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May 16 2015

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Why the Stephanopoulos Donations Matter

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Mr. Conflict-of-Interest...

Mr. Conflict-of-Interest…

When Brian Williams was besieged for inflating his own role while reporting on pivotal news events, NBC brought down the hammer, banishing Williams for his anchor chair for six months. At the time, there was much talk about the public trust, and whether Williams could continue as a credible anchor given his history of serial embellishments.

Whether Williams will ever resume his job remains an open question.

Contrast that now with George Stephanopoulos.

A former Clinton ’92 campaign strategist and first term Administration political advisor, Stephanopoulos made the transition to media after Clinton’s first term. Today, he manages an influential portfolio as ABC News Chief Anchor (for breaking news and special events), and host of both “Good Morning America” and the Sunday news program, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” quite literally placing Stephanopoulos at the intersection of ABC’s political news, opinion and morning entertainment. All roads shaping ABC’s political content, and its credibility, run through George.

So it was a genuine scandal this week when the Washington Free Beacon reported that Stephanopoulos had made a total of $75,000 in donations to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, in $25,000 increments between 2012-2014. But the uproar over Stephanopoulos’ previously unreported donations seems not to have impacted ABC News management, despite the blinding conflict of interest it exposes, which surely threatens to undermine the credibility of ABC’s political news product.

In contrast to Williams’ treatment, ABC brass said in a statement Thursday that it stands behind Stephanopoulos and that the anchor made an” honest mistake.” For good measure, Stephanopoulos himself made an apology – on bubble gum “Good Morning America,” not a hard news show – and sportingly withdrew voluntarily as scheduled moderator for a Republican primary debate next February.

But is that it? Are we now going to go back to business as usual? Do we not see the larger scandal here?

Stephanopoulos’ donations immediately call attention to his interview with Peter Schweizer, author of “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,” broadcast on April 26th, before his Clinton donations had become public. In the interview, Stephanopoulos used barely disguised Clinton campaign talking points to badger the author of the blockbuster book, and openly attacked Schweizer’s credibility and objectivity, given that Schweizer had previously served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush (2008).

How rich.

Not only is Stephanopoulos donating money to the Clintons, he uses his position as a national media platform to undermine an author who dared to expose the tangled web of Clinton relationships that clearly leave the appearance of “pay to play,” by calling his guest’s ethics into question.

If there was a picture of “chutzpah” in the dictionary, Stephanopoulos’ face would be there. If ABC News refuses to take meaningful action against Stephanopoulos, activists should sue ABC for making in-kind contributions to the Clinton campaign through Stephanopoulos’ programming.

But the Stephanopoulos episode also usefully focuses attention on a little reported “dirty secret” in Washington; the tangled and intimate relationship between Democrats and the media. Stephanopoulos is hardly the only one with suspect connections and loyalties at odds with the public narrative of objectivity.

CBS News President David Rhodes is the brother of President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice is married to Ian O. Cameron, who was Executive Producer of ABC News and other shows, including 60 Minutes.

Energy Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is the sister of former ABC News President Ben Sherwood. Sherwood-Randall was a top Obama official at the NSC when her sibling ran ABC News.

Mark Murray, senior political editor for NBC is married to Sasha Johnson, the Obama appointed chief of staff at the FAA. Johnson herself has been in and out of the revolving media/political door having previously served as a CNN producer and Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Public Affairs.

Shailagh Murray Senior Advisor to President Obama and former Director of Communications for Vice President Biden  (and former WSJ and Washington Post reporter) is married to Neil King, who writes for the WSJ.

Media types bristle at even the implication that their personal relationships impact their  reporting duties, and news organizations and networks have drawn up lengthy legal agreements that clearly delineate lines to prevent the appearance of impropriety for media and political relationships. But that is the official wire diagram. There is no effective way to regulate the informal DC relationships, rooted in professional positions, that actually calls the shots.

For a real eye opener, read Mike Allen’s POLITCO Playbook, published daily. In addition to reporting on the lead political stories of the day, and how they play Inside the Beltway – with breathless, up to the second analysis – it also announces birthdays, engagements, weddings and births for all the key players in politics, media and corporate lobbying. Despite the perpetual feuding that Washington projects to the nation, the Playbook makes DC look like one big family. And in status conscious Washington, getting honorable mention in Playbook is sought after, and the DC equivalent of a key to the executive washroom.  It’s downright incestuous.

Still skeptical?

Ben Rhodes was at the epicenter of the Benghazi scandal when it broke in 2012. Now go check how many minutes CBS News, under Rhodes’ brother’s leadership, has dedicated to the scandal since.

Be prepared to go slack-jawed.

The connection is real and powerful, and tangibly impacts how we construct and assess our contemporary political reality. That is the deeper scandal that the Stephanopoulos affair exposes and the Clinton Foundation scandal highlights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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