NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. As some of you may know, this program began in the crisis that led up to what we now call the first Gulf War, in 1991, as Daniel Schorr and I anchored live coverage of briefings from the White House and the Pentagon and congressional hearings.
I got called away to other duties, so Dan took over, and when events failed to start on time, he took phone calls. As this program wraps up today, our guest is another great broadcaster, best known for a program born in another crisis: the Iranian hostage crisis back in 1979. On "Nightline," Ted Koppel provided indelible and indispensible coverage of that and a thousand other stories.
It's been our privilege to include him as a commentator on this program over the past several years, and on our last day, we couldn't think of a better way to conclude the series of conversations we've called Looking Ahead than to call on Ted Koppel. And, of course, we want to hear from you, too.
What makes you believe the future will be better? What keeps you up at night? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Ted Koppel joins us today from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Ted, it's always a pleasure to have you on the program.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Hello, Neal. I was just thinking, you know, maybe we need to explain the logic of having me on for this last program to all your many mourning fans out there. I think it's simply so that we can spend a few minutes taking a look around the world, so that by the end of the program, people will say it's terrible that Neal is going. It's terrible that TALK OF THE NATION is going, but there are even worse things going on out there in the rest of the world.
KOPPEL: I suspect we'll touch on a few of those.
CONAN: Well, I wanted to ask you, yes, to a lot of us, it looks like an incredibly dangerous world. The United States is economically weak. It's being challenged by China in one part of the world, and that, to some people, seems rather dangerous, as a new nationalistic power begins to flex its muscles in areas, well, where there aren't any rules. We look at the Middle East, and it seems like the cauldron in Syria is spilling over into other countries and could ignite a much broader war, that the conflict that a lot of people feared might happen with Iran over its nuclear program could erupt in, well, any of a half a dozen other ways.
And now we look at a situation where - I wanted to ask you: There was an extraordinary piece written in the New York Times a couple, three days ago, by Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations, who we both know. And he said, in fact, what we - where we are is at a moment where the United States can breathe a little bit easier than it could in the past, that there are no existential threats, and we need to get our economic house in order and, well, just stay out of trouble in the rest of the world.
KOPPEL: Yeah, I think Richard's main point - and you're right. He is an old friend to both of us. But I think his main point was that perhaps this would be an opportune time for the United States to focus more on the internal problems that we have and the domestic issues that need to be resolved. I certainly agree with him on that. I'm not sure that I agree with the other point that you made that he puts forth in his op-ed piece, namely that the dangers out there are not as great as they were before.
I think, quite frankly, we are living in the most dangerous times that I have known in my adult lifetime.
CONAN: And Ted is not a young man anymore, so we're including the Cold War.
KOPPEL: No, you're exactly right. I mean, I was born in 1940. So that - yes, I wasn't terribly conscious of World War II, but by the time the Korean War came along, I was paying attention. And by the time Vietnam came along, I was there. So I am including those times.
I think we live - and I'm including the times of the Cold War. The Cold War was potentially, hugely dangerous. Obviously, the possibility of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States dwarfs anything that we are confronting today, and mercifully, that threat seems to have eased somewhat.
But the fact of the matter was that the Soviet Union and the United States managed to maintain an uneasy sort of stability throughout the world, which even had an acronym, this notion of mutual assured destruction: We won't do it to you, because we know what you're going to be able to do to us after we've done it to you.
That doesn't exist anymore. We are not necessarily dealing with great nation-states anymore. They don't represent the big threat. The big threats now are the Hezbollahs and the al-Qaidas and the various groups around the world whose names we don't even know. But the individuals who, either through the use of explosives or perhaps chemical weapons or biological weapons or something that you and I have talked about before, cyber-warfare, are able to inflict enormous damage without our knowing where it's coming from.
CONAN: And the interesting part of it is that there are - we've been having a series of conversations with our correspondent in the Middle East, Deborah Amos, another old friend. And she has been talking about the ratcheting up of rhetoric in the conflict in Syria, and all of the nations around it, as Shiite groups and Sunni groups demonize each other in a way that has not been seen in our lifetimes. And that makes that conflict so much more dangerous as they find ways to, well, excuses to kill each other off.
KOPPEL: Well, and when you talk about the fact that there are well over a billion Muslims in the world, you realize - and, you know, that kind of warfare between the Sunni and the Shia, that can spread to parts of the world we haven't even included in our conversation about where danger lies: the Philippines, Indonesia, to me, still the most dangerous country in the world, Pakistan, which has over 100 nuclear warheads, maybe at this time, as many as 200 nuclear warheads. And the existential fear that has nagged everyone working for the U.S. administration - going all the way back now to 9/11 in 2001 and before - that one of these weapons, these weapons of mass destruction, will end up in the hands of a terrorist group that is capable of bringing it into the United States.
That is still what scares the hell out of everybody. And quite frankly, Neal, what worries me is not so much that danger alone, but the manner in which we, as a nation, have responded to it: two wars, neither of which has gone well for the United States. The war in Iraq did not turn out well. The war in Afghanistan is not turning out well.
And we have turned ourselves as a nation inside-out, both economically, and in terms of some of the systemic and organizational changes that have been made all in the name of national security. And, you know, we can get into any one of those aspects, obviously.
CONAN: Yet some would say, as difficult as that has been, as fundamentally altering of our society that has been in many ways, it has largely worked. There have been, yes, incidents, Fort Hood, yes, Boston. And as bad as those have been, they are not on the scale of 9/11, and the country is not in the same place as it was 11 years ago.
KOPPEL: No, you're exactly right, but that's not the greatest danger. The greatest danger is not what others do to us. The greatest danger is what we do to ourselves. And if you consider the number of lives that have been lost, the number of lives that have been damaged forever, the nature of this security behemoth that has been built up in the United States now - whether it's at the relatively trivial level of the folks in uniforms now that we see at the airports, to the notion of what's been done to encroach upon privacy in this country, the amount of money that has spent.
You know, we keep talking about, you know, the trillions that this, you know, that this nation owes. Well, two to 3 trillion has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I would argue that we're worse off in Iraq today than we were before the war. And we may be worse off in Afghanistan. That still remains to be seen.
And when I say we're worse off in Iraq, what I mean is that the balance in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Iraq was kept in a sort of uneasy equilibrium by Saddam Hussein, of all people. The fact that he is now gone has meant the world to the Iranians. Iran is now probably as influential, if not more influential, in Iraq than we are.
CONAN: Well, Ted, you've given us a lot of reasons to buy stock in Sominex. I do have to ask you, though: Are there things, as you look around the country, as you travel around, that give you hope?
KOPPEL: Neal, I hate to do it, but you've set me up for this. No. I guess that I'm more of a pessimist than an optimist, and I'm sure we'll get lots of good people calling in - I hope we do - who will explain to me how wrong I am and why I'm wrong. There's not a great deal that does give me optimism right now.
I am not hugely optimistic about the nature of communication in this country. I think we have trivialized communication to the point that everything now is reduced to snippets of thought. We respond in nanoseconds to one another. Reflection, thought are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. So no, I don't mean to be, you know, a total fool about this. I'm sure there are many wonderful things that are still going on.
And as an immigrant who came to this country at the age of 13 from England, I love the United States deeply. I wouldn't live anywhere else in the world, for anything. But that's precisely why I'm so pessimistic and why I'm so depressed by it.
CONAN: Because of the things we are willing to do to ourselves in fear?
KOPPEL: Well, it's not even so much what we're willing to do to ourselves. It's what we are doing to ourselves. I was talking - as you pointed out in the beginning, I'm out here at WBEZ in Chicago, and I was talking to a young producer, a reporter here who is working on a series that he hopes to do on people who are dying in the prison system here in Illinois.
And there have been 200 deaths, he was telling me, over the last couple of years. Some of them are as young as people in their 20s. Most of them are under the age of 53. And in large measure, this is happening because of the privatization of the health system in our prisons.
And we are privatizing ourselves into one disaster after another. We've privatized a lot of what our military is doing. We've privatized a lot of what our intelligence agencies are doing. We've privatized our very prison system in many parts of the country. We're privatizing the health system within those prisons. And it's not working well.
CONAN: What makes you believe the future will be better? What keeps you up at night? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ted Koppel will stay with us. More in a minute. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Over the years, Ted Koppel has joined us to talk about everything from an evolving China to the debate over torture, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turmoil in Syria, presidential power in this country, the changing new business. We've asked him back today one last time to help warp up our series of conversations called Looking Ahead.
We're taking the wide view this time. Call, tell us, what makes you believe the future will be better? What keeps you up at night? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll go to Cher(ph), Cher with us on the line from San Antonio.
CHER: Yes, hi. Let me thank you before I start with my comment. I am very hopeful for my nephews. Thank you for your wonderful programming.
CONAN: Thank you.
CHER: I want to say that I am hopeful for my nephews. I'm not married. But the thing is that has kept me joyful or gives me joy in the future is even though we - when I first heard that they had cut out the two sections of the Civil Rights Act of '65, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach all day long and in part of the night. I still feel hopeful because my own family history, we have been here 18 generations.
We first, our Spanish side of the family came over in the 1500s, and we've survived the oppression from the, well, the U.S. invasion of Mexico. And we've seen where lands were taken away, where Texas rangers used to go to south Texas to - for Saturday night entertainment used to hang Mexicans and Niggers. And but even then my family, because they were very strong Catholic survivors, they believe in God's will and received strength from their faith.
I can point to my mom and dad, who sacrificed a lot to send myself and my siblings to private school. We never attended public schools. And it was because of the U.S. economic system. But now, the thing is now we have to go back and fight the civil rights struggle again, and...
CONAN: Cher, I'm sure you meant the Voting Rights Act is what the Supreme Court ruled on. And it was - wanted to bring Ted in, interesting to watch this week in the United States Supreme Court where so many, and we saw John Lewis and the pain on his face as he was responding to the Supreme Court decision and asking them to take a walk in his shoes to think that the voting rights that had been granted could not be taken away.
And then the next day to hear the Supreme Court revolutionize thinking on gay marriage.
I was about to say you - it's probably been one of the more historic weeks for the Supreme Court, certainly step back in terms of civil rights as far as the races are concerned but clearly a step forward in terms of rights for gay Americans. Curious that the same thing, that, you know, a step back and a step forward would happen with the same court in the same week, but it did.
Cher, thank you very much, and thank you for reminding us of the long and difficult period that your people have survived and the reasons that they are tough enough to look forward to the future.
CHER: Yes, we will, and God bless for whatever your endeavors. And do come back and let us know how and what you're doing. Thanks.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much, Cher.
CHER: God bless you.
CONAN: Thank you. Ted, I also wanted to ask you about the example of a man who lies dying in South Africa today.
KOPPEL: Nelson Mandela, yes.
KOPPEL: An extraordinary man. It gives me a chance, Neal, to sort of play this game I sometimes play with friends and say, you know, if you go back to the 1930s and the 1940s, and if you take, without regard to good or bad, simply the word great and apply it to leaders, then you would, you know, clearly have Mao and Stalin and Hitler and Roosevelt and Churchill and de Gaulle.
I mean, the list goes on and on and on of great leaders. Now play the game today. If I were to say to you, Neal Conan, forget about Nelson Mandela for a moment because I think he's the exception to the rule, name two or three great leaders today.
CONAN: Joe Torre was a hell of a manager for the Yankees.
KOPPEL: Yes, he was. No, I don't mean to put you on the spot because I actually have a theory as to why that is. I think in some measure it's our fault. When I say our fault, I mean the media. The fact of the matter is that many Americans, most Americans, didn't even know that FDR was suffering from polio, that he was in a wheelchair, because the press in those days, the media were complicit in keeping that secret from the American public.
The world public didn't necessarily know very much about these leaders. They certainly didn't know in some of the more tyrannical societies how evil some of those people were. But the fact of the matter is we now know so much about our leaders, we know so much about everybody that it's very hard to maintain any kind of heroic stature.
And perhaps the thing that singles Nelson Mandela out is precisely the fact that he was isolated for almost 27 years of his life in prison. Now of course his greatest achievement was when he came out, was not only in not seeking revenge for what had happened under Apartheid, but far from that, seeking tolerance on both sides and trying to bring some kind of racial calm and political calm to South Africa, which for a while he and another heroic figure, de Klerk, succeeded in doing.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Maureen(ph), Maureen with us from St. Louis.
MAUREEN: Can I be cautiously optimistic?
KOPPEL: Oh, please.
MAUREEN: Of the future? My mind always goes back to an interview I saw Paul Tsongas do in 1993, and at the time he said if you're 30 years old today, you're not going to live the retirement that your parents are. And I always remember that. It stuck with me because I was 30 years old at the time. And now of course I realize he was exactly right.
You know, my husband and I might have to unfortunately, work until we can't stand anymore. And maybe we won't be able to help our kids too much with college or, you know, maybe a little bit with a house. So that's kind of my concern.
KOPPEL: Wait a second, is that the positive note you were going to inject into this...?
CONAN: I was just going to ask where's the optimistic part.
MAUREEN: Well, the optimistic part is I've got a job, and I have great insurance.
CONAN: Well, congratulations on the job, and we hope and look forward to your happy retirement, Maureen.
MAUREEN: Neal, thank you, and Neal, if I could just say one thing, at least once or twice a week, I must tell my husband that Neal Conan is brilliant.
CONAN: Well, it's interesting...
MAUREEN: I can't tell you how much we're going to miss you.
CONAN: Very few of the people who actually know me say that.
MAUREEN: Well, thank you so much and your staff for all you've done.
CONAN: Thank you so much, appreciate the phone call.
KOPPEL: Neal, if I were you, I'd put that on a loop and play it at home.
CONAN: I want to read some emails, this from Anna(ph): Honestly what keeps me most up at night is the future, and what keeps me up at night is climate change, not political conflicts but the pace at which humans are altering the planet and potential effects it will have for all of us.
This from Tina(ph): If we can get corporate money out of American politics, the future will be bright. If we can't, it will not. This from Casey(ph): Not being able to listen to my dad on the radio anymore. That's my daughter.
CONAN: Good run, she says. Thank you very much, Casey. What keeps me up at night are drone attacks around the world, spying here at home, as Ted Koppel said, it's a behemoth, one that's been built up behind a wall of aggressive secrecy by private contractors hidden even from our own Congress. This is not democratic. This is not safe. This is not sustainable. As for hope, my daughter, she is the reason I worry about the future and the reason I work to change it.
Work to change it, Ted, do you see any progress there?
KOPPEL: Well, there will be progress if indeed this next generation can tear itself away from the Facebook and the Twitter and the texting and start focusing on - and, you know, obviously I sound like an old curmudgeon, which increasingly I am becoming. I know there are many, many very bright young people out there. But I do worry about the nature of communication today.
It's not helpful. It's too fast. It's too abrupt. We need to reflect a little bit more, and, you know, with that, is the talent out there? You bet it is.
CONAN: Let's go next to Rafael(ph), Rafael with us from San Antonio.
RAFAEL: Hi Neal.
RAFAEL: I just want to say I've only found out about this show not too long ago, so I'm kind of sad that it's going to be taken away from me so fast. But on what your guest is saying about communication, about how it's too fast, that is actually what makes me optimistic. Because of the fact that it's so fast, we're able to spread idea more and more faster.
Social media, the Internet, all that, that makes me happy because they can't keep us in the dark.
We created our own media, which is person to person. Instead of having to go through a middle man, such as a news network or a corporate-sponsored news network, we were able to talk to each other with no filter, raw, right there, just - I mean, look at the Arab Spring. I mean, Facebook helped a little bit with that...
CONAN: And to emphasize Rafael's point, Ted, we look at what is happening in Turkey these past few weeks, where what was historically a society very able to suppress dissent has been unable to do so in part because it has been unable to control the news media because people can communicate on Twitter.
KOPPEL: In terms of social communication - and I draw a clear line of distinction between social communication and journalism. Journalism really does require certain disciplines. They have rusted, for the most part, these days. We're not seeing a great deal of it, particularly on radio and television these days, NPR mercifully being one of the exceptions. You still get great journalism on NPR.
Journalism requires a little bit more than simply people communicating with one another on Facebook or on Twitter. I agree that, in terms of the political impact, in terms of the social impact, it is huge. But if you look back on what the expectations and the hopes were for the Arab Spring when it first broke out in Tunisia and in Egypt, they have not been realized.
The - you know, the fact that certain tyrants have been overthrown is a first step, but it's not an end in itself. And if you look at the condition that Egypt is in today, I'm not sure that you can say that enormous progress has been made. I'm not sure that you can say that enormous progress, you know, is - we have no idea where things are going to go in Turkey.
I agree, you wouldn't have the demonstrations without the social media, but, you know, revolutions take a long time, and the results of revolution take sometimes decades and even generations to mature.
CONAN: And revolutions' history tells us, are not pretty.
KOPPEL: They never are. And the mere fact that people are able to, sort of, galvanize public meetings and engage in demonstrations that are very, very engaging to watch on television or to listen to on the radio, that doesn't mean, necessarily, that political progress has been made.
CONAN: Rafael, thanks for the point, and thanks very much for the call. And we're sorry we're not going to be around a little longer for you.
RAFAEL: You take care, man. You take care.
CONAN: So long. We're talking with Ted Koppel today as we conclude our series of conversations "Looking Ahead." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This email from Ed(ph) in St. Louis: I'm a bit younger than you and Ted, born in 1964 - everyone is younger than me and Ted - and one of the things I'm hopeful about is how my generation is leaning in to the issues of our day. Many of us experience downsizing and other serious cultural disruptions that have caused us to take deeper stock in our lives. We're realizing we can no longer drift through life and have to work at things now unlike any period.
Ted, I hate to read things into an emailer's message, but it sounds like some of the focus that people developed during the Depression.
KOPPEL: I'm not quite sure I get the point, Neal. Help me out on this one. Where are we going here?
CONAN: Well, because times were so tough, people who were drifting through life before, now realize they have to buckle down and get to work.
KOPPEL: Well, I, you know, I don't think the problem today is an unwillingness of people to buckle down. I think the problem is the millions of unemployed who have given up hope, the millions of unemployed who are no longer even counted or listed because they've stopped looking for work.
You know, does massive unemployment focus the mind and get people to work harder? Yes. Of course it does. I don't doubt that for a minute, and in that sense, I guess I see the analogy you're making to the Depression.
But what came out of the Depression was a generation of people who desperately held on to any kind of good job they could get - the folks who, you know, who joined the Post Office, the folks who joined the Customs Service, the folks who went into the military back in the 1930s because a government job was the best thing you could hope for.
You know, that was one of the things that came out of the Depression. I'm not sure if we're quite there yet, or if - in fact, I doubt that we're going to be getting there. I don't think the nation is facing that kind of economic turmoil.
CONAN: Let's get Nettie(ph) on the line. Nettie is with us from Austin, Texas.
NETTIE: Hi. Thanks for taking me on the line. I'm really going to miss you, Neal.
CONAN: Thank you.
NETTIE: I grew up listening to you with my grandpa driving me around. So I really am going to miss the show. I'm very, very hopeful, only because I stood in the gallery two nights ago at the Senate hearing. And at 12:05, I looked around the gallery, and it was filled with both men and women, 50-50, out for their own, you know, their own perspective on the cause that was being discussed.
And so I'm incredibly hopeful that at 48, with a 17-year-old daughter, that men and women are united in a majority and that the majority is again becoming the people, not determined by our Democrats or our Republicans. And I think the greatest danger in the future is continuing to foster internal xenophobia within our country, so that we don't know our neighbors and we're afraid to go to our own community because of all the things that the media tells us to be afraid of. So...
CONAN: Nettie, of course, is referring to the event the other day at the state capital there in Austin where Democrats, led by state Senator Wendy Davis, filibustered the abortion bill and ran out the clock, and it was past midnight, and so the votes did not count. But, Nettie, I have to ask you. We know that Governor Perry has called another special session. That bill is going to pass.
NETTIE: Well, the bill is going to pass, but I believe it'll be in the courts after that. But the bigger thing to gain from what happened is that I think our state is going to go blue. And I think that in terms of even social media, having over 200,000 people watching the YouTube stream - YouTube stream at one in the morning is remarkable. And what it says is that people are engaged, and it's not about women's rights. It's not about men's rights. It's about humanity's rights.
And the press cannot be complicit and keep us from news anymore because of this tide of all the adoption of all these tools. So I'm very, very hopeful, no matter what you stand - where you stand on these issues, that we have new ways to communicate and that men and women are together showing up at this event.
CONAN: Nettie, thanks very much for call. We appreciate it.
NETTIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Nancy. I'm a master's level social worker and do not earn enough to stave off student loan payments. It's troubling that we're encouraging our children to pursue college education, but we'll have to place an emphasis on the careers that will earn the most money and not on the careers that will help the most people.
Well, what encourages you about the future? What keeps you up at night? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. We're wrapping up our conversation "Looking Ahead" with commentator Ted Koppel. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: Here on TALK OF THE NATION today, we're wrapping up our series of conversations "Looking Ahead." Commentator Ted Koppel is with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And, Ted, if the listeners will indulge a moment to talk about our own business, I have to say you've had two horses shout out from underneath you this week. "Rock Center" died earlier this week.
KOPPEL: Yes. Well, I was going to say, Neal, if anyone in the broadcasting business is listening to us right now, and I suspect some are, stay away from me.
KOPPEL: I have some kind of professional plague. Poor old "Rock Center" had the rug pulled out from under it, and I went to what they called a wrap party last night. A wrap party is where all the staff, many of them now without jobs, get together at the expense of NBC. And I have a couple of drinks and some canapes and start pumping each other about what jobs are available out there and now, today, with you. So I have, just as you correctly put it, had the "Rock Center" horse and now the TALK OF THE NATION shout out from under me.
But that gives me an opportunity to point to the good news for me. Unlike so many of your listeners, unlike the millions out there who are listening right now, Neal, I will not miss this program but simply for the reason that it was never heard in Washington in the first place. That's about the only good thing I have to say about not having been able to hear...
KOPPEL: ...TALK OF THE NATION all these years is that, you know, I never got used to listening to it in the afternoon. But I do appreciate talking to a fellow journalist who has principles, who has intelligence, who has experience and brings them all together with a great appreciation for the intelligence of his audience. You have always done that, and I am convinced that the opportunity will arise again for you do to it at some point in the future. Where? You haven't confided to me yet, but I'm sure it'll happen. Cream rises to the top.
CONAN: Ted, that's very kind of you to say, but that's a very small silver lining - tarnished silver lining. You've managed to identify that.
CONAN: I recently heard - Charlotte emails us - I recently heard Michael Moore say he was optimistic, which surprised me, considering the pessimistic topic of many of his documentaries. When questioned, he said it was because the young people today is a whole - are more accepting of each other - whether that is race, sexual orientation, religious belief - of differences in general. Upon reflection, I have to agree that for the most part, that's true. I think that's why the Republican Party is having such a hard time attracting younger people. When the old white guys that seemed to control a lot of the aspects of this country pass on, there's a good possibility it will look a good deal differently.
KOPPEL: I buy that. I think - I take that's absolutely true. In fact, my wife and I we're talking about it, just on the flight out here to Chicago. The level of tolerance that young people have for one another, for people of different backgrounds, different religions, race, sexual orientation, that truly is something in which, I think, we can all rejoice. So, yes, someone has identified something that I can look forward to with hope.
CONAN: Let's go to Summer - and if I can push the button correctly - there we go. Summer is on the line with us from Cascade, in Idaho.
SUMMER: Hi there.
SUMMER: I just want to make a comment. What really worries me as a young voter is partisanship in our government. I think that's it's extremely harmful. It causes people to blindly take sides, and it doesn't really allow them to form their own opinions, and it halts a lot of progress in our government. And that we also tend to abuse things that should be - we should approach with humanity. And we tend to take sides based on our own political views, like Trayvon Martin, for example. I mean, that's the case of a murder of a young boy, yet we turned it into a Republican and Democrat war.
CONAN: Culture wars and partisanship, Ted. We know, again, as students of history, that this country was bitterly divided at periods in the past. You think of 1800 or so. But it doesn't seem to me there's been anything quite like this in our lifetime.
KOPPEL: Well, and I think that we in the media bear a large responsibility for it, Neal. You know, the fact of the matter is that when you and I began in this business, we tended to focus more on what we thought the public needed to know. And I'm speaking more of commercial television and commercial radio than I am of NPR.
We focused on what the public needed to know, because we had a responsibility under the FCC regulations to operate under public interest, necessity and convenience, and we feared - or at least the owners of our networks and stations feared that if they didn't do that, if they didn't have a news division that counterbalanced all the money they were making from entertainment, that they might actually lose their licenses, or at least have them suspended.
That is no longer the case. And the fact of the matter is that the focus now is so much on having to divide the pie of listeners and viewers among - in the old days, it used to be ABC, NBC and CBS. Now, there are thousands of options out there. And that means that they have to focus more and more and more on giving the public what it wants rather than what it needs. And one of the things they found that the public wants is partisanship.
And so you have MSNBC on the left, and you have Fox on the right. And you have Jon Stewart on the left and you have Bill O'Reilly on the right, or you have Rush Limbaugh on the right. And the end result is, as your caller - or as your listener points out, the end result is that we are constantly at war with one another, looking for ways in which we can find fault with what we're doing rather than seeking some kind of compromise and progress. And that's a very, very dangerous trend.
CONAN: Summer, thanks very much for the phone call.
SUMMER: You're welcome. And thank you so much. I really love your show.
CONAN: Thank you. Oops, I hung up on her before she could finish saying nice things about me. Boy, there's somebody who needs another 35 years on radio. Here's an email from Analisha(ph) in St. Louis: There's a lot out there to keep me up at nights, certainly. I'm troubled by a whole slew of things: terrorism, our crumbling environment, the unethical garment industry, goings on in Syria, human inequality, the fact that the Internet and television is killing literature and human connection, drones, or the cancellation of TALK OF THE NATION. Even so, I know in my heart the future is bright.
We'll be OK because we've always been OK. Goodness prevails. It has to. Believing otherwise will only destroy us. Whenever I'm feeling too torn up about dismal current events, I reflect on a quote by Anne Frank: "Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart." If she believes it, there's no reason we shouldn't. And Ted, that is a reminder that as bleak as things might look now, in the past, they have looked bleaker.
KOPPEL: No one has ever said that you should do away with faith or hope. And I think that what that message conveys is a message both of faith and hope, and the last thing in the world I want to do is undermine confidence in either one of those.
CONAN: Let's go to John, and John is on the line with us from San Antonio.
JOHN: Yes. Neal, many years ago, you helped to turn me into an optimist when I was ranting and raving, and you turned me around. And your screeners suggested I tell you that one of the things that causes me to be an optimist about America is Thursday morning, starting in Louisiana after the young troops had left Thursday afternoon - well, Wednesday afternoon, San Antonio, Fort Sam.
I was taking these young guys who just graduated from AMEDD as medics to learn how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes at Fort Benning, Georgia. And the young people of America, like my six grandkids, four sons and one daughter caused me to have hope in the future, and you did, too, sir, for years. But I am inclined to agree a little bit with Ted. I remember Walt Kelly's comic strip of 40 years ago in which he said, we met the enemy. They is us.
KOPPEL: He is us, yep.
CONAN: Yep. "Pogo," of course.
JOHN: "Pogo," right.
CONAN: Do you still have your pew stamps, John?
JOHN: Yes, sir.
JOHN: And, by the way, I'm Ted's age. My first historic memory was that Sunday when we were coming in from near the LBJ Ranch to San Antonio and my dad had the car radio on, and I heard that FDR had died at Warm Springs.
CONAN: My goodness. John, thank you very much for the call, and we appreciate the memories.
JOHN: And thank you. And, by the way, you're a little bit like the famous lion that C.S. Lewis wrote about in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." You'll be back. You'll be back.
CONAN: Yeah. Things did not turn out well for him, right? There was this...
JOHN: Well, yes. But you won't be sacrificed. You'll be back, because I'm watching. And I know you can't keep a good guy like Neal Conan down. You'll be back.
CONAN: Thank you very much, John. And...
CONAN: ...we'll try to avoid the crucifixion if we can possibly can.
KOPPEL: I was going to say that it's a very nice analogy, because as I recall my C.S. Lewis, the lion was a God-figure, wasn't he?
CONAN: Right. He was a God - well, a Christ-figure, in any case.
KOPPEL: A Christ-figure, yes.
CONAN: Yes, indeed. This from Barb: As an immigrant, this country is full of people like me. We come because we believe in a better life. We know the future's bright. After 33 years, no regrets.
Michael in Anchorage emails: It is true America has problems, and it is trendy, ever since 9/11, to talk about how down America is. We're still the strongest economically and multi-culturally, and in terms of ideas and political ideals that we are gradually moving forward. Let's discuss America's strength.
Devlin in Ontario, California, excuse me, writes: People make me optimistic for the future. Though my volunteer work with African Well Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the mission of funding the construction of clean water and sanitation projects in sub-Saharan Africa, I've been fortunate to work with people who saw a problem and are working to change that problem.
There are children as young as four volunteering for us who believe in doing right, who want to give water to people lacking clean water, feed people without food, house people without homes. For them, change is that simple and right. And they make me believe, too.
This from Scott in Oklahoma City: What scares me are the long-term consequences of the disappearing middle-class. I fear my children will see large-scale civil unrest from people who believe upward mobility no longer exists.
And many of these people have, well, just to avoid embarrassment, they have said nice things about the program. And I thank them all for that. Ted, you have, as well. I wanted to ask you, finally - we just have a couple of minutes left. As we move ahead, is there something that you are going to be working on next that we should be paying attention to?
KOPPEL: I don't know. I - actually, I am a great believer in the wonders of surprise. And it has always happened in my life - and I have no reason to believe that it won't happen again now - that something wonderful always crops up. People always have great ideas. Every once in a while, I even have a great idea. But you and I owe each other at least a cup of coffee and maybe lunch or dinner someplace and, you know, maybe we'll go out and start a network together.
CONAN: Hey. We could put on a show.
KOPPEL: We could put on a show. You write the music.
KOPPEL: I'll write the lyrics. Oh, well.
CONAN: Ted, thank you. It's been an honor. I referenced Daniel Schorr at the beginning of this broadcast. One of the great honors in my life is to work with people as brilliant as you and Dan.
KOPPEL: Well, you're very, very kind. And, Neal, I really mean it. Cream does rise to the top. Something will turn up. We will hear the voice of Neal Conan again, and it can't come too soon for me. And I know speak for millions of others.
CONAN: Ted Koppel joined us from our bureau in Chicago. WBEZ used to be our bureau in Chicago. Now, it's a member station in Chicago. Ted, thanks as always. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.