DATE October 28, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ted Koppel discusses his journalism and recent
controversies surrounding "Nightline"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Next month, Ted Koppel will begin his 25th year anchoring a late-night news
program. His programs first covered the Iranian hostage crisis and were
titled "America Held Hostage." That evolved into "Nightline." Koppel has
become one of America's best-known and most trusted journalists. We invited
him to talk with us about politics and the media. The media itself seems to
have become more controversial in its coverage of the presidential election
and the war in Iraq. TV networks and newspapers that used to be described as
the mainstream press, like CBS and The New York Times, have been redefined by
some critics as the liberal media. The "Nightline" broadcast titled "The
Fallen," in which Koppel read the names of the Americans who had died in Iraq,
was not carried by the Sinclair Broadcast Group's ABC affiliates Sinclair
issues a statement saying the program, quote, "appears to be motivated by a
political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in
Iraq." We'll talk later about that edition of "Nightline." I asked Koppel
first to comment on the criticism that the mainstream media had become the
Mr. TED KOPPEL (Host, "Nightline"): There are some folks who are very
efficient at setting the agenda, and by saying that, what they do is make a
lot of people more sensitive to what they are either putting in their
newspapers or saying on their radio programs or broadcasting on their
television programs, and because they know that they're going to be accused of
being too liberal, sometimes I think they even lean over a little bit in the
other direction. I think conservatives in this country have done an
absolutely brilliant job of making liberals feel ashamed of themselves.
I did--I was on the road with John Edwards last week and asked him, you know,
flat out, `Are you a liberal?' `God! God, no.' You know, I mean, he didn't
want that label, and of course, he just--he answered it by saying, `I don't
like labels of any kind.' Look, they all use labels. How can you be a
politician in this country today without using labels? But the idea of being
identified as a liberal today is as distasteful to most politicians and, for
that matter, to most media representatives, I suppose, as being identified as
a conservative was 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago you had George Will,
you had William F. Buckley, and that was about it.
GROSS: Well, do you think that charges that parts of the media are liberal is
having a chilling effect on the media?
Mr. KOPPEL: That's what I was just saying, sure. I do think it's having a
chilling effect. I think it's causing people to think twice about what they
say, and that's not bad. You know, we should all think twice about what we
say and three times and four times, if what we're talking about is the
accuracy of what we're saying, the fairness of what we're saying. But you
know, these days, God help you if you have something that looks as though it
might be a program that is critical of someone in this administration. You
know full well that if you say something that is critical of someone in this
administration, you're going to be labeled as being a liberal.
To a certain extent, I would have expected it to go the other way. I mean, I
find, and I've been doing this now for a very long time, that eventually, you
know, each new administration comes into office with some of the afterglow of
their electoral victory hanging on, and there is sort of a brief honeymoon
period, and then they start deciding who their friends are and who their
adversaries are. And I'm very proud to say that I have found myself in the
adversarial camp of every administration that has come in over the past 25
years. That's my job. It's not my job to be nasty to them. It's not my job
to be unfair to them, but it is my job to look at what they do critically.
GROSS: Do you feel that you as a journalist have faced any consequences for
programs that you have done that have been critical of the Bush
Mr. KOPPEL: Oh, sure. I mean, consequences, not in the sense of their
having done anything nasty to me. Consequences that are perfectly appropriate
from their point of view and that I fully understand from my point of view.
In other words, the president is not available as an interview subject. The
vice president is not available as an interview subject. The secretary of
State does it every once in a while 'cause Colin Powell and I have been
friends for many years, and I think, you know, he's a loyal friend, and
therefore, he does it. And the same with Condi Rice; I've known her for many
years, and she has done many interviews with me. But by and large, those are
the consequences; if you're not perceived as a friend, then they're not going
to give you, you know, what is perceived to be the reward of an interview. I
never really looked at it as being a reward. I thought, you know, we offer an
opportunity to be heard and seen. They offer an opportunity for me to get
news for the viewers of "Nightline." It's usually been one hand washes the
other, but we live much more in a time now, Terry, of punishment and reward.
GROSS: Let me ask you this. In terms of how some parts of the press that
used to be called the mainstream press are now being labeled as the liberal
press, again, some of the TV networks, some major newspapers. And there are
times when, say, on a television program, on a television talk show, you'll
see somebody from, say, one of the TV networks or a reporter with a newspaper
balanced with, you know, somebody who is a representative of a conservative
blog or a conservative magazine, someone who's clearly conservative in their
reporting. And I know I'm not naming names here, but I'm wondering if you
Mr. KOPPEL: Go ahead, Terry. Name some names.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you have observed that and if you think that--in
other words, if you think that if you were on a panel, should you be balanced
by somebody who's clearly conservative? Would you consider that to be fair?
Mr. KOPPEL: I would consider it to be sort of insulting, but I can't...
Mr. KOPPEL: Because I try to be as down the middle as I possibly can be in
my reporting and in the way we present programs on the air. And I don't
consider myself to be a representative of or a tool of either candidate, for
example, you know, now while we are in an election, but I also don't feel
that, if one side keeps turning me down for an interview and the other side
accepts, that I should therefore punish the side that accepts by saying, `Gee
whiz, I can't do that because, you know, I haven't gotten an interview with
the president. Therefore, I shouldn't be allowed to interview John Kerry.' I
mean, that's silly.
GROSS: Now you did a show on the Swift Boat controversy. "Nightline" sent a
reporter to the village in which that battle, that fight took place. You--the
reporter interviewed several Vietnamese people about what they saw and what
they remembered, and then you did an interview with John O'Neill from--who's
the co-author of the book "Unfit to Command." Is that the title--"Unfit to
Mr. KOPPEL: I think so. I don't have the book in front of me, but he sort
of heads up a loose unit of Swift Boat veterans who are clearly opposed to
Senator Kerry for a variety of reasons, and I think we have to point out,
Terry, that we focused only--and we sent a producer, not a correspondent, who
is our producer who's based in Hong Kong, and he went in because we were able
to find the exact location where the events of--I think it was January or
February of 1969 took place and for which young Lieutenant j.g. John Kerry
won the Silver Star. And we thought that was a fair thing to do because, as I
said to Mr. O'Neill, it's--I don't see where any of these peasants or
fishermen had a vested interest in saying anything in favor of John Kerry.
That really wasn't the point. Indeed, if you listen carefully to what they
said, John Kerry clearly was the enemy. He and his men came in, killed a lot
of their friends and family members and neighbors. The Vietnamese troops who
were with them burned down most of the houses in that village. We simply
wanted to find out and delve into what they remembered of that day.
It was the most important day of the war to them because they suffered more
casualties that day and, as I say, had much of their village burned down. So
I felt, if anything, they were going to be biased against Kerry. But
interestingly enough, the account they gave really matched the after-action
report--and I'm not altogether clear who wrote it; I don't think Kerry signed
it or initialed it, but whoever wrote that after-action report and whatever
was in the citation for the Silver Star matched very closely the account that
these peasants gave.
GROSS: My guest is Ted Koppel. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ted Koppel. When we left off, we were talking about a
recent edition of "Nightline" in which a reporter went to the hamlet in
Vietnam and talked to peasants about the John Kerry Swift Boat fight. Their
stories agreed in essence with John Kerry's story. Following that report,
Koppel interviewed John O'Neill, the author of "Unfit for Command," which
attacks Kerry's story and his record. I asked Koppel to describe how O'Neill
responded to what the peasants had to say.
Mr. KOPPEL: Well, I mean, basically he put it in terms of `Who are you going
to believe, those lying commie blank blank blanks or, you know, a bunch of
Swift Boat veterans?' And, you know, that's a bit of a loaded question there.
I don't--you know, A, the Swift Boat veterans who were with Lieutenant Kerry
on that occasion who were on his swift boat have all pretty much confirmed his
account, and those who have raised questions about it were not with him. So,
you know, we're not talking about, you know, American eyewitnesses who had one
version and Vietnamese eyewitnesses who had another. We're talking about
Vietnamese eyewitnesses who seem pretty largely to have confirmed what the
American eyewitnesses saw and recounted.
GROSS: This was a kind of incredible moment in television. I want to play an
excerpt of it. You know, John O'Neill, in response to your questions, keeps
holding up three books, one of which was his own, and quoting passages that
back up his story. Let's just hear a short excerpt on that.
(Soundbite of "Nightline")
Mr. JOHN O'NEILL: This is John Kerry's own approved biography, "Tour of
Duty." On page 296 of that book, John Kerry says, `Boy, he's glad there was
only a single person there and not more.' What you've done is go into a
closed society instead of interviewing direct witnesses and produced...
Mr. KOPPEL: Mr. O'Neill.
Mr. O'NEILL: ...a story that isn't even the story in his biography or...
Mr. KOPPEL: Mr. O'Neill, we...
Mr. O'NEILL: ...that of the Boston Globe.
Mr. KOPPEL: ...have other pieces of evidence, including the after-action
report and, of course, the citation for the Silver Star itself which talks
precisely about a superior enemy force. You're the one who raised questions
about the superior enemy force. It appears, from the recollections of the
Vietnamese who were on hand at the time, they recall a superior enemy
force, 12 soldiers from--you know, forgive me. If you'll put the book down...
Mr. O'NEILL: Ted, they'll recover--Ted, this is the...
Mr. KOPPEL: ...we can't read it anyways, so all you're doing is sort of
Mr. O'NEILL: ...Boston Globe biography.
Mr. KOPPEL: ...white light back--yes. So?
Mr. O'NEILL: Ted, this is the biography by the hometown newspaper of John
Kerry. It says there was a single Viet Cong, you know, teen-ager in a
Mr. KOPPEL: I heard you. I heard you...
Mr. O'NEILL: I asked the author of it, Michael Kranish. I said...
Mr. KOPPEL: I heard you the first time.
Mr. O'NEILL: ...`How did you get that information?' And he said, `I got it
because that's what everyone told me.'
Mr. KOPPEL: Yeah. Well, clearly...
Mr. O'NEILL: It's the same information I got. In John Kerry's autobiography,
the same information appears, except that they don't...
Mr. KOPPEL: Mr. O'Neill...
Mr. O'NEILL: ...give the age. Now really.
Mr. KOPPEL: ...you're being repetitive. I am referring to what you wrote in
Mr. O'NEILL: Oh, come on.
Mr. KOPPEL: ...and asking you to respond to what you have just...
Mr. O'NEILL: Yeah.
Mr. KOPPEL: ...heard from a bunch of people who do not seem to have--yeah, we
got the title, "Unfit for Command." You know, just do me a favor. Stop
picking up books, and let's see if you and I can more or less look at one
another and just get a few questions and answers back and forth.
Mr. O'NEILL: Sure. Ted...
Mr. KOPPEL: You wrote that there was only one man...
Mr. O'NEILL: Right...
Mr. KOPPEL: ...and in fact...
GROSS: Ted Koppel, as an interviewer watching this, I was just kind of
fascinated by how you handled it, and even just by watching your face, which
read to me to indicate a mix of frustration and almost amusement, and that was
just what I was projecting, watching you, so tell me, what was going through
Mr. KOPPEL: Well, as I told you before we started doing this interview,
Terry, as I was driving home, as often is the case, I thought of what I should
have said, which is, `Let me see if I can summarize the twin pillars of your
argument, Mr. O'Neill. Books, good; Vietnamese peasants, bad,' because that
was essentially all he kept saying, you know, that they are people who live in
a dictatorial society, which is absolutely true, but sometimes people even in
a dictatorial society, if they don't feel that the government is going to get
angry at them for saying something, feel free to tell the truth.
I said to him over and over again, I didn't understand what incentive those
peasants might have for confirming an account that they probably had never
heard. I mean, they didn't know what John Kerry's account was. All but one
of them had never heard of John Kerry before. They didn't know that he was
running for president.
GROSS: How did you decide to cover the story this way? The Swift Boat story
had been--you know, for weeks it had been the main subject of discussion on so
many cable and radio talk shows. How did you decide to cover it this way, by
actually having a reporter go to that village?
Mr. KOPPEL: Well, we were approached, Terry, by a freelance producer who
speaks Vietnamese, is married to a Vietnamese woman, has been in and out of
Vietnam many, many, many times over the past 15, 20 years, and he said, `Look,
I can get--indeed, I have access to Vietnamese government maps that will allow
us to find precisely the location of this incident, and would you be
interested if we could do that?' And we said, `If we can send our own
producer and our own camera crew, the answer is yes,' and he said, `Fine.'
And let me just say again, Terry, because I think this is what frustrated Mr.
O'Neill as much as anything else. There are any number of other aspects to
the Swift Boat veterans' criticism of John Kerry that we didn't and, I say,
couldn't on that occasion address. You know, ours was a very, very narrow
slice of the story. For example, do I have some sympathy for the guys who
were in the Hanoi Hilton who were prisoners of war and, you know, who say that
they were played excerpts of John Kerry's testimony before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee? I can understand totally how those guys feel. I really
can. I mean, if that is true, if they were played those excerpts and they
heard John Kerry saying things that they had refused to say even under
torture, I accept that they would be very angry, very frustrated. We didn't
address that on this broadcast. This was a very narrow slice of the story,
and we felt that it was important only because it happened to be a slice of
the story where we felt we could bring to bear the voices and the testimony of
people who had never been heard from before.
GROSS: Now I want to ask you about a broadcast that you did that was very
controversial, and I'm not sure you ever expected it to be. It was when you
read the names of the American soldiers who died in Iraq. And the Sinclair
Broadcasting Group told all of its affiliates not to run that broadcast.
Apparently, Sinclair interpreted the broadcast as any anti-war statement. Did
you ever expect that that broadcast would be seen as controversial?
Mr. KOPPEL: Yes. I mean, I thought it would be seen as controversial, but
we didn't do it to be controversial. We did it because we felt it was just
the right thing to do at the time, and it was early enough in the year that we
didn't feel it could or should or would become a part of the political
campaign, but that to--you know, we did it as a tribute. I deliberately did
not want to do it on, you know, Memorial Day, because then I felt it would
just--you know, we do things like that on Memorial Day all the time. And it
becomes a part of that day, and they get mixed up with the picnics and the
start of the summer season, and people don't pay much attention.
And I just thought, Lord, when we have this many young men and women who have
died that at least to be aware--I confess to a personal frustration, and I
felt that when President Clinton sent troops to Kosovo, and I have felt that
when President Bush send these troops to Iraq. I'm a World War II baby. I
grew up in England during World War II, and I remember, although I was very
young at the time, that there was sacrifice involved, not just by the people
who were fighting the war but by the people at home. There was rationing. We
had to keep our lights out. There were blackouts. Homes were hit by bombs
and people had to, you know, spend their nights in underground shelters to
avoid the bombing of London.
And it just seems to me that these days the approach seems to be, we can fight
a war and you folks back home don't have to give up anything. Not only do we
not have to raise taxes to support this war; we're going to give you a tax
cut, even as we are at war. There is nothing that any of you has to do, save
those of you who have family members or close friends in Iraq, but the rest of
you can just go on with your lives as though nothing were happening. I think
that's a bad way for a country to be at war. I think it needs to be a
national commitment, and that involves a certain amount of national sacrifice.
And I thought that by showing the faces and reading the names of the young men
and women who had died--and as I said during the program, not only do I not
oppose the war, I happen to believe that we are committed over there, and we
need to carry it through to a proper conclusion. I'm not for pulling the
troops out. So, you know, this was not a political statement on my part, but
it was a statement that says, `Pay attention. You know, there are real, young
men and women and some not so young men and women who are dying.'
GROSS: Ted Koppel is the anchor of "Nightline." He'll be back in the second
half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Ted Koppel. Also,
linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how the word `entrepreneur' is being used in
the presidential campaign, and Ed Ward reviews "SMILE," the album Brian Wilson
abandoned in 1966, which has finally been released.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...wind chimes. On the warm breeze the little
bells tinkle like wind chimes. Though it's hard I try not to look at my wind
chimes. Now and then, a tear rolls off my cheek. Close your eyes and lean
back now. Listen to wind chimes. In the late afternoon you're hung up on
wind chimes. Though it's hard, I try not to look at my wind chimes.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ted Koppel. Next
month, he'll celebrate his 25th anniversary anchoring a late-night news show
When we left off, we were talking about the edition of "Nightline" called "The
Fallen," in which Koppel read the names of all the Americans who had died in
Iraq. The Sinclair Broadcast Group issued a statement saying the program,
quote, "appears to be motivated by a political agenda," unquote. Sinclair's
ABC affiliates did not broadcast that edition of "Nightline." The program
concluded with these comments from Ted Koppel.
(Soundbite of "Nightline")
Mr. KOPPEL: The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to
provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of
you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I'm not, but
that's beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can
be waged by the sacrifice of a few without burdening the rest of us in any
way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to
question, criticize or debate our leaders' policies or, for that matter, the
policies of those who would like to become our leaders. "Nightline" will
continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come, but not
tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about.
GROSS: I told Ted Koppel that I was surprised to hear him give his opinion of
the war in Iraq.
Mr. KOPPEL: I rarely do that, Terry, as I think you know, as a longtime
viewer of "Nightline." I felt it was important here precisely because the
Sinclair Group was trying to turn this into some kind of a partisan statement.
And clearly, the only partisan statement that they would object to in this
case was they thought it was a partisan statement in opposition to the war.
And the only way I could think of in this case to at least put my--you know,
to at least give people the information they needed to make a--or come to a
reasonable conclusion themselves was to tell them, `Look, I'm not opposed to
this war. That's not the point. I'm not putting these names and faces up
there to stir up opposition to the war. I'm putting the names and faces up
there so that people don't think that wars can be fought without costs.'
GROSS: You ended your comments at the conclusion of the show by saying, `I
oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question,
criticize or debate our leaders' policies or, for that matter, the policies of
those who would like to become our leaders.' Outside of the fact that
Sinclair stations did not show that broadcast, do you feel like you have
forfeited the right, or have been pressured to forfeit the right, to question
or criticize or debate our leaders' policies or those of people who would like
to be our leaders?
Mr. KOPPEL: No. Look, I think that you have to be prepared to take a little
bit of heat. I took some criticism, I took some heat for it; I'm perfectly
prepared to do that. And it's totally legitimate that people should be
allowed to e-mail me whatever their opinions are or call or send letters, and
they do. And, you know, the Sinclair Group tried to get all of their ABC
stations not to carry the program. I think, in point of fact, only seven did
not, and in six out of those seven markets, we found other stations who were
willing to carry the broadcast.
So the impact of Sinclair's opposition was, I think, exactly the opposite of
what he had hoped to achieve. A, it was seen by almost everyone who would
have seen it anyway, and, B, what he tried to do, or what the group tried to
do, simply aroused much more curiosity about the program than it would
otherwise have had. And while we've gotten a lot of attention for doing the
program, it was a very, very simple and not terribly exciting program. I
mean, think about it. All I did was read the names and the ages of the men
and women who had died, and we showed a photograph. And basically, it
was--they were up for, like, two, two and a half seconds and then the next
photograph would come up. And I think if you watched the program for the
first three or four minutes, you got the point. And I'm actually quite amazed
that so many people stayed and watched the whole broadcast. I would have
thought that most people would tune in, say, `OK, I get it. That's it. I've
seen it. Now I'm going to go off and watch something else.' We surely didn't
do it because we thought it was going to get a big audience.
GROSS: Do you have any regrets of saying that you did not oppose the war...
Mr. KOPPEL: No.
GROSS: ...about, you know, stating an opinion like that?
Mr. KOPPEL: No. No, I didn't. I mean, I felt--you know, I've probably even
stated an opinion before on the broadcast over--you know, I guess I've done
about 6,000 broadcasts now, and I'm sure at one point or another, an opinion
was allowed to sneak in there. No, I don't have any regrets about that
because I think if anybody, you know, wants to talk about why it is that I
don't think that we can pull out of Iraq precipitously, I'd be happy to talk
about it. I just thought...
GROSS: Is that what you meant when you said you don't oppose the war? Is
that what you mean that you don't think we should pull out now?
Mr. KOPPEL: No. What I didn't support at the start was the timing of it.
And, indeed, we did a one-hour or a 90-minute--I forget which--town meeting at
one of the local war colleges here, and the title of the program itself sort
of indicates where I was coming from and the question was: Why now? I did
oppose the timing of it, or at least raised questions of the timing of it, but
you know, once the war was begun, I certainly understand what I think, you
know, lies behind the enormous importance of US troops remaining over there.
And I think parenthetically, you will find that if Mr. Kerry does win next
week that he will take exactly the same point of view. He's not going to be
pulling anybody out of there anytime soon.
GROSS: You and Jon Stewart have been having a running dialogue. You've been
on his show, he's been on your show and you've discussed the media and what is
Mr. KOPPEL: Right.
GROSS: ...and are comics doing the job of truth-telling that reporters should
be doing but are not. So that's the dialogue you've been having with each
other. Did you see his appearance on CNN's "Crossfire"?
Mr. KOPPEL: No, I didn't. I've heard about. I wrote him an angry e-mail
telling him how disappointed I was that I thought I was his chosen adversary
and here I am, you know--and now he's gone and deserted me and taken on these
GROSS: He basically accused them of doing theater and not doing a serious
discussion of the issues...
Mr. KOPPEL: Right.
GROSS: ...and they said to him, `Well, look at you. I mean, you know, you
ask softball questions to politicians,' and he basically said, `Well, you
know, I'm a comic. The show that proceeds me is puppets making crank phone
calls.' So do you take sides on that?
Mr. KOPPEL: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I think anyone who's been watching
closely--all of this began--and it just shows you how, you know, we do tend to
have sort of a herd mentality. All of this began when I had Jon on
"Nightline" at the Democratic convention. And we were teasing each other back
and forth, but we both do it with a deadpan delivery. You know, we don't
necessarily signal the fact that we're joking with one another. We were
teasing each other, and at the end of the interview, I said, `That's it.
You're finished,' and I still had a deadpan delivery.
Someone--I forget whether it was on Slate or--you know, it was one of these
Internet magazines--came to the conclusion that Stewart and I hate each other
and just, you know, had this vicious argument and that I had cut him off
rudely at the end of it. We really--I mean, Jon and I are friends. We e-mail
each other occasionally. We have frequent phone conversations. I mean, you
know, we're not friends--I've never been to his house; he's never been to
mine--but we get along very well, and we agree on far more than we disagree.
My only point is I do not believe that it is necessarily the best thing in the
world if young people today are getting all their news, or even most of their
news, from Jon or David Letterman or Jay Leno. Those guys are terrific at
what they do, but they are to television what an editorial cartoonist is to
the op-ed page of a newspaper. And you couldn't just run a newspaper with 10
op-ed cartoons on the front page and think that you were doing an appropriate
job as a newspaper, and you can't run a television network just putting shows
like the "Letterman" show or "The Daily Show" on and think that you are
covering news. They don't cover news; they're satirists. They make fun of
the rest of us who are a bunch of pompous idiots. And they do it very, very
well, but they don't substitute, or at least they shouldn't substitute, for
what the rest of us are supposed to be doing here.
GROSS: You have an anniversary coming up, don't you?
Mr. KOPPEL: We do. "Nightline"--it's really two anniversaries. There's a
program that proceeded "Nightline" that the older members of your audience
will remember. It was called "America Held Hostage," and that began actually
25 years ago on November 8th. The hostages were taken on November 4th, and
ABC started doing a nightly update on the hostage crisis on November 8th.
"Nightline" was born on March 24th, 1980, so we'll be 25 years old next March.
GROSS: It must be odd, you know, every time there's anniversary of the
American hostage crisis, it's also the anniversary of your show.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOPPEL: Exactly. Jimmy Carter once pointed out to me that the only
people who really benefited from the hostage crisis were the Ayatollah
Khomeini and me.
GROSS: Well, Ted Koppel, I'm glad you're on the air. Thank you so much for
talking with us.
Mr. KOPPEL: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Ted Koppel is the anchor of "Nightline."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on how the word `entrepreneur' is being used
in the presidential campaign.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Evolution of the word entrepreneur in the US
TERRY GROSS, host:
The word `entrepreneur' may have come from the French, but it's been cropping
up lately in the Bush campaign. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg takes a look at
some new uses for an old word.
Awhile ago, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations published its list of the top
101 sayings of 2002. It included a remark that George W. Bush supposedly made
to Tony Blair: `The problem with the French is that they have no word for
"entrepreneur."' After the list appeared, though, a spokesman for the prime
minister denied that Bush every said anything of the sort. `I believe him.
It sounds exactly like the sort of remark that the English would cook up to
put in the mouth of an ignorant American.'
In fact, despite the right's current disdain for the French and those who
speak their language, `entrepreneur' is one of President Bush's favorite
words, and he pronounces it with all the sensuous pleasure that foodies give
to mousseline foie gras. Speaking in Virginia a few months ago, he said,
`"Entrepreneur." Isn't that a lovely word? You know, "entrepreneur"; "We
`Entrepreneur' first came into English as a name for a theatrical promoter.
It originally meant just somebody who undertakes something, just like the
Italian word `impresario' does. But it was soon being used to describe a
person who promoted investments or business schemes, often with a slightly
unsavory connotation. A 1951 article in The New York Times described the
gangster Frank Costello as a `slot machine entrepreneur.'
The word didn't really come into its own until the Reagan years. As it
happens, that was when champions of the free market revived the word
`capitalism' in place of the more genteel-sounding `free enterprise.' But the
redemption of `capitalism' didn't extend to capitalist, which still connoted
silk-hatted predators like J.P. Morgan. Entrepreneurs seemed readymade to
fill that gap as a name for the risk-takers and business-builders who are the
new heros of the market economy. An entrepreneur is basically the same thing
as a capitalist only played by Jeff Bridges instead of Lionel Barrymore.
By the 1980s, `entrepreneur' was more than 10 times as common in newspaper
articles as it had been in the 1950s. Business schools started offering
courses in `entrepreneurship,' a word that was practically non-existent before
then. And people retroactively awarded the label to men like Thomas Edison
and Henry Ford, who were never called entrepreneurs in their lifetimes.
But in recent years, free market enthusiasts have been spreading
`entrepreneur' around in a new, more democratic way that would have had the
French scratching their heads. On CNN recently, Commerce Secretary Don Evans
complained to Wolf Blitzer that the Democrats have been citing unemployment
figures that don't count all the Americans who are self-employed. According
to Evans, `Senator Kerry wants to ignore the some 10 million workers that are
the entrepreneurs who are self-employed, like truck drivers, like painters,
like child care workers, like hairdressers, like auto mechanics.'
It's true that for most people, the word `entrepreneur' doesn't bring to mind
the guy who does dump runs in his pickup truck or the manicurist who works out
of her home. And Evan's description might strike you as just another
milestone in the great American tradition of job title inflation. You have
the picture of those 10 million entrepreneurs standing shoulder-to-shoulder
with Wal-Mart's 750,000 sales associates, or the customer service executives
who answer the phone when you call Comcast to you ask about your cable bill.
But the new use of `entrepreneur' is part of the great leveling of the
language of capitalism, which sweeps away the old distinctions between capital
and labor, or at least the growing proportion of the labor force who are
forgoing health coverage and a steady salary to make their own way in the
world. Last week, you were merely an employee; now you're doing the same job
on a piecework basis as a paid-up citizen of the ownership society. True,
some economists have pointed out the self-employment rate always goes up with
the economy heads south; they've coined the term `involuntary
entrepreneurship' to describe the upsurge. But, a lot of people prefer to
think of the increase as `a healthy flowering of entrepreneurial spirit after
a two-decade decline.' A report from the Kauffman Foundation applauds the
sharp rise in self-employment among blacks and Hispanics as a sign that those
groups have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than whites and Asians do.
`Entrepreneur' is definitely a lot grander than old economy phrases like
`piecework,' or `for hire,' but new job titles have a way of losing their
luster if they don't come with new carpeting in the bargain. Writers who are
paid by the word don't usually think of themselves as the medieval knights
errant that the phrase `freelance' originally brought to mind. For that
matter, `employee,' doesn't have the panache it did when the Victorians first
borrowed it from French as a fancy name for clerk.
So it's unlikely that all those peripatetic car detailers and day care workers
are suddenly going to see themselves as having the same economic interests as
Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, even if they do all have `entrepreneur' on their
business cards. After all, these days `entrepreneur' doesn't mean much more
than, `Will undertake for food.'
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and the author of, "Going
Nuclear: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times."
In a couple of minutes Ed Ward will review, "Smile," the album Brian Wilson
abandoned in 1966, which has finally been released. Most of the songs are
composed by Wilson with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks. But this song segues into a
Johnny Mercer standard.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) Fresh clean around my head, morning to lie in
bed, exhibition lickety-split, look at me jump. I'm in the great shape of the
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) I want to be around to pick up the pieces when
somebody breaks your heart.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Your heart.
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) Yes, when somebody breaks your heat...
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Your heart.
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) ...in two.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) In two.
GROSS: Music from Brian Wilson's "Smile." We'll hear Ed Ward's review after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Former Beach Boy Brian Wilson's new album, "Smile"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Thirty-eight years is a long time to wait for an album, and one which has been
the subject of legend and conjecture for so long can't possibly live up to
expectations, or can it? Former Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, released his album
"Smile," this year after abandoning it in 1966. Ed Ward has been waiting for
it every since then, takes a listen.
(Soundbite from "Smile")
Mr. BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) Ooh, ah, ooh, ah, ooh.
ED WARD reporting:
There's no question, "Smile," is the record of the year. Whether it's the
best record of the year or not, I'll leave to those who get to hear a lot more
new music than I do. But, there's no doubt about the fact that one of the
great lost albums of rock history has finally been released and that in large
part is worthy of the hype and mystery surrounding it for all these years.
A little background. In the summer of 1966 the Beach Boys released an album
called, "Pet Sounds," which had been recorded sporadically between the
previous November and April. It was radically different from any of their
previous records, in that it featured magnificent orchestrations, elaborate
arrangements and far more personal lyrics than the group had ever recorded.
In large part, this was due to their bass player, main songwriter and
arranger, Brian Wilson, having retired from the road the previous year.
Increasingly solitary, he put a large part of "Pet Sounds," together in
studios he rented only involving the group for vocals. Several of them
thought the new stuff was pretty weird, but they indulged Brian, although,
they realized there was no way they could do most of the songs in their live
During the course of the "Pet Sound" sessions, Brian recorded a track he
called, "Good Vibrations," and his lyricist, Tony Asher, wrote some words.
Brian set it aside. Meanwhile, although it sold less than any previous Beach
Boys album, "Pet Sounds" was drawing some attention. Just as Brian had been
inspired to create it by The Beatles "Rubber Soul." `A whole album with all
good stuff,' he called it. Paul McCartney was said to be listening
obsessively to "Pet Sounds." The Beatles were hard at work on the album which
would become "Revolver," but this Beach Boys album made them realize the bar
had been raised in pop music. McCartney bought copies and gave them to his
Brian, now turned his attention to a new project. With all the confidence
he'd acquired with "Pet Sounds," he conceived of an album with interlocking
lyrical and melodic threads. With a new lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, writing
dense, allusive, enigmatic lyrics, he began to work on an album he called
"Smile." When the Beach Boys heard it they were appalled, this was just too
weird. However, out of loyalty or just a lack of options they did add vocals,
first, to the "Good Vibrations" track he'd recorded, and gradually to some of
the others. But between the pressures of creating this work, the record
company's wish for more commercial music, although "Good Vibrations" became
one of the group's biggest-selling singles and most legendarily, the fires
that broke out near the studio while Brian was recording a track called
"Fire," the project and Brian himself, collapsed.
For years he refused to discuss it. Dismissing "Smile" as inappropriate
music, but in recent years, Brian Wilson has been making a comeback with great
support from a band called the Wonder Mints. And as his confidence mounted,
word began to leak out, he was going to complete "Smile." And now he has. In
a way, it's not much of a revelation. As it turns out most of the major
pieces of it have leaked out on Beach Boys albums. Several of them, including
"Good Vibrations" were on smiley "Smile," the patchwork album that came out in
the fall of 1967. "Surf's Up," which Brian played on a Leonard Bernstein TV
special even became the title track of a not otherwise very good album in the
early '70s. But what a difference it makes when they're all put together in
their original sequence, not to mention re-recorded by a band that's not only
sympathetic but enthusiastic. And Van Dyke Parks words suddenly don't sound
(Soundbite of "Surf's Up)
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) A diamond necklace played the pawn. Hand in hand some
drummed along, oh. To a handsome man and baton. A blind class aristocracy.
Back through the opera glass you see. The pit and the pendulum drawn.
Columnated ruins domino. Canvass the town and brush the backdrop. Are you
sleeping? Hung velvet...
WARD: People have made fun of `columnated ruins domino,' whatever that means.
But what does it matter when it's set to a melody like that? One of Brian's
other great melodies was previously hidden under a strange vocal by his
brother Carl. But here, it's given free rein.
(Soundbite of "Smile")
Mr. WILSON: (Singing) She belongs there with her liberty. Never known as a
non-believer. She laughs and stays in her won-won-won-wonderful. wonderful.
She knew how to gather the forest when God reached softly and moved her body.
One golden locket. Quite young and loving her mother and father. Father
WARD: The playing excerpt doesn't give the full scale of the project it's
due. "Smile," would have given Sgt. Pepper a run for its money if it had
came out on schedule and sounding roughly like this. In a way, it's good that
enough time has passed that we can hear it with some perspective. Having to
top or equal it, would have been impossible for Brian Wilson in 1967, but
today it just is what it is, a perfectly realized pop album, brimming over
with good vibrations.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.
(Soundbite from "Good Vibrations")
BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Gotta keep those lovin' vibrations a happenin' with
her. Gotta keep those lovin' vibrations a happenin' with her. Oom bop bop.
Oom bop bop. Oom bop bop. Oom bop bop. Gotta keep those lovin' vibrations
happening with her. Good, good, good, good vibrations. I'm picking up good
vibrations. She's giving me excitations. Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na.
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na.
GROSS: Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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