ABC's Stephanopoulos Problem
It was another classic Clintonite whopper. ABC proudly announced that its five-year long march to package George Stephanopoulos was complete. He's now the sole host of its Sunday morning show "This Week," the long-time home of TV eminence David Brinkley. The Disney network's new lead interrogator claimed: "If I were biased, I don't believe I would have gotten the job."
Really, you just have to start laughing here.
If ABC had been looking for a host with a just-the-facts record and demeanor, George Stephanopoulos is the last person they'd hire. If they valued decades of experience behind the microphone, they wouldn't have kicked Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts to the curb. George has it all backwards: It's precisely because of his recent background as a Clinton spinmeister that he was hired. It's as if ABC really misses Bill Clinton's years on top and wants to recapture a fraction of those truth-defying acrobatics in its own studio.
ABC News President David Westin has groomed his star for years, first posing this leftist activist with William Kristol as a duo of partisan "analysts." But once the shock faded away, so did the Kristol pairings, and Kristol was unceremoniously dumped at the end of 2000. Westin began signaling his intentions by having Stephanopoulos take the anchor's chair, first on the overnight insomniac's broadcast "World News Now," then plopping him next to Diane Sawyer as a substitute co-host on "Good Morning America." In 2000, our Rising Star was constantly poked into the viewer's eye, on almost every morning. The network's star campaign "analyst," just one election cycle removed from the Clinton bus, was here to stay.
Westin is clearly not attuned to how viewers will react to his star-birthing scenario. After all, just a few months ago he told a public forum that he had to remain neutral on whether the patriotic men and women working at the Pentagon were legitimate targets for terrorists. Yes, he apologized, but does that sound like a man in touch with public reaction?
ABC is counting on everyone to say that this new appointment is no big deal, and will not be seen by the public as dramatically political. Media scholar Robert Lichter tried to echo the argument for the Washington Post: "To the public, George Stephanopoulos is part of the media and political elite. He's a Beltway celebrity. He's a nice person, low-key, seems serious, and it doesn't hurt that he's handsome." Oh.
Clearly, to that large percentage of the public that couldn't tell a pollster the positions of Dick Cheney or Tom Daschle, Lichter could be right. But to the people who live and breathe politics - in short, news junkies who actually watch Sunday morning news shows - the half-decade of high-profile Clinton-spinning isn't easily forgotten.
Other analysts have tried to fold Stephanopoulos into the long network tradition of revolving liberal Democratic aides into top network executive and production positions, and suggest that none of these revolving-door personnel lists have had any impact on viewer perceptions before. That's ridiculous. The ugly visceral reality of bias and insults that conservatives witness regularly on the TV screen has driven the continental shift of millions of media consumers to Rush Limbaugh, conservative newspaper and magazines, and a more balanced Fox News Channel.
David Westin may have trouble realizing it, but what he has crowned here is a new poster child for liberal bias, the name and the face that may personify the networks' badly disguised Democratic boosterism for years to come.
Westin can only defend himself by telling the Washington Post that he sees conservative complaints about his fancy for George as a scheme to spin his spinner, and make him bend over backward to be fair. Any conservative who's actually watched George massage the liberal agenda on TV can't be that dumb. Stephanopoulos has earned his reputation for blatant bias in favor of his partisan pals. Conservatives need say nothing to "spin" this one.
The decision to make ABC's Sunday mornings look like the DNC Hour has been made, and nobody's going to bother trying to convert the new star. Republican politicians will merely hope to survive the partisanship, not neutralize it. Conservative media stars will start checking the ratings for additional defections. Viewers who know liberal bias when they see it can only hope that the new show's ratings will be as impressive as another overt liberal at ABC - those of departing Bill Maher - and maybe, just maybe, the message eventually will get across to the network brass.