George Stephanopoulos’ Only Mistake

Joe Biden’s presidential debate performance was a disaster. The visibly aging Democratic Party standard-bearer was incoherent from the outset, though he improved slightly, to mostly incoherent by the end. There was such an uproar that the president, swatting off gadflies in his own party, decided to do something he rarely does: a sit-down interview with the press.

For the task, Biden chose George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton White House communications director turned hard-hitting ABC News anchor. Stephanopoulos was a fine choice for the job—a trusted voice on a major network, a seasoned pro who has interviewed politicos for decades. And he performed admirably: He grilled Biden repeatedly on his age, his ability to serve an additional term in office, and the blaring calls for him to step aside and turn over the ticket to a younger candidate. The president, for his part, came off better than he had during the debate, but seeing as he didn’t suddenly revert into the spritely Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–esque character of his youth, he did little to assuage concerns from Washington’s growling political class.

But Stephanopoulos’ mistake wasn’t evident until later. Strolling down Fifth Avenue in formfitting workout clothes and over-ear headphones, the anchor responded to a pedestrian’s question: “Do you think Biden should step down? You’ve talked to him more than anybody else has lately.” He responded, simply, “I don’t think he can serve four more years.” After the celebrity gossip site TMZ published a grainy video of the encounter, Stephanopoulos said in a statement, “Earlier today, I responded to a question from a passerby. I shouldn’t have.” (Note that he didn’t take back his words.) ABC News clarified: “George expressed his own point of view and not the position of ABC News.”

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Stephanopoulos erred neither in talking to a rando on the street nor in divulging his personal opinion. His ethical misstep was in concealing his up-close-and-personal evaluation of the president from ABC’s viewers.

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Journalists all too often bow at the altar of objectivity, a false idol that demands they divorce the part of their brain that asks questions from the part that forms opinions based on those answers. Stephanopoulos engaged in the good work of demanding accountability from the world’s most powerful human being but stopped short of delivering what the populace and Democratic decisionmakers needed from him.

According to New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, even George Clooney, Biden’s cognitive decline has been increasingly evident, a carefully guarded vulnerability at an inconvenient time: the run-up to an election against Donald Trump, arguably the foremost threat to American democracy, the man who tried to stay in power on Jan. 6, 2021, against the will of the voting public. There couldn’t be a worse moment for Biden to lose a step—let alone two, or three, or 100.

Stephanopoulos had the rare opportunity to interview the president. He should have been upfront about what he saw, how he felt, and what he believed. Those opinions colored the premise of the interview and his questioning. There’s no reason he couldn’t be honest with viewers and say how he felt. If he can say it to someone on the street, he should say it to everyone.

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