"I'm Ted Koppel and thisssssssss is 'Nightline.'" If you remember that line, or the Saturday Night Live exaggeration of it, then you are old enough to know who Ted Koppel is, and why he might be bored by a debate with too little blood on the floor. 'Nightline' was born out of the hostage crisis in Iran, the grandfather of dozens of less successful crisis-turned-long-running-shows-posing-as-"serious journalism." Geraldo would love to have done the same with the OJ Simpson trial, but alas, it was not to be.
Koppel, of course, succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams; but his Geraldo-esque roots were showing recently when he bared his ample sensationalist teeth over the guest list at the Democratic candidates' debate in Durham, NH. Consider this series of events: the week prior to the event, Koppel is reported to have complained that only six of the candidates should be invited. How can you create conflict on such a crowded stage? Of course, conflict is the goal here-always has been. Wake up, America. The media's bleating about having to cover candidates that aren't "serious" is, neatly, the opposite of the truth. A lot like a Bush press release.
The truth is that serious is anything but what they want to cover. How can we sell soap, the reasoning goes, off of an intricate discussion of public policy? No, let's get some elbows swinging, spit flying; no hostages, unfortunately, but what can you do? And as everyone knows, from the Bible to Terminator III, the easiest stories to sell are ones that can be quickly boiled down into two antagonists. Safe, simple, and to formula: that's the rule.
What ABC and Koppel didn't count on was what Ted himself called "a zinger" during the debate. Dennis Kucinich, and then others, tore Koppel a new one over his obsession with the horse race aspect of the campaign. Koppel was clearly pissed, and tried to cover his chagrin with a liberal dose (no pun intended, trust me) of his own arrogance. When Moseley-Braun joined Kucinich's line of attack, Koppel remarked sardonically, "It's good to see I can unite the democratic party!" What he meant, I guess, was that he had lost the audience, which roared its approval of the candidates' taking the media to task. Actually, it was Kucinich's brave stance that turned the debate and galvanized the audience (and/or party, depending on how much stock you put in Koppel's characterization).
Alas, no good deed goes unpunished, and the next day it surfaced that ABC was revoking its embedded reporters from the campaigns of-you guessed it--Kucinich, Braun, and Sharpton. The civil rights leader had further earned the once carrot-topped host's ire with what was arguably the best diss of the night: In response to Koppel's smarmy kingmaking, Sharpton took no prisoners. Koppel insultingly asked why anyone should pay attention to candidates like him, who were so low in "the polls." Sharpton shot back: "you're not so high in the polls yourself--this is no Saturday Night Live--but I still showed up!"
Several regular press stories acknowledged that Kucinich got the most applause of the night--he seemed to really strike a chord with his rejection of the media's obsession with polls, money and endorsements. And yet, his campaign is apparently so unnewsworthy that ABC has decided to arbitrarily narrow the field before any real voter casts the first actual vote. If this weren't symptomatic enough of the Mickey Mouse way in which Disney's news division is trying to manipulate the campaign for its own advertising dollars, I predict there will be even more egg on important faces in the months to follow. Kucinich will gain more votes in Iowa and New Hampshire than many of the campaigns deemed more worthy of coverage by the Wise Men of ABC.
Web activity (www.kucinich.us, for those interested), the pulse of anger in the activist core of the party, and what is happening on the ground all indicate that the Ohio congressman is poised to become the surprise of the 2004 campaign. Seabiscuit, David and Goliath, Horatio Alger--literature and history are also replete with the story of the underdog. And that's as good a story as you can get. Too bad Ted Koppel doesn't get it: he might get a new show out of it if he did.