Say Good Night, Nightline

Ted Koppel’s philosophical farewell.

With characteristic modesty, Ted Koppel, in his final broadcast as the host of Nightline, chose to short-circuit the usual nostalgic montage of clips from his 25-year tenure on the show. Instead, the 65-year-old Koppel shifted the focus to a much older dude saying a much sadder goodbye: Last night’s show revisited clips from Koppel’s 1995 series of interviews with Morrie Schwartz, the sociology professor dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease who would later become the subject of Mitch Albom’s best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie. In a newly taped interview, Albom himself told Koppel that he first decided to write the book after catching a glimpse of Schwartz, his former teacher, on Nightline. Schwartz is a gentle and lovely man who reflects on his own impending death at a philosophical remove. The final clip has him reflecting on his personal insignificance in the greater scheme of things: “I’m not a wave, I’m a part of the ocean of all humanity.”

Joining the ranks of Sevareid, Huntley, and Chancellor?

The choice to re-air the Schwartz footage as a valediction seemed an odd punt for Koppel, an interviewer known for his unsentimental professionalism. But in the program’s final minute, Koppel’s tone sharpened a bit as he delivered a direct address to his audience, taped only hours before the show broadcast at 11:30 p.m. (According to one account, Koppel sat down and wrote his farewell speech on Tuesday afternoon after pounding a double mocha.) In his own version of Morrie Schwartz’s image of the wave, Koppel stressed his place in an ever-ebbing and flowing ocean of news anchors: “Cronkite begat Rather, Chancellor begat Brokaw, Reynolds begat Jennings. And each of them did a pretty fair job in his own right.” He described a test he often gives to new Nightline interns, asking them to identify names like Eric Sevareid, Chet Huntley, or John Chancellor, only to be met with “blank stares.” Koppel then reminds the young whippersnappers that, in their day, each of these men were once so famous that “everybody in the country knew their names. Everybody.”

Amid all the portentous pronouncements these days about the Death of the News Anchor, there was something refreshingly humble about Koppel’s perspective: In his Biblical metaphor, the endless procession of household-name newsmen were like so many dust motes swirling in the winds of history. Though some might have heard disrespect in Koppel’s characterization of his just-retired colleagues Rather and Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings as “pretty fair,” it seemed to me like a deliberate case of ironic understatement, masking his admiration for them. And Koppel ruefully acknowledged that he hadn’t given his usual quiz to “this last batch” of incoming interns, because numbering himself among the ranks of the soon-to-be-forgotten hit a little too close to home.

Beginning on Monday, Nightline will be broadcast live from a snazzy new studio, anchored by a three-person team: Terry Moran, Cynthia McFadden, and Martin Bashir (who’s probably sick of having his name linked with his tawdry 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson, but you know, you make your bed …). In the last sentence of his sign-off, Koppel entreated viewers to “give this new anchor team at Nightline a fair break. If you don’t, the network will just put another comedy in this time slot, and then you’ll be sorry.” The comedy reference was an obvious dig at Late Show With David Letterman *, which nearly replaced Nightline in 2002 when ABC tried unsuccessfully (and in secret) to lure the late-night host away from CBS, understandably provoking Koppel’s ire. It may also have been a poke at Jon Stewart, whom Koppel chided in an interview on the floor of last year’s Republican National Convention for his overly flip take on the future of TV journalism. The new Nightline may not be a comedy show, but given the ever-dwindling audience for broadcast news and the resulting trend toward tabloid-style stories, it may still turn out to be an unintentional joke.

* Correction, November 23, 2005: An earlier version of this piece misstated the title of David Letterman’s CBS show as Late Night; it is Late Show. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.