inform has always impressed me. But if I give that one to Koppel, I want him to admit that he's not even as good at column-writing as the journeymen opinion columnists who labor at the low-status Copley News Service. Koppel's dubious ascent reminds me of the syndicated columnist who, after Pope John Paul II launched his own syndicated column, announced he was going to start writing encyclicals on the side...

As I read Koppel's lame op-ed one last time, I wondered if I had been overrating him all these years. Granted, it's only one column, but had it arrived at the New York Times over the transom and without Koppel's byline, I'm certain the op-ed page would have rejected it.

Koppel's piece is buried behind the wall at Times Select, so it's hard to read more than the bits and pieces bloggers have pulled out, but it does sound as if he hasn't produced one ounce of a new thought. Editor and Publisher tries to summarize here.

UPDATE: The liberals at Free Press reproduce Koppel here. The sentence they highlight is especially incorrect: "The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point… It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see." The search for profit did lead Koppel to a few light programs (Tonya and Nancy, the making of guitars), but they hardly went to Vietnam for John Kerry's side of the Swift Boat story for the profitability.

PS: If you missed it, Shafer was terrific in debunking the myth George Clooney has been trying to create around Edward R. Murrow's hatchet job on McCarthy in "Good Night and Good News."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis