Expect the Unexpected  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Expect the Unexpected   

Variety is the watchword at the post-Ted Koppel “Nightline,” a very different animal than its vaunted predecessor. Serious journalism remains, but there’s plenty of fluff in the mix.

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     


With the new, post-Ted Koppel "Nightline," you can be assured of one thing: You can never be assured of anything. On an ordinary Wednesday in September, for example, anchor Cynthia McFadden introduced a line-up of stories that included an anti-immigration ordinance in a small Missouri town, the return of "A Chorus Line" to Broadway and a feature on celebrities promoting their pet causes on Capitol Hill.

On the following night, another anchor (Martin Bashir) introduced pieces about real estate "staging" (dressing up a house to make it easier to sell), illegal immigration in Arizona and the difficulties of reporting on the reluctant billionaires of the Forbes 400 list. On the next night, the lead piece was about the 10th anniversary of the animated TV show "South Park," with a follow-up about E. coli-tainted spinach.

A sex scandal in New York's Orthodox Jewish community.... Mark Wahlberg's latest movie.... A giant bull whose offspring are served exclusively in a Chicago steakhouse. All made it on recent "Nightlines."

One year after Koppel stepped aside as its ever-present anchor, "Nightline" looks and sounds only vaguely like its former self. An overhaul by a new management team has created a faster, hipper and zippier show, complete with restyled graphics, a more contemporary set and three younger anchors (McFadden, Bashir and Terry Moran). The sober and substantive newsmagazine that used to make the day's big story the subject of a 30-minute takeout is pretty much a memory.

The new creation – whose principal architect is a former BBC producer named James Goldston – can still produce journalism that's solid and serious. The three anchors, as well as two holdovers from the old era, John Donvan and Chris Bury, have reported memorably from Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Cuba and around the country this year. Anyone looking for the soul of the old "Nightline" in its new incarnation could easily have found it in the broadcast of October 2. For 30 riveting – and at times grueling – minutes, "Nightline" dissected much of what was known, and knowable, about the shootings of 11 Amish girls in a rural Pennsylvania schoolhouse. With three separate reports on the crime and its impact, plus Moran's live interview with a former FBI profiler, "Nightline" was as thorough as anything on the air that day, and more vivid than anything in print the next.

But more often than not, the new "Nightline" seems to be unfocused, adrift and at times beset with an obsession for the trivial. It's hard to argue that what's come after the Koppel Dynasty is as consistent and journalistically satisfying as what came during it.

In conversations with "Nightline's" major players, a consistent theme emerges: After almost a year of tinkering, the program still hasn't been completely refined or perfected. "The truth is, it remains a work in progress," says Goldston, "Nightline's" executive producer. "It's a difficult balancing act. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don't."

Adds McFadden, "We're attempting to do something unheard of. The sequel is never as good as the original. Our job is not to be a bad imitation of Ted Koppel."

The most profound change in "Nightline" is its emphasis on variety; during an average week, the program assays more than a dozen subjects. But the limitations of this are apparent. By shoehorning three stories into 22 minutes of air time (eight minutes are reserved for commercials), some "Nightline" pieces feel hurried and underreported, the antithesis of the tone Koppel set.

The hurly-burly pace often leaves little time for the sort of follow-up that was Koppel's stock in trade. An example: On September 27, "Nightline" aired harrowing video of an attack on a civilian truck convoy in Iraq. Shot by the driver of one of the trucks, the video raised questions about the role of a National Guard unit that abandoned the convoy in mid-attack, and about the Halliburton subsidiary that employed (and later fired) the trucker, who was seriously injured in the incident. The old "Nightline" likely would have underscored this powerful segment with live interviews, perhaps with a military spokesman or a company rep. But it didn't happen in this case. Correspondent Brian Ross quickly noted that neither side would comment. And the show rolled on – to a story about real estate agents who use good luck charms to spur sluggish sales. ABC spokesman Andrea Jones says "Nightline" repeatedly asked Halliburton for comment, but the company "declined to engage without stating a specific reason."

It's hard to imagine the old "Nightline" running such a segment with no follow-up. Every reporter gets no-commented, but in this case it just seemed lazy to say "we couldn't get anyone to talk" and just leave it at that. How about some elaboration? Why wouldn't Halliburton talk? Are there lawsuits pending? Is it because this is embarrassing and indefensible? What? And why didn't "Nightline" say who wouldn't talk?

The piece – really just an interview with the trucker and a roll of his video – was awfully one-dimensional.

The same sort of impatience undermines other well-done stories. On September 5, David Muir reported on the lingering health problems of workers who cleared the debris at the World Trade Center site immediately after the attacks of 9/11. Muir's story also highlighted some important and unresolved issues, such as why health warnings weren't issued sooner and why some workers have been denied medical care. Yet, having teed the subject up, "Nightline" quickly dropped it, segueing to a lengthy report about royal succession in Japan.

Elsewhere, the broadcast seems to have adopted the tabloid habit of promising more than it can deliver. "Was this the mother of all mortgage scams?" Bashir asked on October 6 as he billboarded his story about a Virginia real estate fraud. The same phrase recurred two more times during an exchange between Bashir and a source. For good measure, Bashir – the British reporter who made his name with exclusives about Michael Jackson and Princess Diana – called it "an enormous and perhaps unprecedented mortgage fraud." Yet the anchorman-correspondent never quantified just how enormous. The story didn't give the total amount that perpetrators got away with or how much the victims invested and lost.

Correspondent Vicki Mabrey's September 20 profile of Valley Park, a St. Louis suburb, suffered from similar hype. McFadden described Valley Park in her introduction as "a town that's cracking down harshly on illegal immigration...a crackdown that's causing deep divisions within the community itself." Mabrey cast the city's new ordinance, which fines landlords and employers of undocumented workers, as a microcosm of the national debate on immigration, with a subtext of xenophobia and racial divisiveness. But viewers had to take her word for it. While Mabrey found a few people who didn't like the ordinance, she couldn't find anyone who'd actually been fined or arrested or swept up in a "crackdown" (one undocumented Latino man said he'd lived in the town without incident for eight years and intended to stay). Unable to shed much light, Mabrey tried to generate some heat: "Has this split the community?" she asked a group of city elders. Not really, they politely reassured her.

Goldston's most striking new addition to "Nightline" is a feature called "Sign of the Times." These short, upbeat pieces close the broadcast, sending viewers off to bed with something light and unthreatening. Recent subjects have ranged from dog pampering to intelligent robots to expensive cell phones. A specialty of "Sign" is the pop trend, or possible trend, since the stories rarely muster much evidence to support their own premise. "Are more and more men leaving the women at home when it's time to relax?" asked McFadden in early October, setting up a featurette on "man-cations." Reporter Gigi Stone seemed to suggest an affirmative answer, but it was hard to tell, since her story never went beyond the same four guys on an outing in Chicago. Another piece, on the supposed decline of the bathtub, was apparently pegged to the news that several hotel chains were replacing their bathtubs with showers in newly renovated rooms. Even Donvan is a little dubious: " 'Sign of the Times' has yet to be perfected," he says.

This sort of lightweight stuff is a cousin to another of Goldston's innovations: the celebrity and entertainment story. The old "Nightline" did celebrities, too, but the new "Nightline" is almost mad for them (Friday's are particularly celebrity-heavy). Over a stretch of six programs in early September, seven of the 15 reports were entertainment-related, ranging from a two-parter on comedian Carlos Mencia to a "Sign of the Times" about how aging "rock" stars (the story managed to place Barry Manilow into this category) sometimes have health problems. What's more, the program seems to have a special fondness for dropping film clips from popular movies into stories; two reports in one week referenced Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman."

Easy on the eyes, particularly for the young viewers "Nightline" is desperate to attract? Sure. But "Nightline's" celebrity stories often don't even rise to the level of legitimate fluff. The September "Sign" on entertainment celebrities who come to Capitol Hill to promote various causes seemed to be unaware that celebrities have been doing this sort of thing for decades. Reporter Liz Marlantes noted in her report that "for many of today's movie stars, the halls of Congress have become just another stop on the publicity circuit." But that observation missed its own irony: "Nightline" had become part of the very publicity machine it was reporting about. A more ambitious report about a Los Angeles boutique's claim that US Weekly had blacklisted it from its pages was vague on the reasons why the magazine might do such a thing, and dim on any evidence that it actually had. But correspondent Heather Nauert did offer some breathless narration: "Welcome to the store at the epicenter of Hollywood's secret money machine, where relationships of convenience between retailers, publishers and celebrities make everyone rich off the quest for Hollywood cool." Another report, about the British media's obsession with soccer players' and golfers' girlfriends and wives, seemed to be an excuse to display the cheesecakey photos that the story was ostensibly decrying.

"Nightline's" drift disappoints longtime viewers like Matthew T. Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington think tank that studies news trends. "To journalists," he says, " 'Nightline' is a cautionary tale, but to ABC executives it's a successful case study of media Darwinism – survival of the glibbest. It used to be the only network daily outlet for capital J Journalism, but now it's morphing into the thinking man's 'Entertainment Tonight.'"

He adds, "In the last generation, the underlying mantra of journalism has shifted from 'the truth will out' to 'you can draw more flies with honey.' I suppose in theory it's better when more people are watching a news program, but when you've got more people watching less newsy material, it still feels like a wash, except to the advertisers, of course."

Dave Marash, a "Nightline" correspondent for 16 years, isn't quite as harsh in his assessment of his old shop. Now an anchorman for the English-language version of Al Jazeera television, Marash praises the work of his former colleagues Bury and Donvan and describes Moran as "an anchor in the Koppel tradition." The newsy first segment of the program, he says, is "totally congruent with the old 'Nightline.'"

How about the rest of the program? "The second half of the show is different from the first half. And I'll leave it at that." Except that he doesn't: "The whole program is predicated on the premise that variety is more of a virtue than consistency. It's more varied than consistent."

If Koppel has an opinion on the show he pioneered and steered for 26 years, he isn't offering it publicly. Since telling viewers to give the new program "a fair break" upon signing off last November, Koppel has maintained his silence. Koppel and Tom Bettag, who was "Nightline's" longtime executive producer, both declined to comment for this article. The two men continue to work together, producing special reports for cable's Discovery Channel.

ABC undoubtedly is more concerned about the opinions of ordinary viewers, and here the news is good. The new "Nightline" has kept pace with its predecessor in the Nielsen ratings and has often exceeded it. For the week of September 25, for example, it attracted an average of 3.81 million viewers, a 15 percent increase from a year earlier. In the development that is perhaps most satisfying to ABC, "Nightline" sometimes draws more viewers than David Letterman, whom ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Co., once courted to replace Koppel. Both programs lag behind longtime frontrunner Jay Leno.

While ABC News President David Westin isn't giving "Nightline" ironclad guarantees about its future, a post-Koppel ratings meltdown clearly hasn't materialized. Says Westin, "We set two goals [when the show was overhauled] last year: to maintain a substantive and unique news program in late night, and to maintain the audience that Ted had built.... We think we've succeeded" in both.

No one at "Nightline" would ever put it this way in deference to St. Ted, but there's a palpable sense from the new crew that the old "Nightline" needed a makeover. Donvan points out that "Nightline" was born in an era before 24-hour cable news, at a time when it was still startling to see news of any kind past 11:30 p.m., let alone dynamic conversations among newsmakers. This made "Nightline" a coveted platform for the influential (Gary Hart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, foreign heads of state, etc.) who wanted to address the nation or provide their side of a scandal. But everyone copied "Nightline's" formula, which diminished the program's impact as well as its audience. Eventually, "Disney decided it had to be reinvented, or it had to be gone," says Donvan.

"Ben Bradlee said he knew newspapers had to change when he saw TV cover a fire," says Moran. "In a way, TV news is in the same position now. News is in the atmosphere we breathe. What that does is pressure a broadcast like ours to deliver something different."

These days, Moran, a former print journalist, looks a bit enviously at "60 Minutes," the only broadcast news program with as distinguished a reporting heritage as "Nightline." "We need to break news, or advance more stories, like ['60 Minutes'] does. It creates a virtuous circle," he says. "When you do that, then the newsmakers and the policymakers all want to be part of your show."

Despite the firming of "Nightline's" ratings, there's still plenty of insecurity among the program's 60 or so staffers in New York and Washington. Part of it is a recognition that "Nightline" has never fully been in control of its own destiny; the show's audience flows are partially a function of how well its lead-ins – primetime shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" – are faring. And part of it is recent history. Donvan ruefully recalls "the tornado" of 2002, when ABC began its talks with Letterman. "The lesson we learned on the old 'Nightline' is that no matter who you are, this is TV, and it's a business, and you're vulnerable," he says. "We're still running scared, I think."

Adds Moran, "I don't fool myself. The move to replace Ted with Letterman was a shot across our bow. I believe there are influential people who look at 11:30 as a natural hour for entertainment. I have no inside knowledge. But we have to earn our keep every week. We have to demonstrate that we can win."

Westin, who was blindsided by Disney's talks with Letterman four years ago, says he hasn't heard of any discussion within Disney about replacing "Nightline" for the better part of a year. He reads that as a sign of confidence in the program, at least for now. But he says, "The more general point is that nothing is forever. We're fighting for the privilege to come before a large audience every night. It's true for every program. It's up to us to put up compelling programming that succeeds."

It depends on how you measure success, of course. "Nightline," once great and proud and esteemed, seems like a wholly different animal these days. It sometimes soars and it sometimes falls flat. But mostly it's impossible to predict. With this "Nightline," you never know what to expect.

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