David Zurawik

Stephanopoulos, Williams, Woodruff and TV's lack of ethics

ABC News can continue in its see-no-evil, hear-no-evil stance on George Stephanopoulos and his undisclosed $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation forever if it wants. But I guarantee you the network is going to pay when it comes to credibility during the 2016 campaign season if it does.

I joined Howie Kurtz at "Media Buzz" today in a discussion on Stephanopoulos, Brian Williams and the way their actions along with their networks' reactions are seriously damaging the credibility of TV news, if not the press in general.


We opened the conversation with my statement that Stephanopoulos is now "dead to me" as a political analyst, and went on from there to discuss how the "too big to fail" strategy that resulted in no one on Wall Street paying for their 2008 sins looked as if it might be applied here. And I bitterly denounced it for the way it destroys faith in the media just as it did in government following the meltdown of 2008.

While Stephanopoulos said in his apology that he should have gone the "extra mile" and disclosed, I said that's not the extra mile, that's the "first mile," that's the minimum he should have done once he made the big $75,000 mistake.


We didn't get time to talk about the full range of ethical lapses that fall under the same umbrella. They range from WBAL reporter Jayne Miller reporting the Freddie Gray story without disclosing that she was involved in a relationship with the lead investigator on the case in Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office, to the revelation that Judy Woodruff, co-anchor of the PBS "NewsHour," also made a donation to the Clinton Foundation.

Woodruff only gave $250, but it is the act, not the amount, that matters when we are talking ethical and moral behavior. I've been teaching media ethics at Goucher College for 15 years, and in my grading book, Woodruff flunked Ethics 101. No gray area here. You make that kind of contribution, you disclose -- and you don't do it the day after the Wall Street Journal reports your ethical failure as Woodruff and "NewsHour" did, according to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler's review of the matter.

Getler called the contribution a "mistake" on Woodruff's part, and went on to further criticize the "NewsHour" for not covering the Stephanopoulos story at all in its broadcasts.

Here's part of what Gentler wrote:

Was the Woodruff link the reason the NewsHour chose not to cover a story that has generated lots of continuing coverage in The Washington Post, New York Times and many other outlets? It doesn't look good from where I sit. The program did post an Associated Press story on its web site last Friday but, aside from the Woodruff statement, it has broadcast nothing about the broader story to its viewers. And the AP story did not mention Woodruff.

I asked the NewsHour's executive producer, Sara Just, for the reasoning behind not covering the Stephanopoulos story on the air. She said: "We had an online piece but for broadcast we didn't think it met the bar as a story for our limited on-air news hole that day."

I thought WBAL's contortions on the Miller conflict were amusing, but Just, the "NewsHour" producer, talking about the high "bar" for getting an item on the broadcast is laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The "NewsHour" is the softest, puffiest, most padded national newscast I have ever seen. They re-run stories that ran on other PBS outlets and even on their own newscast.

And the self-serving, friends-and-family puffery they engage in is outrageous. On May 13, for example, co-anchor Gwen Ifill interviewed correspondent Jeffrey Brown about a book of poetry he wrote for almost 8 minutes (7:57). It included poems about the news, viewers were told.


But they can't find 60 or 90 seconds during an hourlong broadcast to tell viewers about Stephanopoulos and Woodruff?

Talk about problems with credibility.

Here's a link to another video from Sunday with Kurtz and I talking about David Letterman's contribution to the culture for better or worse -- mainly worse.