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News anchor Ted Koppel at Stanford Humanities Center to discuss trajectory of American journalism

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News anchor Ted Koppel discussed journalistic standards and democratic values at the Humanities Center.
Photo Credit: 
Kent Safford
Fake news. Who’s to blame? Media outlets? Social media? Or, finding clickbait irresistible, ourselves? And, how has fake news proliferated to make American journalism so bad? 
 
Legendary news anchor Ted Koppel has a lot of answers, based on his long and illustrious career in the field and behind the desk at Nightline on ABC News. He shared his nearly six decades of experience with the Civic English student group at the Stanford Humanities Center a few weeks before he delivers the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor Lecture on Public Service and the University, titled “A Brief History of News: Fake, the Other Kind, and Where We Go from Here.” 
 
Koppel, the Peter E. and Mimi Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center, completed a master’s degree at Stanford in 1962. His journalism career has been punctuated by historic national and international events, many of which he covered on air: John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison are just some of his most notable moments. Koppel is still dedicated to journalism; he is a senior contributor to the CBS Sunday Morning Show and writes about cyber-security, a topic he is passionate about in an era when bots and hacking interfere with elections.  
 
The 23 graduate and undergraduate students gathered for lunch with Koppel at the Humanities Center to hear about his career and his thoughts on the current state of journalism. Renren Yang, a PhD candidate in comparative literature and Stanford Humanities Center Geballe Dissertation Fellow, said he came to the workshop to learn about the history of American journalism from Koppel’s “insider, first-person point of view.” Koppel used humor to ignite a lively conversation with students, noting the many decades that had passed since his student years at Stanford: “You listening to me would be like me listening to a World War I journalist,” he quipped.  
 
Koppel blamed social media for declining standards of journalism. “Just filming something on your phone and uploading it to the internet is not journalism,” Koppel said, emphasizing that the sharing of experience online is not the equivalent to fair and balanced journalism. Quality reporting requires vetting, context, time, and money. “Good journalism is expensive,” he added, lamenting that newsrooms’ bottom lines determine what gets covered and how. Many television stations have almost entirely eliminated their foreign correspondents because of the costs, he pointed out, reducing Americans’ access to events abroad.  
 
None of the students in the room, Koppel noted, would remember a time when the appearance of a newspaper journalist on television news was considered a serious conflict of interest. Koppel cited the 1987 repeal of the Federal Communications Commission “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to give airtime to contrasting views on controversial matters of public interest, as damaging to the integrity of journalism. Koppel said the elimination of the “fairness doctrine” enabled the rise of news channels like Fox News and pundits like Rush Limbaugh.
 
During the Q&A with Koppel, students expressed their ambivalence toward social media. Though it is a platform for bad journalism,  it also connects people and facilitates the rise of social protest movements such as the Women’s March, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter.  
 
In an age when many students wonder why they should major in the humanities, Ted Koppel showed that the ability to write well and argue with conviction and power remain timeless skills for ensuring the circulation of fact-based journalism, a bedrock of democracy.