It has been a rough weekend for ABC News’s embattled chief anchor, George Stephanopoulos, and an even worse Sunday.
On CNN’s Reliable Sources media criticism program, Stephanopoulos’s former ABC News colleague, Carole Simpson, unloaded on the former top aide to Bill and Hillary Clinton that she said she likes and respects.
“There is a coziness that George cannot escape,” said Simpson, who toiled for two decades at ABC News, notably as the weekend anchor of World News Tonight from 1988 to 2003. “While he did try to separate himself from his political background to become a journalist, he really isn’t a journalist.”
Thus Simpson attempted to obliterate Stephanopoulos’s claims of impartiality as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, featuring Hillary Clinton’s status as the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Like Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter and another former ABC News colleague, Jeff Greenfield, Simpson said she was “dumbfounded” by Thursday’s revelation that Stephanopoulos failed to disclose $75,000 in recent donations to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation—this, as he conducted a confrontational April 26 interview with Clinton Foundation critic Peter Schweizer.
“I wanted to just take him by the neck and say, ‘George, what were you thinking?’ Clearly, he was not thinking. I thought it was outrageous,” Simpson said. “And I am sorry that again the public trust in the media is being challenged and frayed because of the actions of some of the top people in the business.”
Simpson added that despite Stephanopoulos’s alleged lack of journalistic bona fides, “ABC has made him the face of ABC News, the chief anchor, and I think they’re really caught in a quandary here. While ABC says this was ‘an honest mistake,’ they don’t feel that way. Secretly, they are hopping mad, I am sure.”
Schweizer himself told Reliable Sources that ABC had gone into “cover-up mode” over Stephanopoulos’s lapse. Schweizer would like “a rematch” with Stephanopoulos, but ABC News has not gotten back to him, he said.
Notwithstanding ABC News’s official statement of support, asserting that the news division management “stands behind” Stephanopoulos and he won’t face suspension or other disciplinary action, “George may be in some hot water within ABC,” Simpson said.
Daily Beast contributor Greenfield, a former speechwriter for New York Mayor John Lindsay and Senator Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, was hardly more charitable.
He speculated that Stephanopoulos might have donated to the Clinton Foundation to repair a frayed relationship with his former employers—who felt betrayed by his best-selling White House memoir, All Too Human, and by his early prediction on ABC that the Monica Lewinsky scandal could lead to impeachment.
Greenfield added that ABC News might be forced into the decision that Stephanopoulos must recuse himself from covering the 2016 campaign at all.
Stephanopoulos’s self-made mess, Greenfield said, is “an indication that very smart people are sometimes very foolish.”
Facing a rising chorus of criticism for his lapse in judgment—not just from easy-to-dismiss partisan Republicans like former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (another guest on Reliable Sources), but, more damagingly, from journalists like Simpson and Greenfield—Stephanopoulos dug in his heels.
Apparently relying on whatever lessons he learned as a tough operative two decades ago in the presidential campaign and the White House, beating back the various Clinton scandals and mini-scandals with an aggressive offense, Stephanopoulos decided to avoid the political sin of rolling disclosure.
On ABC’s Washington panel show, This Week With George Stephanopoulos—during which the Senate’s Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, did him a huge favor by appearing as guest—he gave the same word-for-word apology as he did on Friday’s Good Morning America, where he is Robin Roberts’s co-host.
Even as he acknowledged error in making his Clinton Foundation donations—having been caught by the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon and Politico—Stephanopoulos continued to insist that disclosing it would have been “go[ing] the extra mile” rather than a basic journalistic requirement.
In other words—to paraphrase another famously beleaguered public figure whose blunders were inconveniently exposed—he might not have volunteered information, but at least he was legally accurate.