Forty-two-time Emmy-winning broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, best known for hosting ABC’s “Nightline,” visited Stony Brook University on Wednesday, Nov. 15 as part of the School of Journalism’s (SOJ) “My Life As” speaker series.
In a conversation with SOJ Dean Howard Schneider and in front of a crowd of more than a thousand, Koppel said that thanks to social media and the internet, people’s ideological differences are more visible than ever before.
“You’re watching what you want. You’re watching people who echo your own opinions,” Koppel said to the crowd at the Staller Center for the Arts. “You’re not watching people who don’t echo your own opinions. And I get that.”
He said there is too much opinion in today’s journalism and talk shows, citing how the “The Sean Hannity Show” on Fox News and “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC are bad for journalism in America and the country as a whole. “All it does is make us more angry about our differences,” he said. He warned that division between the left and the right cannot be healed unless people develop “a willingness to accept” that their fellow Americans, who have different points of view, are not evil and are not necessarily always wrong.
Barry Mirsky, a retiree from the manufacturing business who attended Wednesday’s event, said he remembers seeing Koppel on air, reporting from overseas. “I think he’s right that a lot of the journalists color what they’re saying rather than just report the news,” he said. “News is different today.”
“Social media has changed America,” Koppel said. “The more outrageous claims you put out there, the more you get people picking it up and passing it on. It’s a form of journalism; it is a democratization of journalism; it is making a travesty of journalism.” Schneider pointed out what Koppel wrote in his 2001 book, “Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public:”
“The real bigots in our culture have done little or nothing to curb their racism, homophobia or anti-feminism; they just don’t talk about it in public as much anymore… I have a strong feeling, though, that one of these days there will be a gigantic eruption of pent-up hatred.”
That, he said, is exactly what is happening right now, adding that people are sitting at home, spewing racist, anti-semitic, homophobic “garbage” because technology gives millions a sense of privacy. Schneider suggested regulating social media platforms, but Koppel said regulations are not attainable because of the fundamentally decentralized structure of the internet. He also compared the unsuccessful regulations of guns in the country to internet regulations that are unlikely to pass.
Leah Dunaief, an editor and publisher for the Times Beacon Record Newspapers, said she has long been an admirer of Ted Koppel, Howard Schneider and the Stony Brook SOJ. She said she learned that Ted Koppel is “a wonderful spokesperson for the noble side of journalism,” its role, its exceptionalism and the threats it is facing. “He was not, what I would call, really pessimistic. I think he was provocative,” Dunaief said. “And that his ultimate message was ‘it’s up to you, and you can do something about it.’ You being the audience, the consumers of news. I think it was a positive message. We can do it.”
In response to an audience member’s question about returning to fact-based journalism rather than commentary, Koppel said it depends on the news consumers. “If you demand it, you will get it,” he said. “We’re going to face major crisis. You’re going to wish that you had some journalists out there that you could trust, you could believe, all of you,” Koppel said. “Not just left and right, all of you. And you’re never going to get that until you demand it.”