By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
That voice was on the phone – the measured eloquence, the authoritative tone, the civilized lexicon that kept us up late to listen to Nightline as much as to watch it.
It was the gentle voice of Ted Koppel – and it was scaring the hell out of me.
“I think the danger of a cyber-attack on our electric power grid is arguably one of the two or three major threats facing the United States today,” said the venerable broadcast journalist in a recent conversation with City & Shore.
For 25 years a national late-night TV fixture on the ABC news show, Koppel has lately become a kind of Paul Revere for the cyber age. Last year he gave about 50 lectures here and overseas on the forewarnings of his 2015 bestseller, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, also published in paperback last October. That issue holds a personal resonance – his first five years were lived in the darkness of Britain’s WWII blackouts – and it colored the broader topic of his sold-out appearance Wednesday night (Feb. 22) for the Broward College Speaker Series, “Breaking News: A Look Around the Globe.”
The award-winning newsman still dangles his toes in television with occasional spots on CBS Sunday Morning – his scrimmage with candidate Trump was an election-year highlight – and he’s also a passionate advocate for COPD. Koppel turns 77 this month, but says he only recently gave up motorcycling and is still an avid skier, hiker and biker.
The following Q&A is first from our interview with Koppel in the February issue of City & Shore Magazine; the last three are from the audience Wednesday night at the Broward Center.
City & Shore: After last year’s election, how badly do you wish you were still anchoring Nightline?
TK: Actually not at all. I’m happy to be more or less on the sidelines. I think it would be too painful to be dealing with this on a night-by-night basis.
C&S: What do you feel the election portends for the future of political campaigns?
TK: Social media now plays such an enormous role. Donald Trump claims to have 25 million followers on Facebook and Twitter, which means, as he told me, he doesn’t need people like me acting as an intermediary with the public anymore. He is able to communicate with his followers directly – and he does. That gives tremendous power to a larger-than-life figure like Donald Trump. People like him are going to end up playing an enormous role in our political process from here on in. And there is a tendency for more traditional politicians, like a Jeb Bush, to get lost in the shuffle. So I’m not sure that we have seen the last of the kind of campaign that we have seen this time around. It may not be with another figure as flamboyant as Trump, but it could be. And whereas in generations past, the traditional mainstream media played a tremendous role in shaping public opinion, they have lost a lot of influence.
C&S: Your speech here is titled ‘Breaking News.’ What topics do you expect to cover?
TK: I tend to shape the lectures according to what is really first and foremost in the public mind at that time, but the foundation of what I talk about is what you and I have actually been discussing right now – and that is the changing nature of media and its influence. I focus a significant amount on the danger of cyber warfare and our inability, or at least unpreparedness at the moment, for the consequences of that.
C&S: Your book is terrifying. How would you describe the response it’s received?
TK: I’ve been very gratified. The hardcover sold close to 150,000 copies, which for a book like that is quite a lot. It was on The New York Times bestseller list for six weeks. To the degree that there has been criticism from the electric-power industry, it’s been muted and very generalized. It falls in the category of: ‘It’s not as bad as Ted Koppel says it is and we are far more capable of defending the grid than he thinks we are.’ Having said that, there’s no evidence. And there’s certainly no evidence of the federal or state governments having made preparations to deal with the consequences.
C&S: Has there been any governmental response?
TK: The answer from the Department of Homeland Security is again, ‘We think the electric power industry is far more resilient than Ted Koppel says it is’ – but no evidence of that. And as for the principal charge that there is no plan specifically designed for the aftermath of an attack on the grid, there has been no response whatsoever. I’ve given several lectures to groups associated with the FBI, the industry itself, the security industry. And people within that industry and law enforcement take me aside and say, ‘Ted, from what I know, it’s even worse than what you think it is.’
And if you look at the news every day, I think we would be naïve in the extreme if we thought the only kinds of cyber-attacks that we need to worry about are intelligence cyber-attacks or stealing money from a bank or getting into the Democratic National Committee’s emails. To think that there will never be an attack on our infrastructure – when there have already been such attacks against the power industry in Ukraine, for example – is just terribly naïve. We have to deal with the reality that cyber warfare is now one of the principal tools governments use because A) it’s effective and B) it’s very hard to trace.
C&S: What drives you to remain so relevant, not only on this topic but in general?
TK: I’m nosy. Look, isn’t that ultimately at the bottom of every journalist’s motivation. We keep asking these ridiculous questions:
Why? What? How? When? Where? We are fundamentally people who are not easily satisfied and want to know the reasons why.
C&S: Along those lines, since you are the consummate interviewer, what is the question you would ask Ted Koppel?
TK: Oh, no [chuckles]. I’ve been at this game too long to fall for that kind of gimmick. You’re not gonna get any help from me. And, frankly, it sort of raises an interesting question. I often wonder why people sometimes don’t say, ‘That’s just not a question I’m going to answer.’
C&S: I’ll rely on a more traditional question then. Which journalist had the biggest influence on you?
TK: Actually it was a trio of broadcasters. Ed Murrow, because he got me excited about journalism in the first place. Then Eric Sevareid, who was such an elegant writer and a wonderful historian and journalist. And then Howard K. Smith, who when he came to ABC became sort of a role model for me.
C&S: I read about the time you elicited vacant stares from a group of young Nightline interns when you spoke about such newsmen.
TK: I could tell they were a little slack-jawed at meeting ‘the famous anchor.’ I was trying to get them to understand that the fame of an anchorman is very fleeting and I did that by raising the names of people – the Chet Huntleys, the David Brinkleys, the Walter Cronkites – folks who were not part of their generation but were known to almost every American at the time they were active and whose fame faded after about 15 years. I was simply making the point that the half-life of an anchor’s fame is about 10 years.
C&S: You seem to have bucked that trend.
TK: I wouldn’t say I have. Frequently I find, particularly with college-aged youngsters, most of them have never heard of me. Largely because they don’t watch TV at all – or if they do, certainly not TV news.
C&S: How does that make you feel?
TK: Old. But you know something? The fame shouldn’t really mean as much as it does to us when we have it – and losing it shouldn’t mean that much to us either. I find that very often people put it into proper context at the checkout line at the supermarket in a strange location. The person behind the counter looks up and says, ‘Oh, I know you,’ and they get all excited. ‘You know I saw so-and-so here the other day’ – and they mention the local weatherman. In their mind, you and the local weatherman are identical because you both appear in the same box. And that puts it in its proper context. We all just appear in the same box.
C&S: Now that you’ve put it like that, I hesitate to ask: What is the most rewarding part of your career?
TK: I know it’s a hackneyed old phrase, but I have been an eyewitness to history. Truly, I’ve been present at some of the most extraordinary times. I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. I did one of the first interviews with Nelson Mandela when he came out of prison after 26 years. I was sitting across the desk from Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin on his last day in office when he was on the phone with President Bush saying goodbye as the Soviet flag came down for the last time and the Russian flag went up. These are incredible memories and times to have been alive and present. And that’s what being a journalist allows you to do.
More Q&A from Ted Koppel’s appearance Feb. 22 at the Broward Center.
Q. There has to be a moment, in your 50 years of journalism, that simply knocked your socks off. What was it?
T.K. The story I’m going to tell you about really did not so much knock my socks off, it was like a punch to the solar plexus. The story was as follows. A young G.I. in Saigon met and fell in love with a young Vietnamese woman. And they had a child. He had to leave Vietnam and was not able to bring the young woman with him. He ended up marrying here in the United States, and some 18 or 20 years later he confessed to his wife that before he had met her there had been this relationship. And he wanted to go back and see if he could find his daughter. And if he could he was going to bring her back to the United States. And his wife must have been an extraordinary woman, because she said yes. And he did, and miraculously, he found this young woman. And he brought her back to this country, where she learned and spoke very good English. And I learned about this a couple of years after the event. And I said, you know, that’s a lovely story. I’d like to bring her on. And she came on the program. And I said to her, ‘Tell me, of all the things you’ve experienced since you came to the United States, what has had the biggest impression on you?’ And she said, ‘the sky.’ And I said, ‘the sky? I spent 3 1/2 years in Vietnam, and, as I recall, the sky there looked pretty much like the sky here.’ Oh, no, she said, ‘In Vietnam, I was much too ashamed to look up.’ You know, I just choked up at that point. It just came out of nowhere. And curiously, when you end up interviewing very famous people, you’re sort of prepared to be awed. And you’re prepared to have your breath taken away. And it rarely happens. And this young woman just came out of nowhere. And what she said came out of nowhere.
Q. What would you like us to encourage students to know about journalism, whether they want to pursue that line of work or just to become an informed citizen?
T.K. We now live in this universe of alternate facts – or alternative – facts. We live in a time when we are being told that we [the media] are the most dishonest people in the world. There’s some competition out there, I’d like to point out. We’re not the most dishonest. And I think some of us try very hard to be honest. But the universe of journalists is now so enormous and requires no … license requirement, you don’t have to pass any professional standards… You can do it all on your own. You just go online, [and] there you are. And everybody’s voice seems to have equal weight. Dangerous times. 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. That’s a bad start.
Q. Do you believe this Administration [is engendering prejudice] and making it legitimate among people who feel this way privately to go public with their hatred?
T.K. There’s a wonderful book called It Can’t Happen Here, and it’s enjoyed recently renewed popularity, it was actually written back in the late 1930s. Of course the premise of the book is, yes it can happen here – yes, you can have concentration camps in Vermont, as I recall, from the book. Is that going to happen here in the United States? I don’t believe it. I really don’t. But I do fear the legitimizing of prejudice. I fear the legitimizing of hostility that is directed toward groups not because of anything that particular individuals are doing, but simply because of their identification – whether that’s Muslims who seek to come into our country. I mean I must tell you I’m ashamed when I look at what our Canadian cousins, our Canadian neighbors, are doing in terms of inviting people who are in desperate need of shelter to come and take shelter in Canada. That’s us! That’s what we do! That’s what Americans are great at. And that is, giving shelter to people who desperately need it. Am I suggesting that they not be properly vetted? Of course not. But do you have any idea how long it takes some of those folks, who finally get a green card, or finally get a visa, to come to this country, if they’re coming from a place like Syria? They have to wait two years, two and a half years, three years; they have 10, 14, 15 different interviews. It ain’t easy getting into the United States. But the notion that we will single people out because they are Jews, or Muslims, or black … you know, we’re better than that.
The Broward College Speaker Series is at the Amaturo Theatre, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Ted Koppel’s speech was presented by Stearns Weaver Miller. Angela Duckworth will conclude the series, speaking at 7:30 p.m. April 5 at the Broward Center. The evening is presented by SunTrust. Individual tickets are $60 and can be purchased at BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com. Student, educator and group rates are available.