NEW YORK (AP) — George Stephanopoulos apologized to viewers Friday for donating $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation and failing to disclose it earlier, as ABC News now finds its chief anchor in a credibility crisis on the eve of a presidential campaign.
Stephanopoulos said on “Good Morning America” that the donations, made in three increments to the foundation started by his one-time boss, former President Bill Clinton, were a mistake.
“I should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict,” the “GMA” and “This Week” host said. “I apologize to all of you for failing to do that.”
Stephanopoulos rose to the top ranks at ABC over 18 years and worked to establish himself as an independent journalist despite skepticism by some in politics because of his background as a top aide to Clinton’s 1992 campaign and later in the White House. The donations brought that issue back to the fore just as Hillary Rodham Clinton is launching her presidential campaign.
ABC News President James Goldston has not addressed whether Stephanopoulos will be disciplined. The network said in a statement Thursday that it stands behind Stephanopoulos and that the anchor made an honest mistake. ABC said Stephanopoulos voluntarily removed himself as a moderator for ABC’s planned coverage of a GOP presidential debate next February.
ABC News’ rules permit charitable donations, but reporters are required to inform management before covering a story related to the organization. Stephanopoulos did not tell his bosses, or viewers, about the donations before interviewing Peter Schweizer on the Sunday public affairs show “This Week” recently. Schweizer is the author of “Clinton Cash,” a book that traces the involvement of organizations that have donated to the Clinton Foundation.
Network leaders must weigh how the issue will affect public perception of its top on-air political journalist, just as NBC News executives are wondering whether suspended anchor Brian Williams will be believable to viewers following revelations that he embellished details of stories he was involved in.
Schweizer said Friday that Stephanopoulos’ donations “highlight precisely the lack of transparency and cronyism that I report on.”
“It is incomprehensible to me that after George Stephanopoulos went out of his way to state on-air that I wrote speeches for President George W. Bush, Stephanopoulos hid from viewers the fact that he is himself a major Clinton Foundation donor,” Schweizer said.
Former ABC News President David Westin, who hired Stephanopoulos in 1997, said he believed the network was right to stand by him despite the “bad mistake.”
“No one works harder, is more careful in his work, is more diligent,” Westin said. “No one wants to get it right more than George Stephanopoulos. So I know that no one is more heartsick about what is going on than he is.”
ABC said Friday that “This Week” on Sunday has booked an appearance by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. That’s a key booking — a sign that if there is any effort by Republicans to boycott ABC because of Stephanopoulos, it hasn’t taken hold.
Stephanopoulos has pointed out that this donation, among dozens he has made to charitable organizations, were a matter of public record. He said they were made to support the foundation’s work on global AIDS prevention and deforestation.
The Clinton foundation is not obligated by law to publish the name of donors and the amounts of their gifts, but the charity has often provided annually-updated lists since 2008. Public announcements have not always accompanied the updates, and each update is cumulative and reported in wide monetary ranges, making it difficult to spot precise amounts of donations.
The story is a threat to Stephanopoulos’ ability to cover politics for ABC, said Mark Feldstein, a veteran broadcast journalist now a professor at the University of Maryland.
“He seemed mostly to have put to rest fears that he would be too partisan to be a serious television journalist and news anchorman, but he couldn’t have given the Republican Party a greater sword to decapitate him,” said Feldstein, who is writing a book on media scandals.
Aly Colon, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington & Lee University, said he believed it would be best if ABC removed Stephanopoulos from coverage of anything related to the Clintons.
“In today’s environment, many people are truly suspicious of how the news is covered, and this just feeds into that suspicion more,” Colon said.