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A Spinmeister And His Spots

Liberals beamed at the news that another one of theirs is about to become the host of a key Sunday morning political talk show. Conservatives groaned, but shrugged knowingly at yet another indicator of left-wing bias in the national media. This has been the range of reactions in Washington so far to the announcement that former Clinton spinmeister, George Stephanopoulos, will take over the ABC Sunday program, This Week, in the fall.

After working for Bill Clinton for six years, Stephanopoulos left the White House, got a $3 million advance to write his memoirs, and then joined ABC as a political commentator. He got promoted to substitute host on Good Morning America, where co-hostess Diane Sawyer described him as “completely non-partisan in covering the news,” according to the Media Research Center. ABC News Executive Paul Friedman says the network isn’t “completely stupid” and told the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz that ABC hasn’t received any complaints about Stephanopoulos’ fairness in the last five years that he has worked for them.

Stephanopoulos asks only that he be judged by his work and claims that thus far he has been “analytical without being ideological.” Conservatives are skeptical, recalling his gushing reviews of Al Gore’s performance during the 2000 Presidential debates and his obvious dismay at the outcome of the Florida vote count. For many, however, Stephanopoulos is best remembered for his effort to discredit former FBI agent Gary Aldrich on This Week with David Brinkley in mid-1996.

Stephanopoulos’ 1999 memoirs recount the action. He ran the damage control operation to limit the fallout from Aldrich’s book, Unlimited Access. His recollections are replete with Clinton White House buzzwords: Unlimited Access was part of the “right-wing conspiracy;” Aldrich was represented by a “right-wing law firm with ties to Newt Gingrich;” and, an “established conservative publisher” put out the book. The book’s revelations were “silly, specious, or provably false” and old news besides. He urged This Week‘s producers to cancel Aldrich’s scheduled appearance on the program. They turned him down, but over at NBC, Dateline complied, as did Larry King Live on CNN, as AIM reported in 1996. ABC offered him equal time to rebut Aldrich’s allegations.

Stephanopoulos, on the taxpayer’s dime, “document[ed] Aldrich’s partisan connections and collect[ed] affidavits refuting his claims.” Perhaps unwittingly, his memoirs reveal the essence of the Clinton approach to his critics: if Stephanopoulos could destroy Aldrich’s “credibility in a high-profile way, the press might be more skeptical of the inevitable flurry of allegations late in the [1996 presidential] campaign.” Stephanopoulos need not have worried; George Will, using material provided by the now infamous David Brock, savaged Aldrich. Stephanopoulos gave evasive replies to questions from Sam Donaldson on the failure of senior White House staffers to submit the security clearance forms and reports of extensive drug use by some staffers. He demonstrated his own difficulties with truth-telling, which he seemed to consider a subjective thing at the time.

ABC News now wonders why all the fuss over Stephanopoulos; he is not the first former political operative to convert to TV newsman. His main Sunday morning rival will be Tim Russert, who got his start working for former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and later New York Governor Mario Cuomo. The difference between Russert and Stephanopoulos is as great as the difference between these two Democrats and Bill Clinton. Russert has established his reputation for fairness and honesty. Stephanopoulos has yet to do so. He could take a big step in that direction by inviting Gary Aldrich as a guest onto the very first edition he hosts of This Week, apologizing for his shabby treatment of the former FBI agent and giving him an opportunity to talk about his favorite cause?the mistreatment of whistleblowers by the government and the failure of the media to defend them.