Ted Koppel, an icon of broadcast journalism, said Friday Arabic television news channel Al Jazeera was one of many news outlets that sought to hire him when he left ABC News in November, but he never seriously considered working there.
Koppel, who recently joined cable television’s Discovery Channel, said he and longtime producing partner Tom Bettag had lunch with an Al Jazeera executive, but it “didn’t take long for us to decide that that’s not what we were going to do.”
“I don’t think Tom and I entertained it more more than 38 seconds,” the former “Nightline” anchor said at an annual winter gathering of TV critics in Pasadena. He declined to detail Al Jazeera’s overture to him, except to say, “There wasn’t anything there that Tom and I found very interesting.”
The Bush administration has criticized Al Jazeera for what it considers inflammatory reports, including instances in which the network has been the first to broadcast statements from reputed Al Qaeda leaders.
“I know it’s fashionable to look at Al Jazeera as just a propaganda outlet for al Qaeda,” Koppel said. “I can tell you that al Jazeera is a huge step up from where the Arab world’s journalism has been over the last 40 years.”
Veteran “Nightline” correspondent Dave Marash recently accepted a job with the 24-hour English-language service Al Jazeera plans to launch this year.
Asked his opinion of American journalists going to work for Al Jazeera, Koppel defended Marash’s decision.
“Dave Marash is a superb reporter. He is as honest as the day is long,” Koppel said. “If he feels in any way ... that he is being used or misused by Al Jazeera, I’m sure Dave will leave as quickly as he has signed on.”
Marash was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Friday as acknowledging that Al Jazeera’s coverage reflects an Arab point of view but called the Mideast-based network “a thoroughly respectable news organization.”
New ‘Discovery’ roleThe British-born Koppel, 65, ended his 42-year ABC News career with his final “Nightline” broadcast in November. Last week he signed a multiyear deal to produce and host programs for Discovery, with Bettag and other former “Nightline” staffers. Discovery is a cable network that focuses on educational and documentary programming.
Koppel has also reached deals to provide periodic commentary for The New York Times and to serve as a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. But Koppel said television will remain his principal endeavor.
“The Discovery Channel is clearly our main place, really our only place of employment,” he said. “I have contractual agreements with both the Times and NPR, but where I work is the Discovery Channel.”
Koppel declined to pass judgment on the new three-anchor team and format that replaced him on “Nightline,” the program he built into a late-night TV news institution 25 years ago during the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis.
But he chided the major broadcast networks for what he described as softening their focus on consequential journalism in pursuit of higher ratings among an increasingly fragmented audience, especially younger viewers.
He cited cutbacks in overseas coverage and said major network news divisions were “staying away from the more serious stories” and in-depth coverage of complex topics.
Koppel pointed to the success of NPR, which he said had “built a really massive audience by doing all the things the major [TV] networks seem to be afraid of.”
The former “Nightline” host said he and Bettag would likely begin their Discovery tenure in the fall with programs exploring changes in U.S. society and politics five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.