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Tuesday, August 27, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fred Davis

Don't Expect Others To Copy Ted Koppel

Special To The Times

As shocking and precedent-setting as it might have been, ABC News' decision a fortnight ago to allow one of its program units to pull out of the GOP San Diego convention isn't likely to be copied in Chicago by rival networks.

It took someone of the stature of a Ted Koppel to vault with his popular "Nightline" program at the Republican convention after just two days on assignment, citing no story and a lack of news interest for the unusual action.

It also took sympathetic news boss Roone Arledge - arguably, no big supporter of political convention coverage, even in a scaled-down '90s version - to give his blessing to the headline-grabbing move.

"Nothing surprising has happened. Nothing surprising is anticipated," Koppel would later say on his "Nightline" program following his decision to pack his bags and return to Washington, his base for the show.

But the chances of another high-profile media star following in Koppel's footsteps are slim at best.

Convention dynamics for the Democrats largely may be the same, insofar as putting on a well-planned event. But the networks have been looking long and hard for ways to cut back on their political convention coverage. And at least for ABC, "Nightline" in San Diego may have been this particular web's perfect out.

I kept waiting to see some sort of advisory to local affiliates from ABC following Nightline's mutiny, in which affiliate news staffers were warned "not to try (Koppel's move) at home."

And rightfully so.

True, there were upwards of 12,000 journalists in search of a story in this burgeoning Southern California city. But the first time an upstart producer or reporter, no doubt lucky enough to be assigned to political convention coverage, phones the assignment desk to get news editors to rethink their decision, he or she may be fired or committed for psychiatric treatment for coming off like some sort of nut.

And for good reason. Economizing is one thing. But there are very few working journalists of the stature of a Ted Koppel, who also happens to be a driving force behind his own show.

Koppel had every right to communicate to his superiors in New York about his feelings on Republican convention coverage. He also was wise to caution Democrats that they would get the same even-handed treatment by his award-winning news program when they convened in Chicago.

Koppel's show is built on single event and theme. And it is this distinction - and time slot - that sets him and the show apart from everyone else.

Naturally, if there's anyone who can pull off this sort of mutiny on a news assignment, it's Koppel and his heralded show.

Problem is, Koppel might have been too candid in his assessment early-on about the lack of news at an event the GOP clearly pulled off without a noticeable glitch.

And given the Republican Party's historical perception of putative liberal media bias, Koppel and his "Nightline" staffers were in a no-win situation - news story or not.

So, did the advent of a well-scripted Republican convention warrant ABC's unprecedented action?

No question.

The fact that things went well at the event by convention planners may well have been a feather in the Republicans' cap, as it should have been. But this aberrational political happenstance should not - and ought not - have dictated to ABC or any other network what convention script they should follow.

"Nightline," through its principal star and anchor, Koppel, just had the guts to say and do publicly what other network news organizations have only fantasized about in recent years.

Let's be clear about one thing: "Nightline's" truncated convention coverage in no way affected its flagship "World News Tonight" program with Peter Jennings. Jennings and his perennially top network evening news program continued to report on GOP daily convention happenings, much in the same vein of this week's Democratic coverage.

As well it should.

Syndicated columnist Fred Davis is a visiting journalism professor at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communications at Washington State University. He served as news director for ABC News Radio in New York City from from 1981 through 1988.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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