SAN DIEGO – In 1999, a week after Al Gore claimed that he created the Internet, Bill Clinton appeared at the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. Having recently been stung by a former close adviser who signed a deal with a television network and penned a memoir distancing himself from the 42nd president, Clinton joked that he, too, was an inventor: “I invented George Stephanopoulos.”
Ouch! Clinton has never been shy about reminding the boy wonder of his 1992 presidential campaign just who was indebted to whom.
Now that Americans know about Stephanopoulos’ $75,000 in contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and his failure to disclose them to viewers or his bosses at ABC News, the public is getting a fuller picture of how the White-House-adviser-turned-newsman might have sought to repay the debt.
I’m not talking about the money. I’m talking about the benefit to the Clintons of having a well-placed friend in a high-profile position in the media.
The Clintons have always appeared to despise the media, which they see as vultures picking at the carcass of the scandal du jour. Even as she runs for president, Hillary went nearly a month without taking questions from reporters. What if the Clintons got their revenge on the media by infiltrating it with one of their own?
Since accepting Stephanopoulos into its ranks, the media have done the Clintons three favors.
First, they swallowed the narrative that Stephanopoulos had pulled off one of the most successful makeovers in the history of politics or media by jumping from one to the other, and completely transforming himself along the way into an objective journalist.
Next, they shrugged off revelations that suggested otherwise. A January 2009 article in Politico by John Harris, the publication’s co-founder, brought to light a daily conference call between Democratic strategist James Carville, CNN commentator Paul Begala, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and Stephanopoulos, who was ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent at the time. The call, which had been taking place every morning for 17 years, was described as a mixture of power and politics. When conservative media watchdogs complained about Stephanopoulos being on the call, the network tried to spin it as an attempt by the journalist to reach out to sources instead of what it appears to me to have been – a regular Democratic strategy session. Harris also vouched for Stephanopoulos as having “established his journalistic bona fides” through a “willingness to report aggressively on Democrats as well as Republicans.”
Journalistic bona fides? Maybe Harris would like some salsa to go with the egg on his face. He was right that Stephanopoulos had gone after Democrats. But what he didn’t mention is that they tended to be Democrats who were competing with Hillary Clinton. Ask Barack Obama about that; Stephanopoulos went after him aggressively during one of the debates in the 2008 presidential campaign, grilling the senator from Illinois about his questionable association with William Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Finally, now that the donations are out in the open, much of the media seem willing to accept Stephanopoulo’ apology and call this an error in judgment. But they should be investigating whether Stephanopoulos and the Clintons have been involved in a mutually beneficial relationship all these years.
So where did Stephanopoulos go wrong? It wasn’t just the donations, or even the failure to disclose them to his bosses at ABC News.
We got here because the newsman compounded those mistakes with his interview of Peter Schweizer, author of a scathing new book alleging influence-peddling by the Clintons. Stephanopoulos turned it into an interrogation, or more accurately, a cross-examination – all without telling viewers that, as a donor, he had an emotional stake in the Clinton Foundation. If he hadn’t done that interview, Stephanopoulos would be in much less trouble.
Sadly, ABC News has not received its fair share of criticism for this mess. The network rushed to protect its investment in its star anchor – who last year renewed his contract for another seven years for a whopping $105 million – by shrugging off his transgression as an “honest mistake.”
There was a mistake all right. And ABC News made it. There was nothing wrong with the network’s hiring Stephanopoulos as a commentator and political analyst. Where it went wrong was in promoting him to anchor of “This Week,” its Sunday political show, and eventually “Good Morning America.” Sitting in the anchor’s chair requires a much higher standard of scrutiny, which Stephanopoulos failed to meet.
That’s what went wrong, why this story matters, and why it isn’t going away.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.