ABC's Stephanopoulos under fire for failing to disclose donations

Stephanopoulos failed to disclose $75,000 in contributions he made to the Clinton Foundation

Brian Williams has some company in the news anchor hot seat.

George Stephanopoulos, co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America," came under fire Thursday for failing to disclose $75,000 in contributions he made to the Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization administered by former President Bill Clinton and his family.

Stephanopoulos, a former senior official in the Clinton White House, quickly issued a public apology and is expected to do so directly to viewers on Friday's edition of "GMA."

Despite his mea culpa, the episode has clouded Stephanopoulos' ability to maintain his position as one of television's most prominent political journalists just as the 2016 presidential primary season ramps up.

"I fear he's in for a rough patch here," said former ABC News president David Westin, who gave Stephanopoulos the job as moderator of "This Week" in 2002.

After the contributions came to light, Stephanopoulos withdrew from his role moderating the Republican presidential primary debate that ABC is hosting in New Hampshire in February.

Stephanopoulos has been a highly visible skeptic about accusations that big donors to the Clinton Foundation received favorable treatment from the government while Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary, was secretary of State.

During the April 26 broadcast of his Sunday program "This Week," he aggressively questioned Peter Schweizer, whose book "Clinton Cash" lays out allegations about potential conflicts involving Clinton Foundation donors.

But Stephanopoulos never mentioned that he was a supporter of the foundation — giving a total of $75,000 to the foundation in 2012, 2013 and 2014 — contributions he now admits he should have openly disclosed.

"I made charitable donations to the Foundation in support of the work they're doing on global AIDS prevention and deforestation, causes I care about deeply," Stephanopoulos said in a statement. "I thought that my contributions were a matter of public record. However, in hindsight, 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 stories about the foundation. I apologize."

In a statement, ABC News said Stephanopoulos "should have taken the extra step to notify us" but accepted the apology and called Stephanopoulos' lapse "an honest mistake." The donations were first reported by Politico.

ABC News journalists are barred from making political contributions, but the foundation is considered a charity and donations to those are acceptable. As a result, Stephanopoulos will not be suspended or face any other punishment from his employer. "We stand behind him," an ABC News spokeswoman said.

People in the TV news industry expressed surprise that Stephanopoulos would not have been more cautious at a time when the public is still fixated on the plight of Williams, the "NBC Nightly News" anchor who is under suspension for having made false statements about his coverage of the 2003 U.S invasion of Iraq. Williams is awaiting a decision on his future at the network.

While Stephanopoulos never lied about his contributions, even the appearance of conflict can be an issue of concern for ABC News going forward. Stephanopoulos wrangled the title of chief anchor in his last negotiation with the network so he could handle special events that include the 2016 presidential election coverage while still holding down his duties on "Good Morning America."

His decision to pull out of the Republican primary debate came after one of the candidates, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), threatened to boycott the event. Others called for Stephanopoulos to recuse himself from all coverage of 2016, which he said he would not do.

"Sen. Paul rightfully raised a red flag as early as 2013 that George Stephanopoulos would be the wrong choice to moderate presidential debates," a spokesman said. "Stephanopoulos' continued involvement with the Clinton household over the years made it impossible for him to be an unbiased moderator."

Barbs like that indicate in the short term, the matter could be a setback to Stephanopoulos' largely successful effort to shed his past affiliation with President Clinton's White House before transitioning into TV news.

Westin, the former ABC news president, said he believed his former colleague would eventually recover because of his record as even-handed journalist after leaving politics.

"There is no question that this is a mistake," Westin said. "I have no doubt nobody feels worse about this than George does."

Still, the notion that Stephanopoulos would give money to a charity linked to a politician he was likely to be covering in the future was baffling to former colleagues.

"He's worked hard to distance himself from the Clintons," said Judy Muller, a onetime ABC News correspondent who now teaches journalism at USC. "It's an odd thing."

Muller was more troubled that her former employer does not have an outright ban on allowing journalists to contribute to any kind of organization linked to politicians that they may have to cover.

"As somebody teaching journalistic ethics, what am I supposed to say to my students?" Muller said. "It's very upsetting."

Other reactions to ABC's move broke largely along partisan lines that also revealed two views of the Clinton Foundation. Supporters tend to depict the foundation as primarily a charity that only incidentally provides support to the Clintons' personal projects. Others portray it as mostly a vehicle for the Clintons to promote their political ambitions.

Critics of ABC noted that in 2010, MSNBC suspended then-host Keith Olbermann for donating to Democratic congressional candidates, which was a violation of the network's ethics policy. Supporters said that donations to political candidates and donations to a charity are two different things.

Schweizer, meanwhile, is having problems of his own. His publisher revealed that errors in the text of "Clinton Cash" merited a considerable number of corrections. Late Monday, readers who had purchased the book on Kindle were alerted that "significant revisions have been made" and they could download the corrected draft free of charge.

Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign embraced Stephanopoulos' tough questioning of Schweizer during the "This Week" segment, in which Stephanopoulos repeatedly made the point that the author had revealed no criminal activity or "smoking gun."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
44°