Ted Koppel to visit BU, receive journalism award for lifetime achievement
By Tim Stoddard
Like many aspiring journalists, Ted Koppel overcame his share of obstacles early in his career. In 1963, the 23-year-old Koppel had just been hired by ABC News as a general assignment correspondent, recalls William Lord, a COM professor of journalism, who was then the Washington producer for ABC’s evening newscasts. “We sent Ted out for his first story in Miami,” Lord says, “and when he came back and sent his film into the lab, it came out absolutely blank.” Koppel’s audio recording was crystal clear, but the camera had malfunctioned. “Ted had been working for a radio station before that,” Lord says, “and I allowed as how Ted, this is television, we need video with the audio.” The story never made it on the air.
Despite his rough introduction to TV, Koppel has gone on to become one of the most distinguished television news personalities in the past 25 years. “He is internationally recognized and respected, has a lifetime unblemished record, and is greatly respected by all of his peers,” says John Schulz, dean of COM. Koppel, who is perhaps best known as the founding anchor of ABC’s Nightline, will come to Boston University on Friday, November 19, to accept the College of Communication’s first annual Hugo Shong Lifetime Journalism Achievement Award. He will field questions from students and faculty at 3 p.m. in the SMG auditorium, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis.
Established earlier this year by Shong (COM’87, GRS’90), the award will be given annually to a print or broadcast journalist whose body of work exemplifies the highest quality of reporting and analysis. The selection committee consists of Schulz, faculty from the COM department of journalism, one or more distinguished local or national journalists, and a University faculty member not affiliated with the college. The award carries a $35,000 prize.
“I have established these awards to give back to Boston University and to honor those journalists whose lifetime contributions are noteworthy,” says Shong, who earlier this year received an Alumni Award, the highest recognition BU gives to its graduates. Shong will present the award to Koppel at a private evening dinner reception on November 19.
Beginning in spring 2005, COM will present the annual Hugo Shong Journalist of the Year Award for Reporting on Asia to a print journalist for outstanding reporting on Asian issues during the previous year. Regardless of the journalist’s nationality, the reports must be published in an English language newspaper or newsmagazine. The winner will receive a $15,000 prize and will be invited to speak at COM’s Commencement exercises in May.
A persistent questioner
Before the first airing of Nightline in 1980, Koppel was ABC News’ chief diplomatic correspondent, which included covering Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “Kissinger was a central figure in Ted’s career,” says Robert Zelnick, a COM professor of journalism and department chair. A former senior correspondent for ABC News, Zelnick worked with Koppel from 1977 to 1998, and he recalls Koppel’s coverage of Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. “Ted learned diplomacy at the feet of the great master,” Zelnick says. “You had to listen extremely carefully to every word Kissinger said, because without his telling a lie, you could find yourself drawing the wrong conclusion and being misled. Koppel has publicly credited Henry Kissinger, with whom he became very friendly, with teaching him to be a careful and reflective journalist beyond what he had been to that point.”
In 1975 and 1976, while anchoring The ABC Saturday Evening News, Zelnick says, Koppel quickly came to be known as a skilled and thorough interviewer. “Ted became such a persistent questioner that he caught Roone’s eye,” he says, referring to Roone Arledge, president of ABC. Arledge was looking for an engaging personality to promote as anchor of a new show that would fill the half-hour time slot between 11:30 and midnight, “where ABC would be up against old movies or The Johnny Carson Show,” says Zelnick. Koppel was hired in 1979 to anchor America Held Hostage, a 30-minute nightly special following the plight of American hostages in Iran. In March 1980, ABC replaced that show with Nightline, with Koppel as anchor and Lord as executive producer. “The four years I spent working with Ted and the staff at Nightline,” says Lord, “were among the best of my entire career at ABC news, which spanned 31 years.”
The show put Koppel well on his way to becoming a celebrity. “It had a spectacular debut,” says Zelnick, “because it was a serious show and it had a great executive producer in Bill Lord. It received tremendous reviews, and Koppel became an instant superstar.”
Koppel earned his reputation through interviews that often exposed pop icons in unexpected ways. “He exemplified all that’s best and finest in journalistic question-and-answer sessions when he interviewed Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in 1987,” says Schulz. “Within half an hour, he exposed the many flaws in those two charismatic religious figures. It was reminiscent of the famous Edward R. Murrow program on Senator Joseph McCarthy.”
Zelnick says that Koppel has set a high bar for future winners of the Hugo Shong Lifetime Achievement Award. “He would be on anybody’s short list of the most outstanding journalists of the past 25 years,” he says. “He was always on the right side in public issues when the networks were scaling back their coverage. He never allowed his show to become schlocky in order to chase ratings. In terms of consistent quality, Nightline has stood up there with the best programs in the history of television journalism.”