First Words — 07 May 2017
Ted Koppel on journalism and divisive politics

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

Ted Koppel is going to sneeze.

The longest-serving news anchor in U.S. broadcasting history tilts his famous head back. The war correspondent for ABC News who saw 10 conflicts – from Vietnam to Iraq – narrows his eyes. The man who covered John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Montgomery, Richard Nixon’s visit to China, crinkles his nose.

All the signs are there. Ted Koppel’s going to blow.

“Wait, wait,’’ he says, trying not to sneeze in the midst of a cocktail party before his recent sold-out talk for the Broward College Speaker Series. But all of us are reaching for our pocket squares or tissues now. We all want to help the man who interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin on the last day of the Soviet Union, but we’re all leaning out of the potential blast zone, too.

“Wait,’’ he says.

We’ve come to listen to Ted Koppel talk because PRIME – now in its third year as a special issue of City & Shore Magazine – is all about sharing good advice for life after 50 in South Florida. We listen to noted Wellington resident Bruce Springsteen this month, for example, about his struggles with depression. We learn from Rose Bechard-Butman of Plantation how to cook Italian dishes just like her Grandma Josephina used to make. We  learn how to live large and dance “like everyone’s watching” from Fort Lauderdale residents Bob and Diane McDonald.

Koppel is here to talk about the state of journalism, the politics that divide us and to warn us of the dangers of a cyber-attack on the nation’s electrical power grid. In short, he’s here to wake us up. (Full interview, http://www.cityandshore.com/departments/in-the-city-3/ted-koppel-broward-college-speaker-feb-22/).

Koppel had spent the day before coming here with students at Broward College. He may be famous with people in PRIME’s readership demo, but he says he often gets vacant stares from young people born long after his 26-year-run as anchor and managing editor of Nightline.

“Frequently I find, particularly with college-aged youngsters, most of them have never heard of me,” he says. “Largely because they don’t watch TV at all – or if they do, certainly not TV news.”

But he’s surrounded here by people who not only know he’s famous, they watched his reports when Nixon went to China, when Kissinger went to the Middle East, when Nelson Mandela came home to Soweto after 26 years behind bars.

“It’s good to speak to a group where you don’t have to stop and explain who Kissinger is,” he says. Or Nixon. Or Cronkite, Huntley or Brinkley, from the days when there were only three broadcast networks.

But there is advice – and wisdom – behind the microphone here for everyone, young and older. Seen, as PRIME tries to see things, from the perspective of time. Minds over the matters of our lives – our health, our finances, our world.

“We live in a time when we are being told [the media] are the most dishonest people in the world,” he says. “[But], you cannot have a functioning democracy. You cannot have a functioning political system, if there is nobody out there – nobody – who is acceptable to all sides of the political spectrum as a reasonably honest finder of fact. You’re just going to have what we have increasingly today in this country – and that is a divided nation, in which we acutely mistrust one another.”

The line gets a full 10 seconds of applause. Good advice, for here and beyond.

“Think about it, it’s almost whimsical now for us to consider that, 30 years ago, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America,” he says. “There is no such person today.”

Except maybe Ted Koppel.

Who’s about to sneeze.

“Wait,” he says.

He tilts his famous head forward. He opens his narrowed eyes. He uncrinkles his nose.

And somehow, Ted Koppel manages not to blow. We are all left wondering how he did that, as we put away our pocket squares and tissues.

An old broadcaster’s trick? Something he learned from Ed Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith? More good advice for life after 50?

“It’s all just a matter,” he says, “of mind over matter.’’

mgauert@cityandshore.com

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