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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

Night flight

TED Koppel, the host of the low-rated but prestigious news show Nightline, is nothing if not a great reporter and observer of events. For 25 years, Mr. Koppel has presided over a late-night news program that was thoughtful when other shows of its kind have become frenetic. His greatest talent has been in questioning his guests the way a skilled lawyer would patiently cross-examine a potentially hostile witness.

So when Mr. Koppel announced in his cool and understated way last week that he would be leaving the show he has run since the opening hours of the Iranian hostage crisis in November 1979, there was little doubt that his disappointment with ABC brought him to this point. Mr. Koppel so far has declined to cite a reason for his decision to leave the network.

For all of ABC News' insistence that it plans to revamp Nightline to appeal to young people and traditional news consumers, Mr. Koppel is justifiably skeptical that such a move wouldn't involve fatal compromises.

It was only a few years ago that his bosses tried to lure talk-show host David Letterman from CBS to fill the program's slot. When word of the negotiations broke, it was a public-relations disaster for ABC and a humiliation for Nightline, the crown jewel of the network's news division.

Mr. Koppel is planning to leave the program in December, capping a year in which other anchors have also stepped down from prominent desks, including NBC's Tom Brokaw, CBS' Dan Rather, and 20/20 host Barbara Walters.

Mr. Koppel's greatest contribution to journalism has been the cultivation of informed conversation in places other than PBS. Not since Edward R. Murrow have American viewers seen such a keen intellect at work in long, respectful exchanges with ordinary people and many of the most important newsmakers of the day.

Whether in a war zone, community forums, riot-scarred neighborhoods, foreign palaces, or on the floor of a political convention, Ted Koppel has been the first among equals in delivering timely, relevant, and thoughtful coverage.

ABC News either doesn't know what it had in Mr. Koppel or doesn't care, so he felt it necessary to leave. It won't be the last time we see him on the air, however. He'll probably turn up at one of the rival networks or on cable. Old newsmen like Mr. Koppel don't fade away; they just go where their craft is appreciated.

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