COMMENTS: ABC News Must Thread the Needle on Stephanopoulos

First, let's stipulate that ABC's George Stephanopoulos was in the wrong when he conducted his This Week interview with author Peter Schweizer about the ethics of the Clinton Foundation. Stephanopoulos was a donor, at the $25K-a-year level, to the foundation and did not disclose the fact, either to Schweizer or to his audience, at the outset of the interview. This is a basic breach of obvious journalistic protocols.

According to The New York Times, Stephanopoulos also failed to disclose the donation internally at ABC News, in violation of its explicit policy that "an employee making a donation to a charity must disclose that to us before covering a story related to that organization." Stephanopoulos owed us all an apology -- and he duly delivered it via Dylan Byers at Politico.

So far so clear: if that non-disclosure is the limit to Stephanopoulos' wrongdoing then we should all accept his apology and carry on, business as usual. Yet business is not as usual. Stephanopoulos has formally recused himself as moderator of ABC News' debate during the Republican primary season (informally, obviously, the Republican candidates vetoed his appearance and ABC News decided not to expend its clout in order to stand by its man).

So what is unclear is whether ABC News considers that it is not just Stephanopoulos' non-disclosure that is the problem -- but the underlying donations themselves.

It would preposterous for a news organization to have problems with its journalists donating to charity. Clearly, the problem is not with a donation but a particular recipient. As npr's David Folkenflik put it on All Things Considered: "…the Clinton Foundation, this is not a -- this is not just the American Red Cross!"

What Folkenflik is implying here is that the Clinton Foundation is an illegitimate charity for a journalist to donate to. Why would that be? In the Times, Jeremy Peters & John Koblin come up with the insinuation without naming names that Stephanopoulos' motives were not altruistic at all: "He finds himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs Clinton seeks the Presidency for a second time."

Even if we were to give Stephanopoulos the benefit of that particular doubt -- that his self-portrayal as an HIV-fighting tree-hugger is genuine -- that still leaves the question about The Clinton Foundation itself. Folkenflik characterized it as "a vehicle for President Bill Clinton's legacy in his retirement and also a vehicle for [Hillary Clinton] to have a national, global, public stature as she looked toward the White House herself." Following up on his criticism of Stephanopoulos in Politico, Jack Shafer e-mailed to me: "The primary sense in which the Clinton Foundation is a charity is in its paperwork."

This current storm may have George Stephanopoulos in its eye, but its underlying importance concerns the standing of the Clinton Foundation. ABC News has to decide whether it is a bona fide charity or a political placeholder for the Clinton Dynasty in its out-of-office years. If the former, then Stephanopoulos' only error was the non-disclosure and his disqualification as a debate moderator amounts to the news division's betrayal of its lead anchor.

If the latter -- the Clinton Foundation is not a legitimate charity but a fundraising front -- then ABC News (and npr's Folkenflik and Politico's Shafer and Erik Wemple at Washington Post and so on) is effectively challenging the legitimacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton herself, since the power base of her candidacy-in-waiting would be exposed as a tax fraud against the IRS and a shakedown of future favor seekers.

One only needs to look at the pushback to this idea from Bill Clinton in Cynthia McFadden's Exclusive from Nairobi on NBC to imagine the backlash ABC News would receive if it did take that extra step and decide that the foundation itself was an illegitimate recipient for donations. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that the Republican Presidential field would tolerate an ABC News position that such donations are legitimate philanthropy, as long as they are properly disclosed.

I expect ABC News to focus on George's disclosure error and to waffle on the question of the foundation's bona fides. Let's see if it can thread that needle.

UPDATE: Erik Wemple at Washington Post points out that Stephanopoulos second apology, on air on Good Morning America, added an admission that the underlying donations were a mistake -- not because the Clinton Foundation is a bogus charity, but because he "should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict."

My paraphrase: "I should have gone the extra mile in order to relieve my employer from having to decide whether the charity work I was supporting was bona fide, or a political front operation."


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