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$1 trillion in perspective

Published 7:59pm Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ted Koppel’s return on NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams” dovetails nicely with the “end” of a long war.
I covered Koppel at Notre Dame in 1999 when the anchor and managing editor of ABC News’ “Night Line” delivered the Red Smith Lecture in Journalism named for the 1927 graduate who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist.
The Koppel quote that leaps out after he said, “The United States is not leaving Iraq … we are building to stay in a permanent way,”  is:
“A trillion is a million dollars a day for 3,000 years, and we did it in less than nine.”
Startling pictures depict what looks a maximum-security federal penitentiary across the Tigris River, but is actually the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world.
The White House and Executive Office Building cover 14 acres, compared to its 104.
Its scope reminds the ambassador of Saigon when he left in 1973.
Curious after seeing Koppel’s report on forever war in Iraq, I went to my archive to refresh what he talked about at Notre Dame and was impressed by his prescience.
I wrote: “As journalists kill context in the competitive quest for one meaningless scoop after another, they sacrifice significance and standards for speed and trivialize everything they touch.”
“All too often these days,” Koppel opined to a standing ovation, “news is defined as whatever it is that’s happened in the last half hour. Live coverage that is the mainstay of the 24-hour news network seems to require a constant updating of whatever that day’s main story may be, no matter how trivial those developments are.”
He made that observation in 1999! — years before social media like Twitter came along and compressed the world at a marching band cadence into 140-character bubbles.
At that point in his career, Koppel had won 32 Emmy Awards in 36 years at ABC News. Recall that “Night Line” was a byproduct of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Now we’re talking more war with Tehran.
Not only was Koppel’s speech in the Hesburgh Library auditorium, but former president Father Theodore Hesburgh was in attendance because I almost bowled him over as he came up behind me as I tried to position for a better photo.
“Too frequently,” Koppel continued, “we do things merely because we can. The ability to broadcast live creates an imperative that simply did not exist 30 years ago. It produces a rush to be first with the obvious, a tendency to focus on events because they just happened, rather than because of their actual importance.”
In a forthcoming issue of Brill’s Content — still around in 1999 — Koppel inherited Walter Cronkite’s mantel as the most trusted man in America.
Koppel did a passable imitation of the avuncular CBS anchor for us as well as Donald Duck when someone asked about working for Disney.
The “shock and awe” start of our invasion coincided with our last real family vacation to Florida. I watched the conflict unfold in real time by beach sand while the convoy carried Koppel and his embedded colleagues across desert sand.
Koppel, last in Iraq in 2005, reports in “No Exit,” “It isn’t about Iraq. It’s about Iran, terrorism support and oil. If they can control it through their influence, they can drive the price of gasoline in this country up to $5 a gallon, $10 a gallon … I’m glad the troops are home, but those 16,000 to 17,000 Americans left there are very exposed. What’s slightly disturbing is that it’s a more dangerous place today than in 2005.”
Two helmeted, flak-jacketed female State Department contract employees who teach English as a second language merit a Secretary of State-sized security detail. Waves of five-vehicle motorcades ferry diplomats venturing out of the compound into the Baghdad “red zone.”
An astounding 1,500 civilian contractors perished in Iraq since 2003; plus, 4,500 dead and 32,000 wounded on the battlefield.
Basra sits atop some of the richest oil fields in the world just 20 miles from the Iraq-Iran border.
A lieutenant colonel who is a lead military officer for transition at the consulate where 1,320 people work named their enemy as Iranian-backed militias and proxy groups.

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