Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Let George Do It

“No one has even come close in recent years to enriching themselves on the scale of the Clintons while they or a spouse continued to serve in public office.”
—Peter Schweizer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich
When George Stephanopoulis first became a commentator on ABC’s This Week, I found him to be a great source of information and insight. His experience in the Clinton White House gave him the background and sources to illuminate the political process for the benefit of the television audience.

When he made the transition to journalist and anchor, I thought it a bit strange. When I was in journalism school back in the 1970s, it was drilled into us that it was paramount for journalists to be objective and credible and that any serious reporter needed to voluntarily lock up whatever political views he or she might have in a box somewhere.

In the end, though, I found Stephanopoulis to be a credible anchor and interviewer. Although there was never any doubt that he was, at heart, a modern liberal, he generally maintained objectivity on air. He clearly understood arguments on both sides of the political divide and proved to be a decent devil’s advocate when putting conservative arguments to liberals. I was also impressed by how candid and forthright he was in his 1999 book All Too Human: A Political Education, about his experiences in the Clinton White House.

In my view, that even-handedness slipped somewhat during the 2008 presidential cycle. It seemed all too clear that he was mesmerized by Barack Obama, and it showed in his coverage and particularly on the occasions when he interviewed the senator. But, to be fair, much of the establishment press had the same starstruck attitude toward the eventual Democratic nominee.

When it came out recently that Stephanopoulis had donated some $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. I was surprised—and yet not surprised. It was a surprise that he would make those contributions, given that he had always seemed to understand clearly that he needed to draw a clear line between his previous political life and his new journalistic life. On the other hand, it was easy enough to see why he might have thought the generous contributions should not be a problem. After all, the Clinton Foundation is a charity that has been praised for doing humanitarian work all around the world. Because of this, for years much of the press have treated it as though it were entirely above politics. It was as though it was of a piece with, say, Jimmy Carter going out and selflessly building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

And yet, as Stephanopoulis himself told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show three weeks ago, “[E]verybody also knows when those donors give that money to President Clinton or someone, they get a picture with him; there’s a hope that that’s going to lead to something and that’s what you have to be careful of.” At that point, Stephanopoulis had yet to acknowledge to viewers that he himself was one of those donors.

Some have cited Stephanopoulis’s aggressive interrogation of Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer as an indication that the anchor is in the tank for the Clintons. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with that interview. That was Stephanopoulis’s job: to grill someone hawking a book that makes serious accusations. The real question is whether he will be equally aggressive if and when Hillary Clinton sits down for an interview.

The newly raised questions about Stephanopoulis, i.e. whether he is some sort of “Manchurian candidate” journalist placed to help Democrats from inside the media establishment, have caused me to look back at something odd he did during the 2012 primaries. Moderating a Republican debate, out of the blue he asked Mitt Romney, “[D]o you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

This was an issue that was not on anybody’s radar. No one was suggesting or proposing any kind of ban on contraception. Romney, who was clearly gobsmacked by the question, told him flat out that it was “silly.” But the trap had been sprung. The eventual Republican nominee had engaged (however unwillingly) in talk about banning contraception. When employer funding of contraception under Obamacare subsequently became an issue for some individuals and businesses on religious grounds, Democrats conflated the question of a religious exemption with banning a woman’s right to contraception outright, and the War on Women meme was fully launched.

In hindsight, Stephanopoulis might as well have had the Democratic Party playbook sitting open in front of him. With all the grave issues facing the country, there was absolutely no justifiable journalistic reason to ask that particular question on that particular night.

This is why Stephanopoulis will almost certainly not moderate any Republican debates during this election cycle. He has given the GOP an excuse not to accept him in that role. In fact, some are suggesting that ABC News should be boycotted by Republican candidates entirely, although it is hard to see that actually happening.

As for news consumers, some of us will definitely be applying a heavier filter to George Stephanopoulis’s on-air work for as long as he continues working as a journalist.

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