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Dear ABC News PR: Tell us you didn’t shaft the Washington Free Beacon

ABC’s George Stephanopolous. (ABC/Ida Mae Astute)

Every journalist lives in fear of a certain scenario: You have a news story, quite possibly an exclusive, on a significant public figure. You Google the keywords and a jumble of old links pops up; no one has written it! So you take your revelations to the public figure’s PR rep and ask whether your reporting is true and real. In making that inquiry, you relinquish a bit of control over your investigation; now someone outside of your news organization — a PR official — knows what you have. You have no choice but trust that the official doesn’t play any games with a prospective scoop.

Games may have been played yesterday in connection with the week’s resounding media story. On Thursday morning, Politico media reporter Dylan Byers broke the story of George Stephanopoulos’s big-money donations to the Clinton Foundation (at first they were reported as $50,000 but grew to $75,000 by day’s end). The headline of Byers’s story: “George Stephanopoulos discloses $75,000 contribution to Clinton Foundation.

Big deal. The Internet exploded with commentary, criticisms of Stephanopoulos, liberal-media slams and claims that the PR department of ABC News had done something untoward in handling the story.

Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website that launched in February 2012. Stiles is the digital managing editor for the Washington Free Beacon. The Stephanopoulos story surfaced on Wednesday just before 3:30 p.m., when Stiles found his name on the Clinton Foundation’s donor lists. He e-mailed Continetti, who told him to move on the story and also directed a researcher to check whether Stephanopoulos had seeded any of his on-air work with disclosures about the donations.

The research turned up no evidence of Stephanopoulos having told viewers of his largesse to the Clinton Foundation, clinching the need for a story. “I think you have to write this one straight,” Continetti wrote to Stiles, who sometimes takes attitudinal approaches to the news. The editor-in-chief also cited the need for a comment from Stephanopoulos’s office. “I knew immediately that this was a news story,” says Continetti.

Despite Stiles’ best efforts, ABC News didn’t cough up a response on the spot. Heather Riley, a spokeswoman for ABC News, e-mailed Stiles just after 9 p.m., promising him “something.” “What time are you posting? Want to make sure I get it to you in time,” she wrote.

Hear this, knee-jerk detractors of modern web journalism: Absent a comment from ABC News, Continetti & Co. decided to let the matter sit overnight. They just waited.

When the Washington Free Beaconers put their heads together Thursday morning, there was still no comment from ABC News. “I say, ‘Let’s begin to move this story,'” recalls Continetti. The piece wasn’t complicated: A network news anchor had contributed to a charity run by the first family of the Democratic party and hadn’t told viewers when that charity emerged in news coverage. What was complicated was its landing. “Literally as we were about to hit ‘post,’ we are alerted to the Dylan Byers piece that just went up,” says Continetti, who moved to publish their piece without the ABC News statements. Those arrived later.

Unleash the tweetstorm from the Washington Free Beacon:

Could Byers have simply converged on the same story at the same time as the Washington Free Beacon? Sure, but he’s not saying anything. “I can’t discuss sourcing,” he responds to the Erik Wemple Blog via e-mail.

Nor has ABC News responded to inquiries from the Erik Wemple Blog. Nor did ABC News respond to Politico media commentator Jack Shafer, who asked about the matter. Nor did ABC News respond to inquiries from the Washington Free Beacon:

So that makes three separate sets of questions to ABC News PR that ABC News PR has failed to answer. Answering questions is the job of ABC News PR.

What could possibly account for the network’s slow-walking approach to the Washington Free Beacon? Absent a response from ABC News, the Erik Wemple Blog would be forced to speculate about how the network perhaps wanted to retain greater control over the story; or speculate about how ABC News has an allergy to working with a conservative news site; or speculate about any number of other things. And we don’t speculate.

In any case, it’s impossible to determine precisely what happened here, though the allegation is right there on the record:

Nothing about this contretemps slights the work of Byers. Quite the contrary — he wrote a factual breaking news story, however it germinated.

If indeed ABC News “ran” to Byers after getting an inquiry from the Washington Free Beacon, shame on them. PR shops, after all, exist to handle just the scenario that the Washington Free Beacon presented. It’s a very linear transaction: Reporter asks, PR responds. Should it turn out that ABC News betrayed this very simplicity, the network will have forfeited its expectation that journalists check with them before publishing their goods on ABC News. “I’m trying to instill the value of reporting to a new generation of conservative reporters,” says Continetti. “What lesson do they draw when they do their due diligence and some hack PR agent goes to another outlet in order to control the story?”

That’s such a good question that the Erik Wemple Blog just dropped it into an e-mail and passed it along to ABC News along with the other questions that they won’t answer.

Short-sighted would be a compliment for this media strategy. The nub of the Stephanopoulos news was that a top media figure had left a green paper trail of support for the Clinton family’s grand designs. Could he possibly, then, treat Republicans and conservatives with fairness? At the very time that this chatter started circulating, the network’s PR operation was shafting a conservative news outlet by slow-e-mailing its response. Symmetry.

The Washington Free Beacon’s industrious use of Twitter ensured recognition of its pioneering efforts on the Stephanopoulos story. Major news outlets, in their writeups of the story, credited the site for its inquiry into the donations. That dynamic undercut whatever result the network sought in releasing its statements to Politico first.

Silence is unacceptable here. ABC News has to do one of two things: Either apologize to the Washington Free Beacon for whatever precisely it did or explain how its actions meet the commonly acknowledged standards of the industry. Today Stephanopoulos issued his second apology for his evasions in the Clinton Foundation case, so that story may ebb in the coming weeks. Yet the Erik Wemple Blog is committed to keeping this unfinished business about the Washington Free Beacon in play until the network resolves it.