George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Clinton, and the Permanent Conflict of Interest
George Stephanopoulos has a permanent, irreparable conflict of interest when he covers anything relating to either Bill or Hillary Clinton, and the fact that ABC blithely ignores it is either proof of ethics ignorance or simply willful unethical conduct.
After his performance as co-moderator of the debate between Senators Clinton and Obama, critics are accusing him of being biased against the Illinois front-runner, asking him “gotcha” questions in a prosecutorial manner. But it would make no difference if George were lobbing rhetorical softballs to Obama, or both candidates; or grilling Senator Clinton about her unfriendly relationship with the truth. Stephanopoulos has no business being there at all. He should have recused himself, and failing that, ABC should have forbidden him to participate. This isn’t even a close call or a matter for debate. He is conflicted. It looks terrible. Anyone who doesn’t realize how terrible it looks is ethically obtuse or ethically cross-eyed.
Look: from 1992 to 1994, Stephanopoulos was in the Clinton inner circle, one of the most trusted aides of President Clinton, which meant that he got to know Mrs. Clinton behind the scenes. In that role, Stephanopoulos had a duty to be discrete and to keep any secrets, embarrassing revelations or other matters that came to his attention. Does he have any information about Bill or Hillary that might interest American voters? Does he have insight into the real beliefs and personal character of two of America’s most effective and infuriating image-manipulators? Are there conversations, experiences, and special information George Stephanopoulos could draw upon to harm, or even help, Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy? It strains logic and credibility, given the nature of his relationship with Bill and Hillary, for the answer to all those questions not to be “Yes.”
And this is the trigger for the conflict of interest. Stephanopoulos acquired his knowledge about Senator Clinton in a position of trust. He cannot ethically divulge what he knows without her permission. But in his current position as a national network news journalist, he is ethically obligated to give his audience the benefit of all his knowledge, every bit of it and just he can’t do it. He has to consciously edit what he can and can’t apply to his journalistic duty to inform the public, creating what is called a “punch-pulling conflict.” He has to “pull his punches” when he deals with Senator Clinton, because he can’t use all of what he knows about her.
That is unethical, and it can’t be fixed.
Now, just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend— it is very, very unlikely, but let’s do it anyway—that George Stephanopoulos really doesn’t know a thing about Hillary Clinton that we’d find revealing and valuable and that he hasn’t told us. Even then, he cannot ethically moderate a debate in which she is a participant. Why? Because anyone who thinks about it for half a second will reasonably presume that George is not a neutral party. Maybe Hillary was wonderful to him, bringing him chicken soup when he had the flu, becoming a surrogate sister, or mother, or goddess to him. Or maybe Hillary threw lamps at him, made fun of his height, and called him “the Greek Geek.” We don’t know what his bias is or what is source of it, but there is nothing Stephanopoulos can do or say that will create a reasonable presumption that he is truly, sufficiently neutral.
George knows his own biases, of course, and probably thinks he has them under control. He can’t do anything about the fact that he has knowledge of the Clintons that he both has an obligation to reveal (as a journalist) and an obligation not to reveal (as a trusted staff member), but he can adjust for his biases—he thinks. Perhaps he was hard on Obama during the debate to counter his real instincts, which were to expose Hillary for the vicious, cold-eyed assassin he came to know in the White House. Or perhaps the Hillary he knew was a mixture of Joan of Arc, Abigail Adams and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and his raking of Obama was just a shadow of what he really wanted to do to help his much admired and unfairly-maligned friend. The problem is that adjusting for bias is still being controlled by bias. One’s judgement is still affected, which means that independent judgement becomes impossible.
There is no other possible conclusion. Stephanopoulos has a permanent conflict regarding Hillary Clinton, and he cannot eliminate it. His work in the White House also created biases, one way or the other, that impair his judgement. And even if neither of these were true, it will always look as if they are true, meaning that his work, when the Clintons are involved, cannot be trusted. The solution to these unacceptable conditions is obvious: he should not moderate debates, hold interviews, give commentary or engage in any other journalistic activity that requires a reporter who is neutral and unbiased regarding Hillary Clinton.
The alternative solution being pursued by ABC and Stephanopoulos, to ignore the problem and hope nobody notices, is irresponsible and unprofessional.