What to think about George Stephanopoulos?
Some years ago, I worked with a young man who would later become momentarily infamous, during the season of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, when he was found to have fabricated aspects of stories for a very high-profile national news outlet. I found all those episodes maddening: As a writer for small community newspapers, I was used to being blown off by sources, accustomed to politicians and other worthies refusing to return my calls. But if you’re a writer for the Washington Post or The New Yorker, people pick up the phone when you ring.
There’s no excuse for the small fry, and there’s really, really no excuse for bigfoot reporters from the majors.
Call me a snob, but I have always been mystified when fabrications show up in the pages of prestigious publications such as the New York Times or The New Republic. I recently taught a seminar at Hillsdale, partly on the subject of Rolling Stone’s shameful, fictitious account of a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia, a crime that did not in reality happen. How does this sort of thing make it into print, not in some backwater weekly but in a magazine with real editorial resources? We all make errors, and sometimes we make embarrassing errors, and the potential for making embarrassing errors increases the higher up the journalistic food chain one goes, simply because nobody is paying much attention to youngsters writing business features for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely got badly snookered by a source. That happens. I once got badly snookered by a source and published a caustic editorial criticizing the University of Texas for doing something that it hadn’t actually done. That was when I was in college, and that is, to some extent, what college newspapers are for.
You’d expect that standards would become more stringent as one ascends the ladder of prestige, but in that regard journalism is no different from the general run of business, in which as often as not standards of professional conduct decline as the stakes grow larger.
When I was editing a small newspaper in the Philadelphia suburbs, one of my reporters asked for a meeting with me, which was in itself unusual — my standing policy for reporters was that after hiring them I did not care if I ever saw them again, so long as their stories showed up on time. I’d assumed we were going to do the usual thing where he asked for a raise and I told him no, but he sheepishly explained that he needed to modify his beat because he was beginning to develop a personal relationship with one of the people he covered. His reasoning was sound: Whether it worked out or went nowhere, he could not claim to be disinterested.
What would have happened if he hadn’t told me? I’d have fired him. And if I hadn’t, somebody would have fired me. And I would have deserved it.
Conflicts of interest are common in small-town journalism. I employed a columnist who was a Democratic activist and public-relations consultant, who sometimes needed to be reminded that she wasn’t allowed to write articles about her clients. Police reporters are infamous for getting themselves captured, socially or romantically, by their beats — one of the telltale signs being when they start writing the way cops talk, e.g. “officers responded to the scene,” a phrase that is true only when police exclaim: “Holy cow! Look at that scene!” The sort of people who like to write opinion columns are also the sort of people who feel called to activism and campaign work, and smaller publications rely on them because they’re cheap — generally free; “free” being every newspaper publisher’s favorite word — and because they often are in fact the best people for the job.
But ABC News isn’t the Muleshoe Journal; ABC News can hire whomever it wants. But Washington, too, is a small town, with a substantial overlap between journalism and politics. And hiring George Stephanopoulos wasn’t a terrible idea: He’s smart, he’s articulate, he knows everybody. He was a Clinton functionary with deep ties and longstanding loyalty to all things Clinton. Is that a problem? Sure, of course, but it’s a problem that can be addressed in no small part with simple disclosure.
Which is to say, the one thing that ABC News and Stephanopoulos needed to do is the one thing that they failed to do.
The one thing that ABC News and Stephanopoulos needed to do is the one thing that they failed to do.
That $50,000 donation that has since grown to $75,000 may be chump change for Stephanopoulos — it certainly is for the Clintons — but if it were 20 bucks, you’d still want to disclose it if you were, to consider a random, implausible, and crazy hypothetical, overseeing highly critical coverage of a book alleging wrongdoing by the Clintons through the instrument of their family foundation.
Stephanopoulos has offered a half-hearted apology: “I should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.” But “extra mile” assumes a previous mile, and he did not really hike an inch to disclose this conflict — not an “appearance of a conflict,” but an actual conflict. The Clintons’ relationship with the eponymous nonprofit organization is a legitimate public issue, and Stephanopoulos has significant relationships with both family and foundation.
It is impossible to see how Stephanopoulos could do his job with any integrity in an environment in which the Clintons and their foundation will be central to the political news for the foreseeable future. Certainly not after concealing his relationship with the foundation. ABC News owes it to itself to live up to at least the standards of a small-town weekly newspaper. It owes them a lot more than that, in fact, but it cannot deliver the goods with Stephanopoulos at the desk.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.