In the film Broadcast News, a TV network producer scolds a reporter for an ethical breach. She shouts at him, “You totally crossed the line!” But the reporter shrugs, “It’s hard not to cross it. They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they!”
Broadcast News was released in 1987; in the subsequent quarter century, the ethics of TV journalism (or maybe it should be TV “journalism”) have only gotten shoddier. That little sucker keeps moving. The latest case in point: George Stephanopoulos and ABC News.
By now, you probably know what happened. A conservative website revealed this week that Stephanopoulos, the ABC News Sunday talk show host, donated $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation – but failed to share that information with viewers last month when he conducted an adversarial interview with author Peter Schweizer, whose new book is critical of the Clinton Foundation. And yesterday, having been outed, Stephanopoulos said that his donations totaled $75,000.
The fact that a TV news anchor gave all that money to the Clintons – coupled, of course, with the fact that he worked in the White House with the Clintons – and then interviewed a conservative critic of the Clintons, to the point of defending the Clintons, without ever revealing his donations to the Clintons….Good grief. That’s what we old-timers, raised in the traditional world of journalism, would call a fricking blatant conflict of interest.
Heck, Stephanopoulos didn’t even tell his network superiors about the donations – a breach of the ABC News policy, which stipulates (according to an ABC spokeswoman) that an employe who donates to a charity “must disclose that to us before covering a story related to that organization.”
But care to guess what penalty Stephanopoulos will pay for this episode? Nothing. The ABC News brass shrugged it off, and said it was all “an honest mistake.”
Luckily for Stephanopoulos, that ethical line keeps moving – because the statement he released yesterday begs to be annotated: “I made charitable contributions to the Foundation in support of the work they’re doing on global AIDS prevention and deforestation, causes I care about deeply. I thought that my contributions were a matter of public record (translation: I was hoping that nobody would notice them). However, in hindsight (now that I’ve been busted), I should have taken the extra step of personally disclosing my donations to my employer (which I was required to do anyway) and to the viewers on air during the recent news stories about the Foundation. I apologize (because that’s my best and only option).”
The bigger issue here, of course, is that the line separating journalists from partisans has been virtually eradicated. Stephanopoulos is just one symptom of this ill. When Keith Olbermann was on MSNBC, he donated money to some House Democrats, one of whom he interviewed on the air. Chris Hayes also gave money to Democrats. Joe Scarborough, the ex-GOP congressman who has morphed into an MSNBC host, gave money to a House Republican candidate. And don’t get me started on Al Sharpton; I’ve twice argued that, with his partisan ties, he shouldn’t have a show – MSNBC indulges his violations of conflict-of interest policy – even if one accepts the fig-leaf rationale that it’s just an “opinion” show.
And Fox News’ entire raison d’etre is to deconstruct the traditional concept of news. Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto have donated to Republican candidates, and Fox’s parent company has donated to the Republican Governors Association. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes has long been the de facto chairman of the GOP. A generation of Fox viewers has been conditioned to consume news and infauxmation served up with dollops of partisan snark.
But hey, there’s no percentage in pining for the old days when Walter Cronkite – who started as a wire-service reporter – set the standard for TV news. We’re deep into the era of the ever-moveable line, and all we can hope for is that the partisan-journalist hybrids will hew to the spirit of transparency by revealing their conflicts of interest.
When Jeb Bush was first weighing a presidential bid, I suggested here that he might be a bit rusty; after all, he hadn’t campaigned for anything since 2002. And, sure enough, this was the week when he clanked like the Tin Man in need of oiling.
As best we can, let’s review his stance(s) on the disastrous war his brother waged in Iraq:
On Monday night, Jeb said that he would’ve invaded Iraq, even knowing what we know now.
On Tuesday, Jeb said that he had misheard the Monday question, and hadn’t meant to say what he’d said Monday. Furthermore, “I don’t know what that decision would have been (in hindsight), that’s a hypothetical.”
On Wednesday, Jeb doubled down on Tuesday and invoked the troops: “If we’re going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.”
On Thursday, Jeb answered the hypothetical (apparently doing a disservice to the troops) and pivoted 180 degrees from what he’d said on Monday: “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions, ‘Knowing what we now know, what would you have done?’ I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”
Since he’s so rusty, maybe he needs a spritz of this. Or maybe his problem is that he swims with his failed brother in the same gene pool.