It's not Ted Koppel's fault that the New York Times has made him a Times contributing columnist. As Koppel writes in yesterday's (Jan. 29) debut column, "And Now, a Word from Our Demographic," the invitation came from an "editor friend of mine," so the fault belongs to whoever 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?
In case you missed it, here's the introduction to Koppel's piece, which was so incoherent I could barely follow what he was talking about:
Not all reporters have an unfinished novel gathering dust but many, including this one, do. If that isn't enough of a cliché, this novel's hero is a television anchor (always plant your pen in familiar turf) who, in the course of a minor traffic accident, bites the tip off his tongue. The ensuing speech impediment is sufficient to end his on-air career and he finds himself, recently divorced, now unemployed, at home and watching altogether too much television.
After several weeks of isolation he discovers on his voice mail a message from an old friend, the opinion-page editor of his hometown newspaper. She is urging him to write a piece about television news, which, after some hesitation, he does — with a vengeance:
The earls and dukes and barons of television news have grown sleek and fat eating road kill. The victims, dispatched by political or special interest hit-and-run squads, are then hung up, displayed and consumed with unwholesome relish on television.
They wander the battlefields of other people's wars, these knights of the airwaves, disposing of the wounded from both armies, gorging themselves like the electronic vultures they are.
The popular illusion that television journalists are liberals does them too much honor. Like all mercenaries they fight for money, not ideology; but unlike true mercenaries, their loyalty is not for sale. It cannot be engaged because it does not exist. Their total lack of commitment to any cause has come to be defined as objectivity. Their daily preoccupation with the trivial and the banal has accumulated large audiences, which, in turn, has encouraged a descent into the search for items of even greater banality.
A wounded and bitter fellow, this fictional hero of mine, but his bilious arguments hardly seem all that dated. Now here I sit, having recently left ABC News after 42 years, and who should call but an editor friend of mine who, in a quirky convolution of real life's imitating unpublished fiction, has asked me to write this column examining the state of television news today.
Where to begin?...
Let me proclaim Nyhan's Law of Op-Ed Writing #1: Columns that include the question "Where to begin?" are bad. And of course, there's Nyhan's Law of Op-Ed Writing #2: Old ex-reporters make for awful columnists.
It's enough to make me long for more phoned-in columns from Bob Herbert.