Koppel vs. Letterman: A Little Perspective, Please

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I never thought I'd say this, but the David-Letterman-vs.-"Nightline" controversy has actually made me feel sorry for Michael Eisner.

ABC and parent company Disney are being accused of selling out journalism itself — all for negotiating with the late-night talk-show host to jump from CBS and replace Ted Koppel. (Letterman draws younger viewers and so more advertiser's dollars, whereas news programs are traditionally a magnet for Metamucil ads.) The news sent New York's chattering class into a frenzy; as of this writing, this national crisis has prompted three front-page New York Times articles, and counting.

A little perspective, please. It would be a shame if "Nightline" were canceled. It's an outstanding news program, one of too few that try to understand issues in terms deeper than sound-bites. Ted Koppel (on the decreasing number of days when he still hosts the show) is TV's best news interviewer, or close to it. I hope he stays on the air, at ABC or elsewhere, even though "Nightline"'s days seem to be numbered even if Letterman stays put.

But — and I know this is a risky thing to tell readers who are actually blowing their time surfing a news website — "Nightline" is not sacred. And it's not a public entitlement.

In all honesty, the journalistic uproar over "Nightline" is more than a little bit self-serving. (And, just maybe, slightly offensive to steelworkers, or nurses, or others who do valuable jobs who don't see their own firings trumpeted as a violation of the public trust.) Journalists don't like to see other journalists lose their jobs — unless it's Tina Brown — and ABC News has a lot of friends.

So when Disney signals that "Nightline" is a goner, it commits the faux pas of reminding all journalists of our own job insecurity. We take that personally. We're indignant to learn that anyone might run Disney like what it is: a company in business to make money. (Dedicated to the bottom line! Have they no shame?!) By the weekend, one commentator after another insinuated that Disney was doing something insidious by going after Letterman for "ratings" or "advertising dollars," as if there was something inherently immoral in TV — unlike any other business — about succeeding on that business' own terms.

Friday on CNN, analyst Jeff Greenfield (a former longtime ABC News fixture) was holding forth with anchor Judy Woodruff about "Nightline." "A generation ago," he harrumphed, "There was such a thing in television as the public interest." But Greenfield certainly also knows that, roughly a generation ago, there was no "Nightline." The program started in 1980 as "America Held Hostage," an outgrowth of ABC's nightly running coverage of the Iran hostage crisis. It grew into the respected institution it is because of ABC's initial desire to cover day by day, new news or not, a hot story — that is, its desire, dare we say it, to capitalize in the ratings and make a buck.

I know the public-interest argument: the networks use the public airwaves, multi-billion dollar assets that they don't pay a cent for, so they owe the public a certain amount of public-affairs programming, even if it costs them. It's a valid point. But the ideal solution would be not to give the networks that access for free, but rather make them pay, and let the people decide how to spend that money in their own interest.

Regardless, even given the public-interest argument, does ABC owe it to you and me to keep "Nightline" on the air, even at the cost of millions in additional revenue that Letterman would bring? Or more to the point, does ABC owe us more than their competitors do? If ABC owes it to America to keep Ted Koppel on at 11:35 p.m., why aren't media critics jumping on CBS and NBC, who don't have an 11:35 news program to begin with?

Because the "Nightline" controversy is less about that one show than about journalists' eternal belief that the golden age of their profession is always twenty years before whatever the present time happens to be. Critics of Disney contend, with some justification, that this controversy shows the dangers of media consolidation: that giant corporations like Disney will gladly axe a top news show to make money. But in the golden age that these critics appearently long for, before cable, TV news was the monopoly of three outlets, ABC, CBS and NBC, run by paternalistic white men. If that wasn't media consolidation, what is? Paddy Chayefsky's "Network," which lampooned network heads as profit-driven morons willing to turn news into entertainment for ratings, came out years before "Nightline" ever made the air.

None of which means we shouldn't mourn losing "Nightline." But it does mean you should beware of journalistic sages peddling golden ages. If "Nightline" is canceled, we'll be poorer for it, but we will survive.

In the meantime, maybe someone could start running nightly half-hour saturation coverage of the "Nightline" crisis. Call it "Koppel Held Hostage." The way this story is going, that show could be on the air for another 20 years.