interviewed. They appear to have a hard time believing that
I would ask a tough question of someone I like. It occurs to
surprisingly few people that I am principally concerned with
extracting information from a guest, and that my tone or apparent
mood or facial expression has little or nothing to do with what
I really think.
Off Camera should
set the record straight. While he doesn't clarify his stances
by listing his political party affiliations, it's readily clear
that Koppel isn't exactly proud of Bill Clinton's personal behavior
in the White House, has great misgivings about the way American
foreign policy is conducted today and is generally unhappy about
the direction America took in the last years of the second millennium.
We watch too much TV, we don't take an active part in our own
democracy, we own too many guns, we sue each other too much,
and we've allowed academia to enforce a "brand of politeness
[that] has terrorized essentially decent people into adopting
acceptable euphemisms in place of plain speaking." But Koppel
reserves some of his greatest ire for his own medium, network
news. Here are a few examples:
- "The networks, increasingly desperate to draw money
out of a shrinking pool of viewers (the pool is actually growing
larger, but those in it have an ever increasing number of options),
have turned to their news divisions to make money. Instead of
expanding, though, the news divisions are being cut back. Instead
of broadening the range of subjects, these divisions are reproducing
mass appeal newsmagazines that are essentially parroting one
another's format, style and subject matter.
"Those with the inclination can find everything they
want and need in print, on NPR or on the Internet. But the networks,
which still reach the largest audiences, are cutting back on
stories they might once have felt an obligation to cover--especially
foreign news. The most accessible media are devolving into the
least useful and daring. The educationally and economically deprived
in our society, who used to receive at least some exposure to
information they might not have selected for themselves, but
from which they might have received some benefit, are now reduced
to watching only what we believe they want; and we have little
confidence in their appetite or range."
- "Much of American journalism has become a sort of competitive
screeching: What is trivial but noisy and immediate tends
to take precedence over important matters that develop quietly
over time. Nor is it simply the fault of journalists. The degree
to which the public avidly consumes journalism as entertainment
and ignores it when it appears as social cartography makes the
sensational nature of what we do almost inevitable."
- "Hardly anybody watches television anymore to be provoked
into thinking. We have undoubtedly brought this upon ourselves.
We have been so responsive to what the consultants have told
us about the shrinking attention span of the American television
viewer that we keep adjusting to meet that diminishing target."
Koppel is, by his own reckoning, a pessimist.
"I have often wondered," he writes, "what it must
be like to have been born with the gift of optimism, to awaken
each morning with a sense of promise and anticipation. I incline
more toward a lingering aftertaste of some half-forgotten disaster,
as though I had gambled away the house in some drunken poker
game." Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine readers taking
offense at Koppel's well-reasoned (if pessimistic) positions.
Koppel is an agile thinker, and the same logic-driven skills
that make his on-camera interviews so compelling also make for
some tightly reasoned arguments in print. To this reader, at
least, Koppel's pessimism seems merely realistic and well-informed,
and his lack of objectivity (as well as his happily exercised
penchant for pessimistic opining) is clearly one of the book's
Much of Off Camera's most enduring
appeal, though, comes from its format: it's drawn from a daily
journal that Koppel kept for the duration of 1999. The inherent
intimacy of the journal format is seductive; it gives us a sense
of stumbling into Koppel's private musings, although they were
clearly written for public consumption. The entries tend to read
more like miniature essays, and it's particularly obvious in
the way he ends the entries, drawing them into a nice, complete
sense of closure. (Who knows, though: perhaps Koppel really would
write a journal in such a formal, reasoned voice. Of the current
pool of national news anchors, he's certainly the most likely
to do so.)
Perhaps most importantly, the fact that each
daily subject is often drawn from that day's events (whether
it's the war in Kosovo or the birthday of Koppel's wife) helps
to keep the text from feeling pedantic or politically strident.
Koppel didn't set out to write a book on the wrong-headedness
of American foreign policy, for example, and the fact that it's
the subject of many journal entries here simply reflects Koppel's
daily occupations. (In this sense, the book's structure is similar
to the daily news: content is determined by daily events.) As
it stands, the big issues of the journal year--first Bill Clinton's
impeachment and then the air strikes in Kosovo--help to draw
back together events that we separate and compartmentalize in
our memories, if we remember them in detail at all, and it also
helps make the recent past read more like an interesting historical
document. (After all, journals are most often written to be read
long after they were written, if they're meant to be read at
The book isn't given over to heady issues
entirely, though. Koppel includes personal stories about himself
(both as a child in an English boarding school and as an adult
with four children of his own) as well as wry, wonderfully understated
observations that can provoke unexpected laughs, like the entry
on how he and the Nightline crew almost liberated four
imprisoned murderers in Kosovo by accident (oops). Or this quietly
amusing entry from November 20th:
There will be a choral recital at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian
Church tomorrow night. A bulletin board in front of the church
advises passersby that the choir will be performing the works
of W.A. Mozart. I wonder what quirk induced the author of that
announcement to add the initials "W.A." Of all the
composers who ever lived, perhaps only Beethoven is better known
than Mozart; but assuming that someone did not know Mozart, would
W.A. help much?
For a millennium-ending year filled with W.J.
Clinton, M. Lewinsky and K. Starr, people can be forgiven, I
suppose, for thinking the circle of single-name entities is limited
to contemporary figures.
Fame over infamy, indeed.