WASHINGTON -- There's an old saying in journalism, at least among the pure of heart. It simply is that you can't sleep with the elephant if you are covering the circus.
If George Stephanopoulos is any indication, today's "star reporters" haven't learned that lesson -- or perhaps consider themselves immune from its meaning. At least the continued "relationship" between ABC's chief political anchor and his former bosses, Bill and Hillary Clinton, would indicate a clear insensitivity to rules about journalistic fairness.
Stephanopoulos has contributed to the Clinton family charitable foundation. While a reported total of some $75,000 doesn't seem like a huge amount, especially coming from one who makes far more than the average correspondent, it's not the size of the contribution that matters. It's the appearance that lends credence if not absolute confirmation to the long-held beliefs by Republicans that his bias toward Hillary Clinton makes him untrustworthy and unacceptable as a moderator or questioner in future presidential debates.
That is a huge kick to the solar plexus of the television network that is close if not already the leading broadcast news vendor. Credibility in this case is precious, and anything that diminishes that probably can't be afforded for long. The network's news chiefs have a problem on their hands and they know it.
In many ways, it is similar to what rival NBC has been facing with the suspension of Brian Williams for being less than truthful about the extent of his personal participation in covering major news stories. Actually, the Stephanopoulos affair may be worse because it involves a presumption of favoritism in a news report. And although that goes on constantly in certain cable channels, it has not been a prominent feature of the broadcast variety.
What makes it even worse is that the foundation already has played a major role in the 2016 presidential debate as anti-Clinton forces question its acceptance of large contributions from foreign donors during Hillary's tenure as Secretary of State. It promises to be an even more sizable issue as the campaign drags on. How does Stephanopoulos conduct himself with believable impartiality under the circumstance?
The revolving-door aspects of Washington journalism always have been difficult to manage without some loss of credibility.
Normally, one who has used his political position to wrangle a high-powered job in the news business confines himself to print or electronic punditry. You have no question about where he or she stands politically. That's certainly far less objectionable.
The problem arises when the lines are blurred, when suddenly a prominent White House aide crosses over into the "pure news" category. Working for a campaign or even giving to one is a bad idea.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a group of prominent writers for the now-defunct Washington Daily News were found to be moonlighting by writing news releases for Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity. They were dismissed from the newspaper without hesitation.
During the 1964 presidential campaign, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and one of the otherwise most honored reporters in this city wrote a speech for Republican nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater. It caused such a furor among his press corps colleagues that he was denied the presidency of the National Press Club, normally a pro forma vote once one had worked himself up the ladder of the club's leadership.
But that was then.
Laura Foreman, a friend and fine reporter, had the misfortune to fall in love with a major political figure whom she was covering for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She left the paper to take a job with the New York Times.
The affair was discovered by her former Philadelphia colleagues, who broke a major story bringing her reporting into question. The Times responded by firing her for her Philadelphia indiscretion, although somewhat unjustly I believed. Her career was over, but she and the politician ultimately married.
It would be colossally naive, not to mention disingenuous, to suggest that it is possible to keep all bias in journalism at bay, but an effort should be made. Stay away from the elephant. Don't give it money or anything else.
Dan Thomasson, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.