It was the beginning, however, of a legendary career in broadcast journalism—one that includes award-winning coverage of the most pressing events and issues of our time, from civil rights to the Vietnam War to the fall of the Soviet Union to cybersecurity. When he left ABC News after 42 years—including 26 as anchor and managing editor of Nightline—Koppel was the most honored reporter ever to serve the network. He’s garnered 42 Emmys, including one for lifetime achievement.
Koppel’s personal academic association with Fordham may have been brief, but his wife completed her undergraduate degree at Fordham. Grace Anne Dorney Koppel earned a bachelor’s degree from the University’s Undergraduate School of Education in 1960. She later went on to Stanford University and Georgetown Law. “Her memories of Fordham are radiant and sunny,” said Koppel. “She loved it dearly.”
The couple delivered a joint keynote address at the University’s 2003 commencement ceremony, where they were each presented with an honorary doctorate. And earlier this year, they made a gift to establish the Grace Anne Dorney Endowed Scholarship Fund at Fordham. “I’m glad that it is named after my dear wife,” said Koppel, “and I’m glad young people will benefit from it.”
On Nov. 7, WFUV, Fordham’s public media station, will honor Koppel with the Charles Osgood Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism, named for one of his first colleagues during his ABC Radio days.
Koppel recently spoke with Fordham News about the upcoming award, college radio stations, and the ever-present need for objective journalism.
You have won so many journalism awards. What does it mean to you to receive an award named for Charles Osgood?
It’s sort of a lovely squaring of the circle. Charlie and I began at ABC Radio I believe on the same day in 1963. I sat behind him.
He and I tried very hard to create a morning show for ABC Television. We thought if we could succeed in starting one, maybe he and I could do the news cut-ins. We went and talked to a fellow by the name of Dave Garroway [founding host of NBC’s Today from 1952 to 1961]. He was incredibly famous in his day. We approached him and asked him if he would like to be the host of our program, and to our great joy and amazement, he said yes.
We got a hearing with the ABC vice president in charge of programming, and he claimed to be quite impressed by the program idea. And then we said, and we’ve got Dave Garroway to host.
He said, “So what, so you got Garroway. If I want John Wayne, I’ll get John Wayne.” The message was clear, that talent was something that you bought.
The long and short of it is that Charlie and I failed in our effort. But somehow here we are, 55 years later, back again.
WFUV does such a wonderful job training young journalists—how important is that hands-on training for reporters? Did you have any hands-on training yourself?
I probably spent more hours working at WAER, which was the Syracuse University FM student-run station, than I did in any of my classes. I’m a huge fan of student radio stations. I’m really thrilled that Charlie is the sponsor of this award and that both he and I got our starts with student radio stations and are both huge fans.
Was there a story you did at your college station that stuck with you?
My biggest deal was I managed to get a student visa to go to the Soviet Union. This was in 1959, at a time when it was very tough for Americans to even get into the Soviet Union. And I came back and put together a radio documentary that ran on WAER that makes me cringe when I hear it today, but I thought it was hot stuff at the time.
Must have been quite an experience traveling there as a young college student.
It really was. There was a very famous event that took place at a U.S. trade fair in Moscow in 1959. The Americans had put up a model U.S. house with a very modern American kitchen. And there was what came to be known as the Kitchen Debate between the then-vice president of the U.S., Richard Nixon, and [the Soviet leader,]Nikita Khrushchev. It took place just a couple of weeks before I got there.
I remember coming out of that house and I was wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. I started interviewing people, and I was immediately surrounded by a huge crowd of Russians, and one of them turned the tables on me and started interviewing me.
He said, “So, could your father afford this house?” I said, “Well, yeah.” As I recall, the house was about $39,000. He said, “So your father is so rich that he could afford this house?” I said, “Well, yeah, you don’t need to be that rich, but yes.” And he knew he had me. He said, “Well, if your father is so rich, why do you have leather patches on your jacket?”
So much has changed, but in many ways so much of what’s important about being a good journalist has remained the same. What are the traits that good journalists need that go beyond technical training?
It’s hard to talk about that without sounding critical of what’s happened to a lot of journalism today. I think it’s become much too personal. There’s far more opinion being expressed than I was accustomed to 30, 40, 50 years ago. And that ends up creating the kinds of rivalries and nastiness that we have in America today.
Much of that is due to the fact that we live in the age of the internet. These days anyone with a laptop computer has the capacity to reach out to thousands of people or even millions of people, depending on how attractive that work is perceived to be. And the level of attractiveness is not necessarily a function of accuracy but rather a function of what stimulates interest. Unfortunately, the more outrageous a story is, the more interest it tends to stimulate.
Good journalism requires an ability to be dispassionate, and an ability to search after facts, and not necessarily an ability or inclination to express emotions or opinions.
There is, I fear, less and less of that today, because of the internet and the economics of journalism. Sending reporters all around the world to cover international news is very expensive. Having reporters do deep investigative journalism is very expensive. Putting a bunch of people around a desk and having them yell at each other is very cheap, and it can be amusing and entertaining. The cable networks in particular, who have 24 hours a day to fill, do a lot more of that than they do of the reporting.
Lastly, a more personal question. In a recent interview for CBS Sunday Morning, you talked with Ms. Dorney Koppel about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was diagnosed with COPD 17 years ago, and the two of you have been advocates for the 30 million Americans whom it affects. What was it like to interview your wife?
It was tough on a number of grounds. Number one, I know her so well that I knew what the answers were. Number two, she knows me so well that she knew what all the questions were. And number three, it’s something that both of us care about profoundly. When you’re talking about an incurable disease in someone whom you love very deeply, it’s hard to maintain objectivity there. I didn’t even pretend to maintain objectivity on that story.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Nicole LaRosa.
Koppel will be honored at the WFUV On the Record event on Nov. 7, along with Yankees announcer Michael Kay, FCRH ’82, who will receive the Vin Scully Award for Excellence in Sports Broadcasting, and two student journalists.