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From the March 1999 MediaWatch

Networks Focus on Disloyalty, Not Dishonesty

Stephanopoulos Book: Ethics Trumps Scoop

Just weeks after the 1996 election, the networks started a bidding war over the newest network star. ABC, CBS, and CNN fought to land departing Clinton spin specialist George Stephanopoulos.

When ABC won, it touted an expansive job. The New York Times noted he was "expected to do some reporting as a correspondent," including long pieces for Good Morning America, even documentaries for their cable networks, Arts and Entertainment and the History Channel. CNN was prepared to offer Stephanopoulos his own weekend talk program. CBS proposed a role on Face the Nation and on its Eye on People cable channel. Soon after he landed the ABC job with a reported six-figure retainer, he auctioned the rights to his memoirs for $2.75 million to Little, Brown, a Time Warner offshoot. He also joined Newsweek as a contributor.

In The Wall Street Journal, Byron York warned that the top aideís "firsthand knowledge of events in the current White House puts his fellow journalists at ABC in an awkward position: Either they ask him about things he wonít likely talk about, or they stifle their journalistic instincts and donít ask questions that should be asked." ABC stifled their instincts.

In the second week in March, Stephanopoulos finally offered a fraction of the lowdown with the book All Too Human. As Howard Kurtz summarized in the March 11 Washington Post: "On Gennifer Flowers, on the draft controversy, on Whitewater, on Paula Jones, Stephanopoulos came to doubt what he was paid to tell reporters, but kept quiet about those doubts until now."

Once again, he was in demand at the networks. He began at ABC, doing This Week, 20/20, and Good Morning America. From there, he moved on to CBSís This Morning, NBCís Today, and CNNís Larry King Live. Everywhere he went, the networks didnít focus as much on the scoops the book revealed (Billís temper, Hillaryís crying in meetings, etc.) as they did on why it had to be revealed now, if at all. No one, least of all ABC, wondered about his disloyalty to ABC. If they signed him to bring an inside view, why did he withhold it until his book came out?

ABC. On the March 10 20/20, co-host Diane Sawyer walked Stephanopoulos through his years of service, and asked if Clinton was loyal to him. But she also noted his remarks mentioning impeachment on ABC when the Lewinsky scandal broke: "It made you the poster boy for betrayal...People have said, this guy gave him his career, and when the chips are down, instead of saying ĎI canít talk about this,í he joins the enemy...What about silence out of respect for what you were to him and what he was to you?"

On Good Morning America the next day, Charles Gibson said Presidents require discretion in aides and asked, "Are you being disloyal?" Sawyer echoed: "But are you really saying that never once in your room alone at night, did you say to yourself, íAm I doing the right thing while heís in office, making money on a book with what was basically happeningí? Did you have a contract of some sort of loyalty while you were there?...I understand itís honest for you, but itís hurtful for them. I mean, you are hurting people you were once close to."

CBS. On March 12, This Morning co-host Mark McEwen waited two questions until disloyalty arrived: "You know, George, a lot of people call you an ingrate, backstabber, they say no Bill Clinton, no George Stephanopoulos. A tell-all book about the man you made you, as it were. James Carville, one of your buddies, said you said some things that he wouldnít have said. Paul Begala said ĎI think this book is a mistake.í Are you an ingrate? Is this book a mistake?" McEwen wondered: "One of the things we learn in this business, they always say donít burn your bridges. Why nuke this bridge to the Clintons?... Why not wait till he got out of office?"

But McEwen also noted: "You talk about the Gennifer Flowers, when you first heard about this tape that came out of them on the phone. And you thought whatís he doing talking to Gennifer Flowers in the middle of a campaign? You said he lied. If he didnít, why is he putting all of this at risk? Why didnít you bail then?" He added: "Do you feel responsible for Bill Clinton and for bringing, I guess, some of the tragedy of Bill Clinton, how this presidency has sort of come down because of the man?"

CNN. On CNNís Larry King Live March 12, King (and the callers allowed on the program) raised the loyalty questions with Stephanopoulos, a night after King invited Clinton aides Paul Begala and Dee Dee Myers and former Lyndon Johnson aide Jack Valenti to address whether he was "all too disloyal." But King also asked Stephanopoulos about Juanita Broaddrick and whether Clinton "has an illness."

NBC. Two days after airing a David Bloom report featuring aides who found the book "too honest," co-host Katie Couric opened the March 12 Today: "Good morning. He was once one of the Presidentís most trusted aides, but his new book about his years on the inside has many wondering whether heís a traitor or a man of integrity." Couric told him "a lot of people... see you as a turncoat, a Linda Tripp type." In addition to suggesting his book was "sorta gross," Couric asked "Why now George? Couldnít this have waited until the President was out of office?" And: "But couldnít they learn about those things after he left office?"

Couric did ask about his early doubts: "You talk about the Gennifer Flowers tapes. Again, how you felt so duped and betrayed, yet you continued to stand by your man and in a way you became in a way an enabler.... Why not, if you felt so repulsed by his values, which clearly you came to that point later on...I mean, why didnít you leave then, George? Why didnít you say his values system does not gibe with mine?"

PBS. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer didnít interview Stephanopoulos, but they did have a panel discussion with the topic "What Price Loyalty?" on March 11. Smithís panel discussion included no conservatives or critics of Clinton ó Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton flack; Kennedy intimate and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; and Peter Carlson of The Washington Post, who, Smith explained, "wrote an article earlier this week about what he called Ďthe American game of cashing in.í" Emanuel dominated the segment with long pro-Clinton answers. But Schlesinger expressed delight with the addition to the historical record and Carlson noted, "When George Stephanopoulos worked for the President, his job was to make him look good. Nobody complained about that. Now he comes forward to present a more three-dimensional view, and his morals are called into question. That seems odd to me."

On CNNís Capital Gang, The Wall Street Journalís Al Hunt recalled how Stephanopoulos operated less than ethically in 1992 when Hunt was the Washington Bureau Chief: "For those of us that knew George before he was a virgin, I want to tell you something, this book is a shocker. Iíll give you one example. In 1992 we broke the story about Clinton evading the draft. James Carville and Paul Begala called me up directly. We had a fight over it to no avail because the story was right. George went behind our back and told everyone that we were had by right-wing Republicans. That was a lie and he knew it." But the rest of the media were more concerned about Stephanopoulos betraying Clinton, not them.

When Gary Aldrich planned to appear on several networks to plug his book Unlimited Access in 1996, it was George Stephanopoulos who called to intimidate the networks out of their commitments, arguing Aldrich failed to meet a "bare threshhold of credibility." Now, when Stephanopoulos came forward to admit he had forwarded lies about Clintonís adultery, lies about Clintonís draft status, lies about Clintonís actions in office, the focus wasnít on his dishonesty, but on his disloyalty. Itís a fitting reflection of how the mediaís situational partisan ethics coincide with those of the White House.

 

 

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