On Donations: It’s Not the Money; It’s the Idea

Posted by Michael Getler on

* This column has been amended to include critical reactions to the ombudsman’s assessment from NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff and Executive Producer Sara Just.

It is always a bad idea for a journalist to give money to a political campaign or anything even remotely connected to the activities of a politician or party, or an organization that they might cover. You just shouldn’t do it. It may be well intended, but you damage your credibility and that of your news organization with the public.

It is bad if you just gave $50 one time. But it is really, really, inexplicably bad if you gave $75,000 over a couple of years to the Clinton Foundation and your name is George Stephanopoulos and you are the chief anchor for ABC News and a former top aide in the Bill Clinton White House and you hadn’t ever disclosed these contributions publicly.

It is also not a great idea, in my opinion, for a major TV news program, such as the PBS NewsHour, not to cover in its nightly broadcast what was, for everyone else, a pretty big news story about the news media. And the NewsHour has not provided any on-the-air coverage of the story swirling around Stephanopoulos since it was revealed last Thursday, May 14, in reports that first surfaced in the Washington Free Beacon, Politico and then The Wall Street Journal.  

The Journal also reported: “Mr. Stephanopoulos isn’t the only political reporter who has given to the Clinton Foundation, the foundation’s database shows. Judy Woodruff, the co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, gave $250 in 2010 to the foundation’s aid efforts for victims of the Haiti earthquake. At the time, she was covering politics as a senior correspondent for PBS NewsHour. ‘I made the gift in response to an urgent joint appeal from former President Clinton and then-President George W. Bush for aid to the victims of the Haiti earthquake,’ she said in an email [to the Journal] Thursday. ‘Seeing the massive loss of human life and the terrible conditions for survivors, I wanted to make a contribution and saw this as a way to do that.’”

The following evening, May 15, Woodruff closed the NewsHour broadcast with a “short editor’s note before we go.” She said: “There have been questions this week about journalists’ contributions to the Clinton Foundation and my name has come up. I want to clarify what happened. In 2010, after the massive earthquake in Haiti, I made a gift of $250 to the Haiti Relief Fund, established by the Clinton Foundation. It was meant for charitable purposes only.”

Woodruff has had a distinguished, 45-year journalistic career, holding down important positions with CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS. She has always struck me as straight and professional in her approach to the news and, having watched her now for several years, I couldn’t tell you how she’d vote. But there are lots of ways to contribute to Haitian earthquake relief. So the choice of the Clinton Foundation, even in a small amount and with the best of intentions, was a mistake in my book.

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.”

* (What follows are the responses to this column from Woodruff and Just.)

Judy Woodruff Replies:

I'm a longtime admirer of your work, as a journalist and as ombudsman, but what you wrote was unfair. To lump what I did in 2010 under the simple heading of “Clinton” ignores the facts and the context. I gave $250 two days after the Haiti earthquake struck in 2010, to an emergency relief fund, and in response to one of the first appeals to cross my desk when we were witnessing wall-to-wall scenes of death and devastation. I am a journalist, but I also am a citizen who supports non-partisan, charitable causes when I feel so moved.

I will not be put in a position of defending the Clinton Foundation. But in early January 2010, less than one year into President Obama’s first term, while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, the tragedy hit and we were told by relief experts that the quickest way to get a contribution to the victims, was through the William J. Clinton Foundation. It had a longstanding involvement in Haiti before the quake. To repeat, my gift was made out to the Haiti Relief Fund, not the general Clinton Foundation.

Sara Just Replies:

I echo Judy's response to your most recent column that concluded that there was a journalistic ethics violation in her spontaneous and generous gift five years ago to the Haiti Relief Fund. All this incident proved is that in addition to being a journalist of impeccable credentials, Judy Woodruff is a person of integrity who sees suffering and is moved to act.

I also take issue with your comment that the NewsHour ignored the Stephanopoulos story that "everyone else" was covering. Simply not true – many news organizations did no more than the NewsHour did with that story. You go on to say that story has generated "continuing coverage" by others. You should be aware that the NewsHour has only done one segment on the Brian Williams story, as of this writing, while others have been chewing on the meat of his bones for months. We do not consider the volume of coverage the measure of a worthy story.

To suggest that we ignored the Stephanopoulos story because of some conspiracy about Judy's generous and spontaneous response to a humanitarian crisis is simply insulting to the journalistic integrity we display nightly. We considered the Stephanopoulos story as we do all stories for its overall significance and how we might shed light on the issues at hand. We decided it did not meet that bar that evening, as I told you. And despite that decision, Judy chose, in the interest of the utmost transparency with our audience, to make a comment on the air since her name had been dragged into the story by a couple of reporters, but ignored by most who saw that detail as irrelevant. I would think the ombudsman would applaud such action.

Here Are a Couple of Letters

I try to watch the NewsHour whenever I can, and I have a great appreciation for Judy Woodruff's work as a journalist. Recently, she was professional enough to make an on-air acknowledgment of having made a small donation to the Clinton Foundation to aid the Foundation in its efforts to bring humanitarian aid to those needing it. She and Mr. Stephanopoulos of ABC are now two distinguished journalists who have allowed themselves (unwittingly) to be taken advantage of by the Clintons. (Yes, the Clintons and their advisers are THAT smart and THAT manipulative! I speak as a lifelong liberal Democrat.) The only thing the Clintons truly fear is real investigative journalism. Please don't let PBS think the Clinton Foundation story is just a lot of hype. Keep digging and asking questions. "Follow the money." Thanks for listening.

Timothy Reynolds, Silver Spring, MD

~ ~ ~

Why have Shields and Brooks discuss Jeb Bush’s boo-boo in detail, but not one single mention of the Clinton Foundation scandal and Geo. Stephanopoulos' boo-boo? I'm so disappointed in the lack of fairness.

Cannon Beach, OR

(Ombudsman's Note: There were other recent emails about other issues but I'm going to be away for the next two weeks so I'll deal with those in forthcoming postings.)

Posted on May 21, 2015 at 2:40 p.m.

Updated on May 22, 2015 at 2:18 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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