This is a story I know well from days in Moscow, working as an ABC News assistant and assistant producer: Well-intentioned American journalists giving up their ethics to advance their careers.
At first it starts slowly and then conscience caves away before the career triumphs which follow.
A lot like the beginnings of a hesitant call girl. In two months, you won’t know her so clear and hard is she in her new life. Or prostitution isn’t for her and she quits. So it is with MSM journalists. I know of only a very few exceptions to this rule.
I remember once going to cover a story for The Moscow Times about some Armenian or Georgian businessmen who were holding a reception with the American Chamber of Commerce.
I’d been living in Russia for five years at this point and knew my way around Moscow pretty well. I had already done big stories on the Moscow bankers and knew how to gauge the business milieu by then.
I returned to the office and explained to the editor that these guys were mobsters and crooks and were about to fleece all of their investors, if they didn’t throw them in the Moscow river in winter first.
They bought a big ad this month and have the backing of the American Chamber of Commerce. That’s not what our readers want to hear. Write something positive.
How do you write something positive about a situation like this? If you’re lucky you’ll just lose your money. Or American Chamber of Commerce gives Crooks a Green Light. Or Soviet Minority Groups making huge advances in International Crime.
Today’s particular story is about Ted Koppel and is written by his trusted stringer from early days in Indochina.
Ted was at that time the State Department correspondent for ABC News, and I decided to call him for lunch to talk about the six-month trip to Indochina I had just returned from — particularly the new evidence I had amassed that the ongoing Kissinger-led bombing in Cambodia was continuing to murder civilians. Although I realized that Ted had to be circumspect regarding Kissinger’s culpability for the war crimes that he had observed on the ground in Laos, I assumed we’d be in as much agreement on the horror as we had been in Indochina, and hoped he might do some stories on my new findings. I still remember the friendliness and warmth of Ted’s jovial greeting when I called him up for lunch, and my awe as I entered the beautiful State Department restaurant, filled with important domestic and international dignitaries.
After 15 minutes or so of pleasantries and reminiscences, I brought up the flattering book on Kissinger that had just been published by the brothers Marvin and Bernard Kalb, who worked for NBC and CBS News respectively. Everyone I knew had been outraged by the book, which was a typical establishment journalist suck-up to Kissinger, praising him for his successes and avoiding even a mention of the mass murder that he was even then continuing to conduct. I was particularly annoyed because I had worked with Bernie Kalb as closely as I had with Ted, and Bernie also knew full well of Kissinger’s responsibility for what was occurring.
I said something like “Can you believe that garbage by the Kalb brothers?” To my utter amazement, Ted suddenly drew back and said, in what was to be known years later as his full-throated “Nightline” “Voice of God”: “I’ll have you know that Marvin Kalb is a close personal friend of mine. And so is Dr. Kissinger, for that matter!” Ted was clearly offended, and our luncheon went downhill from there. Shocked, I tried to remind him of Kissinger’s war crimes, which he had personally witnessed just a few years ago. He refused to discuss it. I tried to turn the conversation to my new findings on the ongoing bombing of civilians. He wasn’t interested. We parted, not to talk again for 30 years.
I realized at the time that it was not Ted who had changed, but his institutional role. In Indochina, on the ground, face-to-face with the refugees, he had been a truth-seeking foreign correspondent. Assigned to cover Kissinger back in Washington, depending upon him for information, susceptible to the secretary’s flattery and manipulations, he had become a card-carrying member of the journalistic establishment.
And Ted Koppel is the one who actually read out the names of the fallen in Iraq, to the fury of the Bush administration and the right-wing pundits. Imagine what some of the others must be like?
In fairness to Ted Koppel, he admits as much:
A young friend of mine…sought his advice about changing careers in Washington, D.C. Ted, in his typically gracious fashion, granted him a private talk. My friend explained that he had had a successful career running a nonprofit group, but was turned off by the lies and deceit he had found. What did Ted think he should do? he asked. Ted answered that he didn’t know whether my friend’s ethical concerns were sincere, or if he was just looking for a job in journalism. If the latter, he seemed like a bright young guy, and Ted would consider helping him out. But if he was sincere, Ted advised, he should get out of Washington immediately. Ted then went on a rant for 15 minutes excoriating the officials he dealt with on a daily basis as liars, deceivers and hypocrites. My friend could not have a decent life and remain human so long as he remained in D.C., Ted explained. He should leave.