Not just another pretty talking head

Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public By Ted Koppel Alfred A. Knopf 288 pp., $25

When big-name journalists write books about their experiences, the results are usually disappointing and sometimes downright laughable. Journalists are, after all, outsiders. They do not attend decisionmaking sessions in the White House. They do not attend cabinet meetings. They do not sit in on House-Senate conference committees during which compromise legislation is hammered out.

Yet many big-name journalists, especially of the television variety, lead their viewers to believe they are indeed insiders. Maybe they do that so viewers will think the journalists are really worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars a year to sit before a camera in front of a news set and read. The whole scene is ludicrous at best.

So it made sense to begin Ted Koppel's book with low expectations - especially upon realizing it is presented in diary form, with an entry for each day of 1999. Diaries tend to mix the significant with the insignificant in silly ways.

Granted, Koppel is not, judging by his on-air performance, an intellectual lightweight. A 37-year veteran of ABC News, Koppel has served as anchor of the show Nightline since 1980. Before that, he was an overseas correspondent, which meant time in war zones and major capitals around the world.

Still, a diary of 1999, some of it written from his undoubtedly lavish winter home in Captiva, Florida? How can an outsider journalist who lives among the nation's elite members be in touch?

Well, surprise. Koppel demonstrates his thoughtfulness in most of these diary entries. Furthermore, he writes with aplomb. His style puts readers at ease, just as his on-air style during Nightline seems to put guests and audience members at ease. He is also talented at satire and making cutting remarks, which gives the book an attitude. Sometimes he is self-effacing, too, always an endearing quality among the well-to-do.

The opening entry (for Jan. 1, 1999) is not hopeful, filled as it is with generalizations about the state of the world in the final year of the millennium. The next days, weeks, and months fly by, though, as Koppel abandons the general for the specific.

The book is not primarily autobiographical, but Koppel offers readers dribs and drabs of his personal history: He was reared in England after his Jewish parents fled Germany just before World War II. After relocating to the United States at age 13, he received some good schooling and good jobs, eventually married, fathered four children, and acquired fame and wealth.

Koppel also offers insights into contemporary television news gathering and decisionmaking. He explains how it took him six years to persuade business tycoon Warren Buffett to grant an interview. After Buffett said yes, Koppel flew to Omaha, Neb., the businessman's hometown. Buffett met Koppel at the airport in his own car, took Koppel on a quick tour of the city, then stopped at a Dairy Queen for the interview. It is no coincidence that Buffett's holding company had recently purchased Dairy Queen, for the same reason the holding company made other purchases: "Simple logic," Koppel writes, "convinces him that people are going to be munching burgers and slurping milk shakes fifty years from now, just as they'll be buying insurance (Geico), drinking sodas (Coca-Cola) and shaving (Gillette)."

Throughout the year, Koppel comments on the expected (Will Bill Clinton be forced from the White House?) and the unexpected (the difficulty of US-Serbian negotiations meant to reduce the slaughter in a once-proud nation).

The book's title is meant to suggest it contains opinions Koppel would never express on the air. Those opinions are worth pondering. If any doubt remained about Koppel's credentials as a real journalist instead of a highly paid, vacuous talking head, "Off Camera" ought to remove the doubt.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance author and media critic. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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