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Koppel: 'We can't just get lost in our own little bubble'

| Friday, March 24, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Ted Koppel
Pittsburgh Speakers Series
Ted Koppel

In a Gallup Poll conducted in September 2016, only 32 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media.

The root of the public's mistrust goes back three decades, according to broadcast journalist Ted Koppel. When the Fairness Doctrine — a 1949 Federal Communications Commission policy that required broadcasters to supply contrasting viewpoints on controversial topics, especially political issues — was abolished in 1987, the floodgates for opinion-based news were opened.

“Once that was lifted it created, most notably, an outlet for a fellow named Rush Limbaugh who was able to express his very strong point of view and it became extremely popular,” says Koppel, who appears March 29 at Heinz Hall as a guest of Pittsburgh Speakers Series sponsored by Robert Morris University. “Then you have a fellow by the name of Rupert Murdoch, working with Roger Ailes, who decided the television networks were too liberal with their news editions, and they created Fox. All of a sudden we went from having largely balanced points of view being expressed on the networks, radio and television stations, to largely partisan points of view.”

Add the explosion of news outlets via cable and the Internet, Koppel says, and it's no wonder the public's faith in the media has plummeted.

Koppel hosted the award-winning “Nightline” for 25 years on ABC, and is currently a special contributor to “CBS News Sunday Morning.” The recipient of eight George Foster Peabody awards, 12 Columbia-DuPont awards, and an incredible 42 Emmy awards — including one for lifetime achievement — Koppel remains a keen advocate for journalism. During the Republican convention last year, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told Koppel, “We don't need you guys anymore,” referring to the media.

Koppel defends the need for journalists, and insists the democratization of news gathering does not bode well for an informed citizenry. In the same way that representatives are elected to govern, journalists provide an essential service.

“I happen to think the idea of having professional journalists out there,” Koppel says, “who can spend their day combing through information and actually having some professional training in sifting through fact from fiction, in double- and triple-checking sources, in working within an organization that has editors who double- and triple-check what they write, I think there's value in that. And maybe we're beginning to realize that in this country.”

There is, however, room for improvement. Since President Trump took office, Koppel gives the media a “B” for its coverage of the new administration. He notes the concern many newspapers have expressed for President Trump's demeanor and policies.

“They've been openly critical of the way he's been dealing with things,” Koppel says. “I think they have pretty well justified what they have written, but the fact of the matter is by being so openly adversarial, I think it has simply divided the country even more than it was. I think the mainstream media may have to back off a little bit, although in the long run I'm not sure that would make much of a difference.”

Koppel's advice: Journalists should put aside any biases and approach every story professionally.

“I think the attitude now is if the president's going to call us fake media, well then war has been declared,” he says. “We can't afford to get into that kind of war.”

While the media bears responsibility for the public's lack of trust, Koppel thinks consumers of news owe it to themselves to be well-rounded and well-informed. That means reading a variety of opinions from a diversity of sources.

To ignore one side or the other “just adds to more and more extreme partisanship,” Koppel says. “I think the citizen's responsibility is to seek out opinions of all kinds and to try, as best we all can, to seek out facts. That means listening to opinions we don't necessarily like. It means occasionally reading or watching or listening to outlets we might not think are consistent with our own views. We need to know what our fellow citizens are thinking about and talking about. We can't just get lost in our own little bubble or our own little opinion silo.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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