George Stephanopoulos' donations to Clinton hurt his credibility

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes her opening remarks at a candidates a 2007 forum. At left is the forum moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes her opening remarks at a candidates a 2007 forum. At left is the forum moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
George Stephanopoulos appears to be one of the 2016 presidential campaign’s early losers.

Politico and the Washington Free Beacon disclosed Thursday that he’d given $50,000 (later amended by him to be $75,000) in contributions to the charitable Clinton Foundation. He didn’t disclose that fact to either his employer or viewers even as he reported on the Clintons and the controversial foundation.

He thus did not reveal a thing when recently interviewing Peter Schweizer, author of a critical and disputed -- by the Clintons and their allies -- book about the foundation’s donors and Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

Steve Brill, the journalist-author-media entrepreneur who also teaches journalism at Yale University, is correct in seeing scant ambiguity in this matter.

“First, he should have cleared it with his employer, and they should have told him no.”

“Second, for the same reason ABC should have told him no, he should not have done it because he reports about them [the Clintons]. There are lots of other deforestation charities,” Brill said, alluding to the anchor’s defense that he believes heartily in the foundation’s work.

“Oh, and third: They don't need the money.”

The political operative-turned-TV host, who worked in the Clinton White House, offered a formal statement of apology.

“I made charitable donations to the Foundation in support of the work they’re doing on global AIDS prevention and deforestation, causes I care about deeply. I thought that my contributions were a matter of public record. However, in hindsight, I should have taken the extra step of personally disclosing my donations to my employer and to the views on air during the recent news stories about the Foundation. I apologize.”

Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a lot about blatant conflicts of interest among Washington’s elite journalists. Ironically, those included Cokie Roberts, long a stalwart on “This Week,” the popular ABC Sunday morning news show now hosted by Stephanopoulos. I even had a regular column item, tagged “Cokie Watch,” about such conflicts.

My reporting involved huge speaking fees to journalists that were paid by groups whose issues or specific institutions the journalists covered. ABC tweaked some of its rules back then, but the practice remains rampant and speaks to the frequent situational ethics in which big stars get a pass from their media employers.

For its part, ABC won’t take any disciplinary action since it sees no reason. “We accept his apology. It was an honest mistake.”

The excuses are weak. Most notably, there is the matter of his contending that these contributions were on the public record and thus transparent to the world.

Those presumably expected to learn of them from public records included ABC, his employer.

The anchor bowed to predictable Republican criticism by announcing he would not moderate a GOP presidential primary debate next year as planned. But he insisted he will otherwise cover the campaign, including the Clintons. Covering the Clintons is very debatable. His recent reporting includes rather aggressive questioning of Clinton critics, such as Schweizer.

That on-air posture, of course, is one of tough-minded neutral. That stance is blown to bits by word of the contributions. And, as one broadcast media lawyer I know put it, it’s not as if the ABC bench doesn’t include very capable reporters who could report the story without the baggage of such deep ties to the Clintons.

“When Stephanopoulos moved from the Clinton White House to ABC, there were all kinds of admonishments from the journalism world that he would have to stay squeaky clean when it came to the partisan activities, so that he did not compromise the network's neutrality,” noted Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and co-author of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.”

“I can't believe that for three years in a row he gave a massive donation to the Clinton Foundation and didn't reveal it to his boss. That suggests to me that he didn't really take that pledge of independence very seriously.”

“This is really damaging for ABC. Any viewers that might have been wondering if their talent leaned left have the confirmation they need, whether or not it's a justifiable conclusion.”

A final matter:

In a call to CNN’s Brian Stelter, the anchor amended ABC’s original disclosure of his $50,000 in donations to the Clinton Foundation in 2013 and 2014. He said he’d forgotten about another, for $25,000, given in 2012.

It’s easy to wind up a bit out of touch as a Washington journalist. It can happen easily if, for example, you travel on Air Force One with the President; spend lots of time in private off-the-record sessions with big officials; and get driven to and from TV studios in chauffeur-driven black sedans (in return for no appearance fees most of the time, journalists get free rides).

I’ve been there. A populist self-image can become a self-delusion.

But when you forget making a $25,000 charitable contribution, presumably because it’s a scant portion of your income, you’re probably also in trouble.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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