- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Now that David Letterman has thrown his support behind Ted Koppel, isn't it time for ABC to make amends? The beleaguered host of "Nightline" is offering to put this public relations fiasco behind him if he can get a renewed commitment from parent company Disney. While the corporate heads consider whether to acquiesce in order to restore public faith in ABC News, the network bureau on DeSales Street is brimming with tension.

I doubt Mr. Koppel remembers me, but I remember him well. I can still picture him poring over a pile of notes with his reading glasses half-way down his nose. I know his work habits. I know how he takes his tea. That's because right out of college, I was lucky enough to land a job as a desk assistant at ABC News, serving Mr. Koppel among others in the Washington bureau. Even though the newsroom worked on a first-name basis, I called him Mr. Koppel, not Ted, because he commanded an extra degree of respect without demanding it.

That was in 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square, the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. It was a heady time to be learning the ropes in broadcast news. Ambitious and idealistic as only a 21-year-old can be, I paid close attention to the correspondents and producers, trying to emulate their best qualities. No one impressed me more than Mr. Koppel. Not because he worked harder indeed, everyone worked off their hide at the network but because he went about his business so effectively without calling attention to himself.

His persona behind the scenes is much like what you see on screen. To call Mr. Koppel an understated leader is an understatement. He does not wield his reputation as a weapon, nor does he wear his ego on his sleeve; his focus is on the product a news program that intelligently explores issues of our changing world. Even to a neophyte back then, it was clear that every edition of "Nightline" was guided by his vision. He called the shots, from the morning conference call through his sign-off at 12:05 a.m., picking the daily topic and writing much of his own copy. Yet his true genius manifested itself in the way he trusted his team of talented producers to bring his vision to life every day. He gave his staff the creative freedom to break new ground. With this winning formula, "Nightline" provided a forum for such un-racy subjects as Osama bin Laden, years before he became the most wanted mass-murderer in American history.

I don't watch "Nightline" every night. But I feel better as a person when I do. As I progressed in my news career from writer and producer at various television stations to executive producer at ABC-owned KABC-TV in Los Angeles, I held steadfast to "Nightline" as a touchstone of excellence, setting a standard for all of us in broadcast news. I turned to Mr. Koppel to recalibrate my own sense of journalistic integrity. In this way, he has been my mentor, although we have not exchanged a word in the 12 years since I last saw him on the set.

There is a memory from my formative year in Washington that stuck in my mind. Mr. Koppel is not known to waste words on small talk. Yet one day he surprised me by speaking to me in my native Chinese tongue. It was something he'd picked up when he was stationed in Hong Kong, no doubt refreshed in his memory during his last visit to Beijing for "Nightline's" extended coverage of the student riots. He said just a few words to me, asking about my health enough to let me know he was trying, that he cared. It left a lasting impression.

I'm really not so worried about Mr. Koppel's future. If he loses his berth, we can count on him to find another home. I'll just have to turn the channel away from ABC when I crave a dose of wisdom and wit.

Bonnie Huang is a television news producer and writer based in New York City.

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