ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos contributed a total of $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation from 2012 through 2014, according to a report by Politico’s Dylan Byers. The donations came in tranches of $25,000, reported Politico, citing foundation records.*
How big a deal is this? Large: Stephanopoulos IS ABC News. Though he doesn’t anchor “ABC World News Tonight,” he is the network’s chief anchor, meaning that he fronts the network in breaking news situations — or just when it matters. More: He is anchor of “Good Morning America” and of “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Now for the Clinton Foundation, the family charity of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. As numerous reports have shown in recent weeks, the foundation sits at the crossroads of domestic and international power. Big shots who donate to promote the foundation’s work in economic development, global health and climate change may also be seeking influence in U.S. politics.
A donation from Stephanopoulos to the Clinton Foundation in any amount constitutes a scandal and an immediate crisis for ABC News. Though two of the donations — in 2013 and 2014 — appear to have occurred after Hillary Clinton left the State Department (in early 2013) and before she announced her presidential run (weeks ago), come on: Her inevitability as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination has been a Washington fact throughout this period.
Now for the defenses. First, from Stephanopoulos:
I made charitable donations to the Foundation in support of the work they’re doing on global AIDS prevention and deforestation, a cause I care about deeply. I thought that my contributions were all 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.
And from ABC News:
As George has said, he made charitable donations to the Foundation to support a cause he cares about deeply and believed his contributions were a matter of public record. He should have taken the extra step to notify us and our viewers during the recent news reports about the Foundation. He’s admitted to an honest mistake and apologized for that omission. We stand behind him.
Those statements are welcome acknowledgments that the donations are serious business. Yet were they really an “honest mistake”? Another way of looking at them is that they were an “honest expression of support” for the ruling family of American Democratic politics. We trust that Stephanopoulos cares about global AIDS prevention and deforestation, and a source familiar with the situation says the donations constitute less than 1 percent of his annual giving, though the Erik Wemple Blog would need to see his tax returns to confirm such a figure.
Conflict-of-interest matters are an obsession of this blog, which views the mixing of money and favors between TV personalities and special interests as one of contemporary journalism’s most toxic pollutants. The problem with Stephanopoulos’s donations to the Clinton Foundation is that it gives him a stake — even if it’s a small one — in the operations and success of the charity. Like any donor, Stephanopoulos wants his money put to good use and, all else being equal, wants the foundation to prosper as it invests his money in good works.
Good journalism simply cannot tolerate such a stake. Stephanopoulos already has a history with the Clintons, having served as Bill’s senior adviser for policy and strategy. Those ties already had media critics — many of them conservatives — wary of just how objective he could be in covering a Clinton-colored political landscape. Now he has confirmed their wariness, in perhaps the dumbest move by a major media figure in some time.
Does Stephanopoulos have the bona fides at this point to cover the Clintons? Nah.
ABC News, however, isn’t budging. In a brief chat this morning, the Erik Wemple Blog quizzed ABC News spokeswoman Heather Riley on whether the network sees an ongoing conflict of interest. “We stand behind him,” responded Riley. Can he objectively cover Hillary Clinton? “We stand behind him,” responded Riley. We posed some other question, and Riley responded again, “We stand behind him.”
The disclosures shed new light on a tough interview that Stephanopoulos conducted recently with Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” a much-discussed book that pokes at the overlapping worlds of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s purview as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. Stephanopoulos grilled the guy, “How does your reporting show that Hillary Clinton may be unfit for the presidency?” he asked, in kicking off the session. Over nearly eight minutes, Stephanopoulos kept the heat on, citing “no evidence at all” that Hillary Clinton was involved in a key decision discussed in the Schweizer book and pursuing the author over whether he’d briefed any Democrats about his book, as he did for Republicans.
“As you know, the Democrats have said this is an indication of your partisan interest. They say you used to work for President Bush as a speechwriter, you’re funded by the Koch Brothers. How do you respond to that?” asked Stephanopoulos — all the while sitting on his own interest in the Clinton Foundation. Riley indicated that a note will be added to the interview online to disclose the anchor’s contributions.
Perhaps Stephanopoulos’s best defense would be to mention that the Clinton Foundation has developed some bipartisan muscles. Christopher Ruddy, the former Clinton antagonist and boss of conservative media outlet Newsmax, is a Clinton Foundation donor and fan. Bill Clinton welcomed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for a 2013 chat at a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting in Chicago. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed CGI in 2012. But Stephanopoulos isn’t mounting this defense, so we won’t either.
*Story has been updated to note that Stephanopoulos has donated $75,000 over three years, not $50,000 over two years, as originally reported.