Networks Focus on Disloyalty, Not
Stephanopoulos Book: Ethics Trumps Scoop
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?
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."
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?"
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."
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?"
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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