Making a Difference, Post-Nightline
In tomorrow's Floridian, you can read my wide-ranging profile of exiting Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who I have interviewed many times and always found to be a curious mix of down-to-earth realist and cocksure, supremely confident anchor.
But in this space, I wanted to take a little time to talk about another Nightline alum who I spoke with in fleshing out my piece on Koppel; former executive producer Leroy Sievers.
Usually, when high-ranking TV producers lose a job, they land somewhere else in the industry -- starting a consulting business or jumping to another program or network. But Sievers deided on a different path when he left Nightline after 14 years in November 2004 -- trekking to Uganda and Rwanda with Non-Government Organizations and volunteering with the Red Cross to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Covering Rwanda was the seminal moment of my professional life...it's haunted all of us who were there," said Sievers when I called him at his Maryland home, initially intending just to ask him about his years working alongside Koppel. "I know my team was often the last thing people saw...we were taking pictures while they were dying. I wanted to find a way to make a difference rather than just sit back."
After a semester spent teaching at the University of Southern California, Sievers headed to Uganda for Human Rights Watch, shooting footage to show the legacy of the country's civil war for children there. (Hear his engrossing NPR essay on the work here.)
Later, when a trip to Rwanda for the anti-war International Crisis Group was delayed, Sievers volunteered with the Red Cross in Biloxi, Miss., handing out food and learning how much that scene mirrored the Third World nations he'd covered in 25 years as a globe-hopping TV news producer. (His NPR report on that experience is here.)
Then he traveled back Rwanda. In 1994, he had led a team of journalists from Nightline there to cover the genocide. Now, 11 years later, he was traveling back to help a Non-Governmental Organization track down the perpetrators of the brutalities there. (Here's an NPR essay on that experience).
"I turned 50 this summer, and all these years you say to yourself, 'If only I had time, I could do this or that,' " said Sievers, who is still attempting to decide whether to work more extensively with non-profits or return to journalism, with one eye on the declining state of TV news. "Well now I have the opportunity, and I don't want to make a bad decision. This sounds painfully naive, but I really want to make a difference...and it really is something a lot of my other colleagues are struggling with."
He has nothing but wonderful things to say about Koppel, who he says "doesn't take any handling...he's happy sleeping on the ground, eating (Meals Ready to Eat military rations) working around the clock." And despite the fact that ABC jettioned a succession plan that would have had him run Nightline after Koppel's departure, Sievers sympathizes that, regardless of what the new guys try, they will be criticized for not being Koppel's Nightline.
"It's like finding out your ex is dating someone else," he said, of watching ABC develop a new vision for the show. "Nightline was my life for 14 years, literally, from Monday morning to Friday night. It's hard to give that up."