1986: Standards and Principles
The market for mediocrity has diminished the incentive for excellence.
[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1986 issue of Nieman Reports.]
…I don’t know what’s happened to our standards. I fear that we in the mass media are creating such a market for mediocrity that we’ve diminished the incentive for excellence. We celebrate notoriety as though it were an achievement. Fame has come to mean being recognized by more people who don’t know anything about you. In politics, we have encouraged the displacement of thoughtfulness by the artful cliché. In business, individual responsibility has been defused into corporate non-accountability. In foreign affairs, the tactics of our enemies are used to justify the suspension of our own values. In medicine, the need to be healed is modified by the capacity to pay, and the cost of the cure is a function of the healer’s fear of being sued. Which brings us to the law—the very underpinning of our system.
The law is supple and endlessly rich in meaning. It is also being abused as rarely before.
What Isaac Newton discovered to be true in physics is also applicable in human affairs: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I fear that unless we restore a sense of genuine value to what we do in each of our chosen professions, we will find that even the unprecedented flexibility of the American system can and will reach a breaking point. The legal profession is becoming an abomination, as often encouraging litigation purely for profit as for justice. The crimes and quarrels of the rich are endlessly litigated—until exhaustion produces a loophole or a settlement. The quarrels of the poor are settled in violence, and those crimes, in turn, are plea-bargained in courthouse corridors during a coffee break.
Our criminal justice system is becoming a playground for the rich and a burial ground for the poor. It is increasingly difficult to argue that we were worse off when the rich resolved their disputes by dueling. It is even difficult, when one considers the conditions in most of our prisons, to make the case that we have progressed much beyond the brutal, but expedited, justice of flogging and a day or two in the stocks.
Which brings me to my own profession, indeed, my very own job and that of several of my distinguished colleagues here. Overestimated, overexposed and, by reasonable comparison with any job outside sports and entertainment, overpaid. I am a television news anchor, a role model for Miss America contestants and tens of thousands of university students in search of a degree without an education. How does one live up to the admiration of those who regard the absence of an opinion as objectivity or, even more staggering to the imagination, as courage?
How does one grapple with a state of national confusion that celebrates questions over answers? How does one explain or, perhaps more relevantly, guard against the influence of an industry which is on the verge of being a hallucinogenic barrage of images, whose only grammar is pacing, whose principal theme is energy?
We are losing our ability to manage ideas; to contemplate, to think. We are in a constant race to be the first with the obvious. We are becoming a nation of electronic voyeurs, whose capacity for dialogue is a fading memory, occasionally jolted into reflective life by a one-liner: “New ideas.” “Where’s the beef?” “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” “Window of vulnerability.” “Freeze now.” “Born again.” “Gag me with a spoon.” “Can we talk?”
No, but we can relate. Six-year-olds want to be stewardesses. Eight-year-olds want to be pilots. Nineteen-year-olds want to be anchorpersons. Grownups want to be left alone—to interact in solitary communion with the rest of our electronic global village.
Consider this paradox: Almost everything that is publicly said these days is recorded. Almost nothing of what is said is worth remembering. And what do we remember? Thoughts that were expressed hundreds or even thousands of years ago by philosophers, thinkers and prophets whose ideas and principles were so universal that they endured without videotape or film, without the illustrations of photographs or cartoons. In many instances, even without paper, and for thousands of years, without the easy duplication of the printing press.
What is largely missing in American life today is a sense of context, of saying or doing anything that is intended or even expected to live beyond the moment. There is no culture in the world that is so obsessed as ours with immediacy. In our journalism, the trivial displaces the momentous because we tend to measure the importance of events by how recently they happened. We have now become so obsessed with facts that we have lost all touch with truth.…
It’s easy to be seduced into believing that what we’re doing is just fine; after all we get money, fame and, to a certain degree, even influence. But money, fame and influence without responsibility are the assets of a courtesan. We must accept responsibility for what we do, and we must think occasionally of the future and our impact on the next generation; or we may discover that they, too, have grown up—just like us.
Ted Koppel, who has been with ABC News for 22 years, was named Anchorman of “Nightline” when the broadcast was introduced in 1980. He also is Editorial Manager of the program. In addition to his “Nightline” responsibilities, Mr. Koppel anchors “Viewpoint,” an ABC News broadcast which is aired five times a year and provides a forum for criticism and analysis of broadcast news. He made the above remarks upon receiving the Broadcaster of the Year award from the International Radio and Television Society last October in New York.