FLASHBACK: When ABC News Buried Top Anchor’s Ethical Scandal

Nine years ago this week, ABC News was roiled by a journalistic scandal: Their top political anchor had refused to disclose his big dollar contributions to the Clinton Foundation at the same time he used ABC’s airwaves in an attempt to discredit an anti-Clinton author, an obvious favor to the just-launched Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign.

Yet after a few days of bad headlines, and a pair of on-air apologies, George Stephanopoulos simply resumed covering politics as if nothing had happened. ABC’s casual attitude matched the blind eye the network had turned to the anchor’s obvious bias over two decades as a pundit, correspondent and anchor.

Stephanopoulos first achieved celebrity status as a staffer on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, later spending four years at the White House as a spokesman and senior advisor. After Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the thoroughly partisan Stephanopoulos jumped to ABC News — first as a liberal commentator, but later as a supposedly neutral news anchor.

If I were biased, I don’t believe I would have gotten the job,” Stephanopoulos bragged to Newsday in 2002, after he was tapped to helm ABC’s Sunday morning show, soon to be re-named This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Of course, Stephanopoulos is completely biased; one only needed to look at his on-air utterances to see it plainly. Yet to maintain the illusion of objectivity, Stephanopoulos needed to at least superficially conform to journalists’ norms — such as NOT donating tens of thousands of dollars to the pet causes of the Democratic partisans he was supposed to be covering objectively.

The immediate problem: Stephanopoulos had gone on the attack on the April 26, 2015 edition of This Week, grilling investigative author Peter Schweizer over a book showing massive foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, all while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and then a leading presidential candidate. (Hillary had declared her candidacy just two weeks earlier, on April 12.)

Stephanopoulos impugned Schweizer as biased because he had worked for Republicans and received funding from a conservative source. “You used to work for President Bush as a speech writer. You are funded by the Koch brothers,” Stephanopoulos lectured Schweizer in an unusually hostile interview.

But Stephanopoulos — who had an even more partisan pedigree — hadn’t told viewers about the $75,000 he had donated the Clinton Foundation as recently as 2014. In mid-May, the Washington Free Beacon called ABC News, asking for comments about these contributions. With the story about to break, ABC appears to have tipped the information to a friendlier reporter, Politico’s Dylan Byers, who broke the news on Thursday, May 14, 2015.

Byers quoted from an e-mail statement from Stephanopoulos: “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 viewers on air during the recent news stories about the Foundation. I apologize.”

Byers’ Politico colleague, Jack Shafer, blasted it as “unbecoming” for a news organization like ABC to punish the Free Beacon by handing their scoop to another outlet. “Government and business play this retaliatory game all the time when journalists surprise them with a request for comment. What’s unbecoming is that a news organization might engage in this practice.”

Yet, as Shafer acidly noted, it’s “precisely the type of thing you can imagine the Stephanopoulos-era Clinton administration doing without compunction.”

Later that day, Stephanopoulos took the minimal step of bowing out as moderator of a February 2016 debate among GOP presidential candidates — as if the Republicans would have showed up if he was in charge. “I won’t moderate that debate,” Stephanopoulos assured Politico’s Byers. “I want to be sure I don’t deprive viewers of a good debate.”

Critics were unimpressed. “This blunder by Stephanopoulos is so severe that it really threatens to undo what he’s accomplished in his 18 years at ABC News,” FNC’s Howard Kurtz exclaimed that Thursday night. “For him, as a top ABC anchor, to give this money to the Clinton Foundation while covering the story is in itself a grave error in judgment. But then to not tell his bosses at ABC News, to not disclose it to the viewers, it’s unthinkable.”

“It is quite obvious Stephanopoulos should have recused himself from that interview” with Peter Schweizer, NewsBusters editor Tim Graham argued that same day on FBN’s Varney & Co., “or he should have had the decency and the ethics to announce to the audience that he had donated tens of thousands of dollars to the foundation that he very much looked like he was defending.”

Schweizer agreed, telling Bloomberg Politics that Stephanopoulos’s failure was a “massive breach of ethical standards….He fairly noted my four months working as a speech writer for George W. Bush. But he didn’t disclose this?”

But ABC News wouldn’t concede a thing. “He’s admitted to an honest mistake and apologized for that omission. We stand behind him,” the network said in a statement to Politico.

Stephanopoulos offered formulaic apologies on the two shows he anchored: Good Morning America and This Week. “Over the last several years, I have made substantial donations to dozens of charities, including the Clinton Global Foundation,” Stephanopoulos announced on the May 15 Good Morning America. “Those donations were a matter of public record. But I should have made additional disclosures on-air when we covered the foundation and I now believe directing personal donations to that foundation was a mistake.”

Two days later, This Week viewers saw a nearly identical apology. “I should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. I apologize to all of you for failing to do that.”

As Stephanopoulos was mouthing his first apology, ABC alumnus Geraldo Rivera was on Fox & Friends, pointing out that when he was fired in 1985, the reason given was a mere $200 contribution to a non-partisan mayoral campaign. But a key difference, according to Rivera: “George Stephanopoulos is the darling of ABC News management so they will treat him with kid gloves.”

Perhaps the last word on the topic (at least on ABC’s airwaves), came the following month, when Stephanopoulos scored an interview with the just-announced candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination, Donald Trump. Stephanopoulos asked Trump what he thought about Hillary Clinton.

“Of course, you shouldn’t be talking to me about that, in all fairness,” Trump tweaked, in obvious reference to Stephanopoulos’s conflicts of interest. “You shouldn’t be asking me those questions, but I don’t mind.”

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.                        
 

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