The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sam Donaldson says he’s backing Mike Bloomberg. Journalists have a problem with that.

Sam Donaldson at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Sam Donaldson says he’s a free agent now — a citizen, no longer the newsman he was for more than 50 years. So he’s doing something that he would never do during all those years he covered politicians and campaigns: He’s endorsing a candidate.

The famously feisty former ABC anchor put his name and decades of presumed credibility behind Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign last week. “I’m backing Mike Bloomberg,” he says in a video released by the former New York mayor’s campaign. “Bloomberg can beat Trump.”

While Donaldson’s endorsement seems unlikely to sway many voters, it certainly got the attention of journalists and former journalists, whose reactions have ranged from “Attaboy!” to “How could you?!”

“Never thought I’d see this,” tweeted Brit Hume, the longtime Fox News analyst who worked with Donaldson for years at ABC.

Donaldson’s open partisanship has few precedents among leading national TV news figures, and raises several journalistic questions: Does a journalist’s vow of objectivity (or at least neutrality and balance) extend beyond his or her working years? Is a retired journalist subject to the same kinds of ethical restraints as a working one, such as not endorsing candidates and not contributing to political causes and campaigns?

Donaldson, 85, says no. Since he no longer has any role in reporting or shaping the news, he believes he’s entitled to express his opinions about, well, everything.

“I’ve been retired for seven years now, and I am not restrained by the ethics and procedures of a business I’m no longer a part of,” he said by phone from his home in New Mexico.

He added: “I’ve never felt this way before. But I do think the country faces a threat in Donald J. Trump. He is a sick and ignorant man. I feel if we don’t turn back, we’ll never get back to where we were as a nation. And I think Bloomberg is in the strongest position to take him on.”

Donaldson said he never registered with a political party during his decades in the news business and never endorsed a candidate. In retirement, however, he has contributed money to two of them, both Democrats. In 2018, he supported Jeff Apodaca in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New Mexico; Apodaca lost the nomination to Michelle Lujan Grisham, who won the general election. During the 2016 cycle, he contributed to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (You know how that turned out.)

At a time when the public holds journalists in increasingly low regard, some of Donaldson’s former colleagues have argued that Donaldson’s actions undermine credibility.

In fact, Donaldson’s critics say he and Bloomberg are trading on the public esteem he accumulated over his long career as a journalist. Older viewers probably remember his combative questioning of President Ronald Reagan during his time as a White House correspondent and his stints as the host of such ABC news programs as “PrimeTime Live” and “This Week.”

“Donaldson is free to do as he pleases, but it’s disappointing and damaging that he felt his endorsement of a presidential candidate was more important than preserving the integrity of the institution that he served so well for most of his life,” wrote the Poynter Institute’s Tom Jones on Monday. “With all due respect to Donaldson, I’m not sure his endorsement helps Bloomberg as much it hurts journalism.”

Former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. said there’s a distinction between Donaldson expressing opinions on issues about which he no longer reports and his outright advocacy of a candidate. The latter, he suggested, goes too far: “Since he covered presidents in particular, well and aggressively, such an endorsement does appear to be a misuse of his considerable journalistic credibility and reputation,” said Downie, who retired from The Post in 2008 and is now a journalism professor at Arizona State.

Downie said he expresses opinions only about journalism and issues that affect it, but steers clear of any public endorsements. At The Post, he took an even more radical and controversial position: He declined to vote, saying doing so might sway his sense of objectivity.

But Donaldson says there is a famous precedent for his new role. In 2004, he recalled, he interviewed CBS News legend Walter Cronkite, by then long retired, before an awards ceremony. Cronkite, once known as “the most trusted man in America,” wasn’t shy about his presidential choice, according to Donaldson. “John Kerry must be elected!” Donaldson recalled Cronkite saying at the time (Cronkite, who died in 2009, was long rumored to have been considered as a Democratic running mate in 1972, although Cronkite himself never confirmed it).

On a private Facebook page for retired and former ABC employees, Donaldson’s former colleagues debated the merits of Bloomberg’s candidacy — and Donaldson’s decision to go public in support of it.

“This had to be a very difficult step for Sam to take,” wrote Richard Gelber, a retired technical director at ABC. “It should be considered very carefully.”

“Sam is a retired and private citizen,” responded Bob Crawford, a former ABC producer. “He can endorse anyone he likes.”

Meredith Wheeler, who once wrote for Donaldson and the late anchor Peter Jennings, asked, “Would it be meaningful if those of us who know Sam issued a joint statement supporting his right to speak out as a private citizen with a particularly deep knowledge of the office of the president?”

Another participant, Frank Grillo, whimsically suggested Donaldson may be angling for a job in a Bloomberg administration. “Oh, the irony it would be to have Sam as [White House] press secretary after all the grief he gave Ronald Reagan at almost every press briefing. . . . Sam is the poster boy for free press.”