Fireworks on ABC’s ‘This Week’

With a modest proposal for telling the audience what it doesn’t already know.

Fireworks on ABC’s 'This Week'

George Stephanopoulos hosting This Week on ABC.

The Sunday network chat shows have generally been runways where the major Washington players get to strut their conventional wisdom while newscasters occasionally nip at their heels. Recently, though, officialdom has been put through a workout. Faced with a steady diet of filibusters, lies and all-around bull, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos has been exemplary in rising to the occasion. On Sunday, March 19, he led with this:

It has been 15 days since President Trump detonated that explosive charge with Saturday morning tweets, that he was the victim of an illegal wiretap ordered by President Obama.

Fifteen days later, we know two things: The president’s charge is untrue and he knows it’s not true. At least he should. His attorney general has not given him any evidence to back up the claim. Nor has the FBI director, the CIA director, or the Director of National Intelligence. Trump may not have even asked them for the evidence.

As Trump’s regime sinks deeper into ineptitude, gibberish, evasions and lies, Stephanopoulos has grown, if anything, older-school: he’s straightforwardly, unashamedly, interested in evidence. The collision between his interest (which is the public’s interest), and his interviewee’s lack of it, makes for striking televisual moments.

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Last month, for example, Stephanopoulos would not give up prodding Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.

STEPHANOPOULOS: …you have provided zero evidence that the president was the victim of massive voter fraud in New Hampshire. You provided zero evidence —

MILLER: Anyone who’s worked —


MILLER: — politics is familiar —

STEPHANOPOULOS: You have provided zero evidence that the president’s claim that he would have won the general — the popular vote if 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted, zero evidence for either one of those claims.

So what next? For Sunday, March 19, the ABC bookers had a problem. When the A-list of White House officials demur, the drill is to turn to the B-list. But the B-list is thin. Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and others are either discredited (from the network point of view) or kept home (by their boss). As for Kellyanne Conway, Stephanopoulos is not inclined to cut her much slack (“Kellyanne, that makes no sense” he told her on Good Morning America last month).

So the confining format leads to the C-list.

On ABC’s This Week on March 19, then, the C-list meant NewsMax chief Christopher Ruddy, a Trump buddy who staked out his claim to journalism as a Clinton administration Whitewater obsessive and the author of a book called The Strange Death of Vincent Foster. When Ruddy launched his “news agency,” NewsMax, in 1998, he had in mind a cable TV channel as well as a website. A Bloomberg reporter characterized his mission for it as “a kinder, gentler Fox.” NewsMax TV flopped — it might just as well change its name to NewsMin.  Evidently the major cable companies found insufficient demand for a kinder, gentler Fox — their viewers preferred the raw, unkind, ungentle one. As for Ruddy’s online operation, it’s mostly a compilation of columns and stories from elsewhere, its news consisting largely of a rip-and-read assortment of wire service stuff.

Ruddy came through with a C-list promo for Trump:

Let’s talk about the first 100 days of this presidency. The incredible record that the president has had. A-plus Cabinet. Jobs he’s hoping — creating tens of thousands of new jobs.

O-kay. That, Ruddy said, was what the press should be talking about, not the president’s unapologetic insistence that Barack Obama, or the British GCHQ, or somebody “tapped” Trump Tower during the campaign.

Enter Stephanopoulos, saying: “The president has not provided any evidence. There’s been overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

So it went. RUDDY: “Well, I don’t speak for the president. You’re going to have to ask him what his plan is on that. I do think that the press is harping on this.”

This sort of exchange goes nowhere because Ruddy either doesn’t know enough to artfully follow his lurching leader, or does know that his job is to stir evasion and vagueness, or is so maladroit as to think that “hoping” to create “tens of thousands of new jobs” scores points for his friend.

The rest of Stephanopoulos’ interviews proceeded in unsurprising fashion, though ABC’s roundtable did add one spicy element. ABC News’ chief foreign correspondent, Terry Moran, referred to the British reaction as “bewilderment and fury” at “the adolescence out of Washington,” adding for good measure that “the White House at this point is a laughing stock in the capitals of Europe.”

When an anchor is willing to tell an official that she makes no sense, and the senior policy adviser says things like “Sean Spicer, as always, is 100 percent correct,” you can see why the White House considers the media to be an “opposition party.” Which is, indeed, what journalists ought to be in this era. For if you are not in opposition to lies, filibusters and bull, you are not doing your job.

It’s good to rub liars’ faces in truth. ABC is excelling at this. But even ABC could do more than flunk the fakers. Here’s a modest suggestion for something different. Devote five minutes a week to an investigative piece. Surely many subjects are worth five well-researched and well-edited minutes—not just Russian and intelligence matters but all manner of questions of what government departments and agencies are doing; and what foreigners think about the Tweeter-in-Chief; and how state and local officials react to Trump’s budget; and so on. Just today, for example, The Washington Post reported that Trump has assigned political commissars all around the “administrative state”—or in The Post’s words,

” … an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty, according to eight officials in and outside the administration.”

This shadow government of political appointees with the title of senior White House adviser is embedded at every Cabinet agency, with offices in or just outside the secretary’s suite. The White House has installed at least 16 of the advisers.

ABC has an excellent investigative unit, headed by veteran Brian Ross. Give them have a few minutes each week to round up such stories. Tell the public something they don’t already know.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.