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Journalism’s Changing Times And Declining Standards

George Stephanopoulos speaking in front of a blue background
photo courtesy the Ford Foundation

When I was a working journalist at The Associated Press, I didn’t contribute to political parties or candidates.

I also didn’t buy individual stocks, opting instead for mutual funds. I didn’t even register as a Democrat (which was how I voted at the time), and thus did not participate in party primaries. While I was entitled to do all of these things, I felt my audience deserved to know that I was willing to put aside my own political and financial preferences in the interest of doing the best job I could at fairly presenting the issues of the day.

This also extended to the small amounts I was in a position to contribute to charities at the time. I purposely avoided giving to partisan or highly divisive causes because I wanted to be able to honestly say that I was doing my best to avoid taking sides.

Times have changed. So, it seems, have standards.

ABC News host George Stephanopoulos found himself the target of scrutiny and criticism recently when it came to light that he has given $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation over the past three years. While the donations were technically a matter of public record, Stephanopoulos did not mention these donations to viewers, even when he interviewed Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” last month. Schweizer’s book alleges that donations to the foundation may have swayed Hillary Clinton while she served as secretary of state.

In a statement to Politico, which broke the story, Stephanopoulos apologized. “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 story about the Foundation,” he said. The same day, ABC News issued a statement of its own, saying it would stand behind its anchor, characterizing the incident as “an honest mistake.”

Stephanopoulos’ error was not just in failing to disclose his contributions to the Clinton Foundation, however. It was in not recognizing that his decision to support the causes he favors through a foundation controlled, and some would say exploited, by the Clintons undermines his ability to fairly cover one of the nation’s most prominent political families.

Yet he seems to have hedged on acknowledging this reality. Stephanopoulos has already said that he will not moderate ABC’s GOP debate in February, but has also said he will not recuse himself from coverage of the 2016 presidential race, despite calls for him to do so. Schweizer lambasted Stephanopoulos, saying the incident represented “a massive breach of ethical standards” - especially when, as some observers noted at the time, the anchor brought up Schweizer’s political background in the context of the interview without mentioning his own.

ABC has lots of reporters it could have assigned to explore “Clinton Cash” and to interview its author. Stephanopoulos’ support of the Clinton Foundation sends a message that he supports the Clintons; if he didn’t want to send that message, he could have made contributions to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or Greenpeace, or a host of other charities doing similar work on causes important to him.

I send these sorts of messages too. I’m a Republican these days, but I still make small campaign donations to my friend, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. He was my friend before he went to Washington, and he will still be my friend after he leaves. So while I don’t agree with many of his positions, and I would be loath to see his party back in control of Congress, I make my small gifts as a way of saying that I’m always with him. My donations send a message, to Tester and anyone else who cares to look, that my friend has my support.

Stephanopoulos’ contributions to the Clinton Foundation, while not huge in the context of what he says he donates every year, sent a similar message to the Clintons, surely deliberately. Not only was he on their team in the past, but he will be on their team in the future. He wants them to know he’s rooting for them today.

That is what such contributions mean, even if it is not explicitly stated. And that is where the fault lies. As a non-journalist, Stephanopoulos is completely entitled to send such a message. As a journalist, he has disqualified himself from a non-opinion reporting role on the Clintons, or on races in which Clintons are running, by sending it.

The fact that neither he nor ABC have acknowledged this reality shows just how much standards have changed - I would say fallen - since I left The Associated Press.

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