Let’s attend to the troubles of George Stephanopoulos. He’s the ABC network’s chief anchor, chief political correspondent, host of “This Week,” co-host of “Good Morning America” and a sometime television sitcom/drama bit player who provides entertainment by impersonating himself.
Why should you care about him? Because his troubles are your troubles.
Here’s the news you can use: If you rely on television news for an understanding of the world you live in, don’t rely on him.
We don’t have to pretend that television reportage meets the test for what we ink-stained wretches toiling in the “dead tree” branch of the news business understand as responsible journalism. Television news largely has become synonymous with entertainment, routinely offering dumbed-down headlines posing as news accounts, delivered by untrained, clueless wanna-be celebrities posing as journalists. It’s cheating citizens of information they need to govern themselves.
But Stephanopoulos recently provided viewers with a startling new violation of the public trust while grilling Peter Schweizer, author of Clinton Cash, a book critical of the Clintons and the Clinton Foundation. What Stephanopoulos didn’t tell viewers — or his bosses — is that he’s a Clinton Foundation financial supporter, to the tune of $75,000.
We’re a long way down the road from the TV news gold standard set by Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley here, people. Stephanopoulos wasn’t trained, nor ever worked, as an actual journalist. But he was President Bill Clinton’s communications director and his senior policy and strategy advisor.
Did it ever occur to anyone at ABC that it’s … umm … inappropriate to have someone with a significant tie to the Clintons — someone who appears at Clinton Foundation meetings in such capacities as member, moderator, judge, “featured attendee,” and panelist — interviewing the author of a book critical of the Clintons and their foundation? Hello? Who’s in charge here?
In any news organization with ethical standards worthy of the name, this would be a firing offense, but Stephanopoulos’ apology to viewers was accepted by ABC. However, the Republican Party rightly has succeeded in banning him from moderating the 2016 presidential debates, so the financial value to ABC of the Stephanopoulos “brand” appears diminished.
In an interview last March, Stephanopoulos admitted that while he knows the rules about professional journalistic behavior exist for a reason, “In my job, I sometimes chafe at some of the restrictions …” imposed on journalists. Oh.
Stephanopoulos’s travails follow hard upon the six-month unpaid suspension of NBC’s celebrity-seeking news anchor Brian Williams. Managing editor of NBC “Nightly News” by day, Williams by night has been a frequent guest on the celebrity talk show circuit.
Williams was suspended after allegations that he falsely claimed to have been aboard a helicopter that came under fire in Iraq. Other accusations remain unverified or unresolved, including that while reporting on Hurricane Katrina, he falsely claimed to have witnessed a dramatic suicide inside the stadium where homeless hurricane victims were housed and falsely claimed to have been at the Berlin Wall as it came down.
Okay, then, once again: The only thing journalists and news organizations have to sell is credibility. Preserving credibility means sticking to facts when delivering news to the public, on whose behalf reporters report, after all. Reporting is a public trust, a right enshrined in our constitution. It’s not about enhancing a reporter’s celebrity by falsifying events.
But as Stephanopoulos illustrates, we have another, more insidious journalism problem: failing to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, particularly when it involves honorable endeavors by seemingly respectable entities. The world, happily, is filled with groups doing good deeds. But journalists have no business trafficking with them. Otherwise, when the day arrives that we must report on their misdeeds, who will believe we’re unbiased?
Seemingly harmless conflicts of interest in the pursuit of altruistic outcomes have become a widespread threat to journalistic credibility. An example: Judy Woodruff, whom I have reason to respect, is managing editor and co-anchor at “PBS News Hour.” She also donated money — $250 — to the Clinton Foundation. PBS’s ombudsman calls it a “mistake” and so do I, but she defends it as aid to Haiti, not a donation to the foundation. That’s a too subtly shaded ethical distinction.
If charges of wrongdoing by the foundation must be reported, will Woodruff remind us that she donated to it and expect us to trust her reportage? Will she recuse herself? How often can journalists who actively support “good” causes recuse themselves before they become so ethically compromised that they’re useless as neutral watchdogs?
Avoiding “worthy” entanglements that other citizens can embrace is the price we journalists pay for the big megaphone we have that they don’t. They have the right to expect us to honor our unique professional duty to remain neutral and factual and not lend our credibility to government or private entities. It’s not our job to be cheerleaders, supporters, joiners, groupies or entertainers.
Suspicions of bias rightly arise whenever journalists cross the bright line that — for the sake of preserving a functional republic — must separate reporters not only from government but also from private activism and causes, no matter how lofty or innocuous.
But there’s a new breed of journalists who want it all — celebrity, credibility and ethically compromising entanglements. In my view, we can thank them for much of the public distrust of “the media” that undermines civic discourse and hampers self-governance in this country.
Solveig Torvik, a former Washington, D.C., political correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, lives in Winthrop.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.