TV.com interviews Ted Koppel

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Since leaving ABC's Nightline in November of last year after anchoring the show for 25 years, newsman Ted Koppel has been gathering no moss. The veteran television journalist jumped right into the role of managing editor and news anchor for educational cable network The Discovery Channel, producing the new series Koppel on Discovery.

On September 10, Koppel on Discovery kicks off with The Price of Security, a three-hour interview special on the topic of US security and terrorism. Among those interviewed for Price were Secretary of State Condelezza Rice, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and Admiral Harry Harris, the man who oversees the 9/11 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The Price of Security airs Sunday, September 10, at 8 p.m. on Discovery. The show will be followed by a live town hall meeting which viewers can take part in by submitting questions at Discovery's Web site.

TV.com: What was the genesis of the idea for the town hall to follow the special?

Ted Koppel: Well, let me give you the genesis for the whole idea, period, and then one sort of led to the other.

The notion is that all the security experts agree that it's not a question of if there is going to be another terrorist attack on America, but rather when. People are prepared to talk about civil liberties, they are prepared to talk about privacy, now, after five years has passed. But if there is another attack, it is going to be very difficult to get people to talk about this rationally.

The first thing we set out to do, and the purpose of the first half of the broadcast we're doing, is to sort of lay out how much has changed in the United States since 9/11. That led kind of logically into the traditional sense of having a town hall, which is a very American thing to do. When Americans have controversial things to discuss, going back hundreds of years, they have town meetings. Since we used to do town meetings all the time back when I was at ABC, we decided this would be a good idea to have, not only as our first program, but as a first town meeting.

TV.com: Was the Bush administration receptive to being interviewed on the subject?

TK: You know, it varied. There are some people in the Bush administration who are easier to get to talk about these kinds if issues than others. We've had a fairly good supply of people who were either still working with the Bush administration, like Secretary Rice, who gave generously of her time. There are other people who were key to this program who used to work for the administration but no longer do, for example John Yoo, who wrote the famous torture memorandum and was one of the principal authors of the USA Patriot Act. Tom Ridge was the former Secretary of Homeland Security. So you know we've had a lot of people who were very generous with their time who I have interviewed over the past three months.

TV.com: What did you take away from these interviews? How much has changed, and are we safer?

TK: What I took away from these interviews is that what really motivates this administration is the threat that someday, there could be a convergance between a terrorist attack and the use of some weapon of mass destruction, be it biological, chemical, or nuclear. And that if you accept that as a premise, then almost anything--underscore the "almost"--is an acceptable measure to prevent that from happening. The question becomes, "Is that in fact likely to happen, and if it is likely to happen then how many of our liberties should we be prepared to see modified or surrender altogether?"

TV.com: You seem to think we'll definitely need to have some of them modified.

TK: Well whether you and I think they should be, some of them already have been. While everybody is focusing attention on what is happening at our airports because that is the most visible thing, there have been some rather funamental changes--what people inside the administration call a "paradigm shift"--in the way that law enforcment acts.

Begin with the notion that under normal circumstances, law enforcement waited for a crime to be a committed. Then they find out who committed the crime. Then they try to catch that person. Then they read them their rights. Then they would have a lawyer. Then that person would have their day in court.

When you're dealing with terrorism all of that gets stood on its head. First of all, the assumption is you can't wait for the crime to be committed. You have to preempt it, prevent it from happening in the first place. In order to that, you will be arresting people who have very likely not committed any crime yet, who may be considering the commission of a crime. That's a whole new way of looking at crime.

TV.com: It's frightening, but so is the alternative.

TK: Ah, that's exactly right.

TV.com: How was it transitioning from anchor to managing editor of a TV network?

TK: Well, I'm still anchoring so there's not much of a transition, and I was managing editor at Nightline, so in almost every respect I am doing almost exactly what I was doing before.

TV.com: Do you miss being on Nightline, or does Discovery give you enough visibility?

TK: [Laughs.] Look, at my age I am not all that worried about visibility. What I'm worried about, and what I have the opportunity to do at Discovery, is focus on issues I think are critical to the country. My hope is that people will respond by watching.

TV.com: What do you think of TV news right now? You, [CBS anchor] Dan Rather, and [NBC anchor] Tom Brokaw all exited the nightly news desk around the same time, and [ABC anchor] Peter Jennings passed away. How do you think this has affected TV news?

TK: Well look, there are still some very good things being done on television news, but by and large the networks are forced to appeal to a younger audience, and in some large measure they're adapting their programs to the tastes of that younger audience. That's something that I think is absolutely appropriate when you're in entertainment, but I think in the news industry there's an obligation to give the public the best information you can find on what is important to them and what they need to know, and that's not always what they want to see. And that's another careful balance.

But in years past, in the last 50 years or so, all of the networks understood that they not only had a moral obligation, but a legal obligation, under their licensing agreements with the FCC, to--and this is part of the language--"operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity."

That means telling the public what it needs to know, and I think to an increasing degree the networks are doing less of that.