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Journalists' contributions to Clinton Foundation raise credibility questions

While much of the political community frets over the influence of billionaire money in presidential campaigns, the much smaller world of journalism occasionally worries over the ethics of politicians crossing over into the news-and-analysis business.

The latest stir has occurred in the disclosure that George Stephanopoulos, an  ABC News anchor and once a key political aide to President Bill Clinton, contributed$75,000 between 2012 and 2014 to the charitable Clinton Foundation, headed by Bill, Hillary and Chelsea.

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The red flag of conflict of interest immediately fluttered, especially since Mr. Stephanopoulos had been mentioned to moderate a Republican presidential debate in early 2016 sponsored by the network and the Republican National Committee.

ABC News quickly announced that he had decided not to be the moderator, and he apologized for not having disclosed the donations himself, saying he thought his gifts "were a matter of public record." In hindsight, he said, "I should have taken the extra step of personally disclosing my donations to my employer and to the viewers on air during the recent news stories about the foundation."

Mr. Stephanopoulos was referring to a recent interview he did with Peter Schweizer, author of a book, "Clinton Cash," highly critical of the Clintons and their foundation. It questioned whether donations from foreign governments might have affected Hillary Clinton's decisions as secretary of state in the first term of the Barack Obama administration. The ABC anchor reported that his network and others had found no evidence of it.

The close tie between Mr. Stephanopoulos and Bill Clinton has been well known in the political community in light of his White House departure after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That scandal led to Mr. Clinton's impeachment and subsequent acquittal (thanks to Democratic senators who held their noses and voted not to convict). Mr. Stephanopoulos's book, "All Too Human," was a frank if sympathetic account of his five years as a key Bill Clinton political insider.

He has defended his contribution as motivated by the foundation's work on global AIDS and deforestation, but he has admitted he should have been aware of the appearance of conflict of interest. The fact that he came into high-profile journalism after working as a political partisan may be an explanation for his blind spot, but hardly an excuse.

Along with this disclosure came word that another prominent television anchor, Judy Woodruff of "PBS NewsHour," had also made a one-time contribution the Clinton Foundation of $250 for Haitian earthquake relief in 2010 in response to a plea from Mr. Clinton and former President George H.W. Bush. But that was peanuts compared to the Stephanopoulos donations and Ms. Woodruff had no working connection with either president, rising in journalism as an Atlanta newscaster who moved to the White House beat for NBC with the 1976 election of former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

The phenomenon of political operatives segueing into high-level journalistic posts as been a longtime subject of discussion within the journalistic community. A once-honored wall between the two professions has increasingly broken down, especially as television and its huge advertising revenue have produced astonishingly high salaries and made celebrities of the recipients. The recently suspended Brian Williams, anchor of "NBC Nightly News," reportedly had just signed a $10 million contract.

Occasionally, a journalist who already has attained star status, such as CBS' Edward R. Murrow, may switch teams at a president's request for less money. He became director of the U.S. Information Agency in the Kennedy administration, and NBC's John Chancellor was recruited for a time to head the government-run Voice of America by Lyndon Johnson. But the switch most times works the other way around. For example, ABC's Diane Sawyer was a press aide in the Nixon White House, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC was a press secretary to House Speaker Tip O'Neill before achieving prominence in television news.

Press credibility took a big hit from the revelation that Mr. Williams was given to exaggerations, to say the least. Any appearance of conflict of interest in reporting or commenting on the news can easily lead to further public distrust, unless there is full disclosure of any possible suspicion of favoritism or softness in journalists' relations with public officials.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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