Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

A Journal of Bill Clinton's Plague Year
Ted Koppel's Off Camera:
Private Thoughts Made Public

by Doug Childers

For readers who have wondered about Ted Koppel's positions on issues like foreign policy, broadcast news and Bill Clinton's impeachment, Off Camera should set the record straight. Much of the book's most enduring appeal, though, comes from its format: it's drawn from a daily journal that Koppel kept for the duration of 1999.

Until now, Ted Koppel, Nightline's anchor since 1980, has kept his own opinions to himself for obvious professional reasons. After all, journalistic ethics demand that news anchors remain objective in all but the most universally tragic stories (stories of famine, war and natural disasters allow at least a look of concern or a voice conveying grave compassion, since no one would reasonably take the other side in the story). But, as Koppel writes in the Introduction to his new book, Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public, that hasn't kept people from projecting various opinions onto him.


They presume to know my politics, my views on such matters as abortion and gun control. They draw their inferences from a raised eyebrow or a tone of voice. If myquestions are nonconfrontational, they presume my sympathy for the person being

Off Camera:
Private Thoughts Made Public

Ted Koppel
Alfred A. Knopf
320 pp.
$25 order now logo

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 strongest qualities.

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 all.)

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.
 Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.