It’s hard to imagine Steve Bannon being hired to host “Meet the Press,” or Kellyanne Conway anchoring the impeachment saga of a President Hillary Clinton, which explains why the journalism business still doesn’t know quite what to make of George Stephanopoulos.
The ABC anchor is heading the network’s coverage of the House impeachment hearings despite some rather obvious conflicts: Before President Trump defeated Mrs. Clinton in 2016, Mr. Stephanopoulos served as a top Clinton White House aide and key campaign operative in 1992 and 1996.
Rich Noyes, research director for the conservative Media Research Center, pointed out that Mr. Stephanopoulos often briefed the press in the early days of the Clinton presidency.
“It’s as if Sean Spicer were now anchoring the news for a network—what would they say?” Noyes said. “People were going nuts because he was on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ The idea that he could be anchoring anything or in charge of news judgment or even influencing editorial news decisions would send people into fits.”
There’s more. The hearings come a week after the Clinton-Stephanopoulos ties drew renewed scrutiny with the release of a leaked video showing ABC’s Amy Robach unloading on the network for sitting on her exclusive story on billionaire sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Critics on the right were quick to connect the dots between former President Bill Clinton’s friendly relationship with Epstein—the ex-president took 26 flights on Epstein’s private plane for six trips from 2002-03–and the influence wielded by Mr. Stephanopoulos within ABC’s news division.
An ABC source said Mr. Stephanopoulos had nothing to do with the decision to hold the story, but even so, “the optics are terrible,” said Mr. Noyes.
“The optics are terrible for ABC even if they didn’t have Stephanopoulos or any other Democratic connection because this is someone who turned out to be a horrible, horrible criminal, and they had the story,” Mr. Noyes said. “But he’s connected to all of these Democrats.”
In addition, the network’s effort to explain away Ms. Robach’s reporting by saying it failed to meet its standards “doesn’t look good,” said Patricia Gallagher Newberry, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“It just does not look good for ABC to let all this stuff just swirl around and simply dismiss it as, the story wasn’t ready yet,” said Ms. Newberry. “It was a gettable story, and it sounds like that reporter had some pretty significant, real, named sources.”
In the video clip posted by Project Veritas, Ms. Robach said in August that the network sat on the story for three years—which means she would have had it in 2016, the same year Mrs. Clinton ran for president against Donald Trump.
“Is the fact that George Stephanopoulos is a big figure there [at ABC], is that the reason they didn’t run it?” asked Ms. Newberry. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to that being a confirmed fact. But sometimes just the taint of the ‘maybe’ can be difficult for a network to deal with.”
She added, “It’s swirled around George Stephanopoulos since the day he set foot in the [ABC] building, and it’s not going to go away, because the Clintons won’t go away.”
‘Part of the Clinton crew’
Certainly he isn’t the first political figure to cross the aisle into television journalism. Others include former NBC “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, who had previously worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and ex-Carter White House speechwriter Chris Matthews, who went on to host “Hardball” on MSNBC.
One thing that separates Mr. Stephanopoulos from other politicos-turned-journalists is that he reached the top of both professions, moving from a senior White House job to become the host of “This Week” and co-host of “Good Morning America,” as well as ABC’s go-to anchor on political stories.
How he managed to do so without raising red flags within ABC’s news division, especially with the Clintons still major players on the political landscape, remains something of a mystery.
“It would be the most ethical thing not to report on the Clintons, not to comment on the Clintons, not to discuss impeachment and Clintons and Epstein with any of your guests, but how can he host his morning show if he can’t talk about all of those things, this week of all weeks?” said Ms. Newberry, who teaches journalism at Miami University of Ohio.
His rise at ABC after his arrival in 1997 was so gradual that many viewers probably no longer remember that he was once a high-level partisan operative, said Mr. Noyes.
“The Stephanopoulos story is interesting in that he leaves the White House in 1996, he’s immediately picked up to be a liberal commentator on ABC, and he’s going to be the liberal commentator, Bill Kristol is going to be the conservative commentator, and he’s not going to be a news person,” said Mr. Noyes.
That’s not what happened. “Over time, you see this gentle move where Bill Kristol kind of goes away, Stephanopoulos ends up taking over the show, and then he starts filling in on ‘World News Tonight’ as anchor, ‘Good Morning America’ as anchor,” he said. “Now he’s their global anchor or whatever, so he’s anchoring the impeachment hearings this week.”
His past has come back to haunt him before. He was criticized for his “skeptical grilling” of “Clinton Cash” author Peter Schweizer in 2015 after the Washington Free Beacon reported that Mr. Stephanopoulos had failed to disclose $75,000 in donations from 2012-14 to the Clinton Foundation.
He later apologized, saying he “should have gone the extra mile to prevent even the appearance of a conflict.” Under pressure from Republicans, he dropped out as moderator of a February 2016 GOP primary debate.
“What is certain is that Stephanopoulos’ ethical malpractice and hidden-hand journalism have done further injury to an essential, if beleaguered, institution, one already battling to preserve legitimacy,” said Mr. Schweizer in a May 2015 op-ed in USA Today.
After the Robach video went viral, Mr. Trump took a shot at ABC, tweeting, “ABC is as bad as the rest of them. Journalistic standards are nonexistent today.”
In its Stephanopoulos bio, the National Press Foundation points out that the anchor has won multiple honors during his ABC tenure, including “two Emmys, a DuPont, a Murrow, and two Cronkite awards.” Also mentioned is his Clinton service.
“From now until he dies, he’s part of the Clinton crew,” said Ms. Newberry. “When he dies, his obituary in the lede will be, ‘George Stephanopoulos, a one-time Clinton staffer.’ It’s going to follow him to the grave. And yet ABC has employed him for an awful long time, and apparently accepts that as the trade-off for somebody who’s a popular television figure.”
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