The chief anchor of ABC News offered a brief mea culpa to viewers on the network’s top-ranked morning program over gifts he made to the non-profit Clinton Foundation but failed to disclose even as he covered topics on air related to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict” by noting the donations on air, George Stephanopoulos said Friday morning, about 18 minutes into the broadcast of “Good Morning America.”
He was making reference to Thursday’s disclosure that he donated money totaling about $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation over the past few years. The contributions leave Stephanopoulos open to charges of bias, given the fact that Hillary Clinton is seen as a leading Democratic candidate for U.S. president in the 2016 election and Stephanopoulos is likely to cover topics that relate to her in his duties on “GMA,” the Sunday-morning program “This Week” and elsewhere on ABC, where his duties include covering breaking news of national importance.
On air, Stephanopoulos said he believed the donations were a matter of public record, but acknowledged that making the gifts in the first place “was a mistake.”
The apology does not necessarily mean the anchor is absolved. One veteran journalism executive expressed surprise at the words Stephanopoulos chose. “Extra?” asked Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, via Twitter. Simply put, journalists are not supposed to align themselves with any cause or organization they may one day have to cover, because doing so automatically creates a conflict of interest. As a leading anchor at ABC, Stephanopoulos may have to report on a dizzying array of topics.
ABC News policy, according to a person familiar with the situation, allows its journalists to make donations to charities. Viewers, however, may not make that distinction, and the anchor’s actions have already invited criticism from political aficionados who wonder if he can interview Republican political candidates now that his contributions to a charitable organization run by leading Democrats is known.
ABC News has said it supports the anchor, calling his omission “an honest mistake.”
Even so, his behavior has brought repercussions. Already, Stephanopoulos has agreed to not have any role in a Republican primary debate ABC News has planned to hold. And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has announced his decision to run for president in 2016, told the New York Times Thursday that Stephanopoulos’ gifts emphasize his past ties to the Clintons. “I just think it’s really, really hard because he’s been there, so close to them, that there would be a conflict of interest if he tried to be a moderator of any sort,” the Senator said.
Stephanopoulos’ disclosure, if not accepted by viewers and people Stephanopoulos may have to cover, could derail a notable streak ABC News has had in recent years. Stephanopoulos has played a key role in the success of “Good Morning America,” which dethroned NBC’s “Today” as the nation’s top-ranked morning program after years of playing second. ABC’s “World News Tonight” recently snared first place from NBC’s “Nightly News” after years of domination by the latter.
Stephanopoulos’ faux pas is the second by a leading network anchor in recent months. NBC News is still grappling with the revelation made earlier this year that Brian Williams had on several occasions falsified an account of a 2003 reporting trip he made to Iraq. NBC suspended Williams for six months and continues to investigate whether he embellished other stories and accounts of his reportage. There has been much speculation that Williams will not return to the anchor chair.