Listen for the Outcry: Former Clinton Operative Taking Helm of Morning ‘News’ Show

December 9th, 2009 4:40 PM

The official announcement will apparently come tomorrow morning (NewsBusters’ Scott Whitlock reported on the early leaks last week): former Clinton campaign operative George Stephanopoulos will start Monday as co-anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America. He’ll also keep his job as the host of ABC’s This Week, at least for the time being.

Here’s one yardstick for measuring the media’s response: Back in 1997, CBS announced that ex-GOP Representative Susan Molinari (pictured at right) would take over as co-host of Saturday Morning. Journalists quickly howled at the breaching of the sacred “barricade that is supposed to exist in journalism between the political people and the officials on the one hand, and the reporters on the other.” NPR’s Mara Liasson said it was “disturbing” of CBS to hire a Republican; Nina Totenberg exclaimed: “This really makes me want to puke.”

Molinari’s Saturday CBS show avoided politics, so she spent most mornings talking about movies and toys and vacation ideas. But according to the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, “Stephanopoulos, now ABC's chief Washington correspondent, had told network executives he wanted to inject GMA with a harder-news focus as a condition of taking the job.”

ABC, of course, has aided in the transformation of Stephanopoulos from political spinmeister into supposedly neutral journalist over the years, allowing him to fill in as anchor of World News as well as on Good Morning America.

Stephanopoulos joined ABC News at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, starting as an analyst but quickly migrated into the role of Washington correspondent and supposedly non-partisan analyst. In July 2001, Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer praised Stephanopoulos for his presumed objectivity: “You’ve been completely non-partisan in covering the news.” Stephanopoulos now takes Sawyer’s job, as she steps in as the new anchor of World News on December 21, replacing the retiring Charles Gibson.

The concept that Stephanopoulos has been “completely non-partisan” is laughable. Early on, he was brought on to analyze one of his former boss’s State of the Union addresses: “Virtuoso, Peter,” he exulted to then-anchor Peter Jennings of Bill Clinton’s oratory. "The address of a proud President, a tireless policy wonk and a very shrewd political strategist." (ABC’s post-State of the Union coverage, January 27, 2000.)

Earlier this year, Stephanopoulos and Sawyer admired a White House-released photograph of President Obama handing out cookies at a Super Bowl party: “These [pictures] are just remarkable, Diane. We’ve never really seen anything like this before in real time,” Stephanopoulos gushed. (ABC’s World News, February 16, 2009.)

For many more examples of Stephanopoulos’s “non-partisan” approach, check out the Media Research Center’s freshly-updated “Profile in Bias.”

Here’s some of how the MSM greeted the elevation of a Republican politician back in 1997:

■ "What about the barricade that is supposed to exist in journalism between the political people and the officials on the one hand, and the reporters on the other? Aren't you tearing that barricade down?" — Question from a reporter to Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) at the May 28, 1997 press conference announcing her move to CBS.

■ "It has renewed debate over what some call the revolving door between politics and the media," observed CNN's Bernard Shaw on the May 28, 2997 Inside Politics.

■ "The GOP News from CBS," read the headline over a May 29, 1997 New York Times editorial which argued: "With the hiring of Representative Susan Molinari to move directly from Congress to the anchor desk, CBS has reduced the wall [between news and politics] to dust. In fact, having already hired Laura Ingraham, CBS News now employs more famous Republican women than the Republican National Committee does."

■ "Well, I think it's disturbing. I mean, she is not going to be a commentator or a part of a show where she's clearly identified with her partisan point of view — she's going to be an anchor. And I think it means, it sends the message that there's no such thing as journalism anymore. It's all just about celebrity-hood and name recognition and I think it's, I think it's disturbing."
— National Public Radio White House reporter Mara Liasson on Fox News Sunday, June 1, 1997.

■ "Well, this really makes me want to puke. You know, at least CBS had the decency, when they hired Diane Sawyer from the Nixon White House, to make her go out and stand in the rain for a year or so, to earn her really, it just makes me want to throw up." — NPR's Nina Totenberg, May 31, 1997 Inside Washington. (Neither Liasson nor Totenberg noted that the current and previous two Presidents of NPR had been Democratic operatives. In fact, when Clinton won the NPR President at the time jumped to the new administration.)

■ "But must we all take sides? One of this country's great contributions to democracy in this century has been the development of an independent, nonpartisan, nonideological press....until recently, at least, American journalists have been trained and worked in an environment that has taught them to keep political advocacy and ideology out of their reporting and writing." — Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Alan Murray in a Journal op-ed, June 2, 1997.

■ "I don't feel that there is partisanship in the news. I think that there are -- is an attempt -- I mean, it is the basic tenet of journalism to be fair, to be critical, to be watchdogs, and sometimes that means to take unpopular positions with one side of the aisle versus the other. But I think as an activist, as an elected official, it is very difficult for the public to then think that you're now able to — to remove yourself from that debate and act as a journalist should." — NBC News Vice President Cheryl Gould on the PBS News Hour, June 6, 1997.