Escape the Echo Chamber

ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos laments the growth of partisan media and urges more critical consumption of news
George Stephanopoulos at Tufts University
“I think it is harder to get people to believe in basic facts in a world where no one has to have their views challenged,” George Stephanopoulos said at a talk at Tufts University. Photo: Matthew Healey
April 10, 2015

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Who can you trust in today’s 24/7, multiplatform world of news? You’ve got to trust yourself, George Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief anchor, advised the more than 300 people who attended the 10th annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism on April 8 at Tufts.

“And that means going across the universe of news sources and being willing to sample news and information from many different kinds of sites, whether it’s Colbert or Fox News or ABC or the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report—I think you have to sample everything, and then put it together yourself in order to get a really coherent view of the world,” he said.

The Murrow Forum is sponsored by Tufts’ Communications and Media Studies Program at the School of Arts and Sciences, the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School and Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Previous forum speakers include Ariana Huffington, Christiane Amanpour, Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews.

Stephanopoulos answered questions from moderator Jonathan Tisch, A76, co-chair of Tufts’ Board of Trustees, co-chair of Loews Corporation and chair of Loews Hotels and Resorts, about the changing news media environment and its impact on American life and politics.

After working on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign starting in 1991, Stephanopoulos went on to serve the Clinton White House as senior advisor for policy and strategy before joining ABC News in 1997. He traced one cause for the nation’s political stalemates today to a media environment that delivers news through niche channels.

“The gridlock in Washington is caused by a lot of long-term trends—a polarization of not just politics, but of our lives, really,” he said. “There have been a lot of studies that show people tend to move to areas where they are more likely to be surrounded by people who agree with them”—and this is certainly true when people go online, he said.

He sees niche news channels as part of the same pattern. “One of the things you lose when you don’t have big networks that have very broad audiences and a commitment to speak to those broad audiences is a lack of exposure to all sides of an issue. Instead you have niche media speaking to specific audiences,” he said.

Now, he argued, many people tune to news sources that they agree with—and get a dangerously one-sided view of the world. “I think it is harder to get people to believe in basic facts in a world where no one has to have their views challenged,” he said. He pointed to a 2013  poll of Republican voters that showed more than half believed Barack Obama was not born in the United States, even though his birthplace had been established as a fact.

Stephanopoulos is also troubled by another polarizing force—the new ability of  political campaigns to know “literally house-by-house what people care about, what’s going to move them about an issue.” Candidates tailor their messages to fit those views, which encourages rigidity in political thinking and action, he said. And he noted that today’s wide array of news sources, ranging from print to broadcast to digital, also requires more of politicians who want to get their message out.

“Everything is mass and everything is niche,” he said. “You never know which interview, Buzzfeed or ABC News or 60 Minutes . . . is the one that’s going to pop, and everyone is going to see it within 10 minutes. You can’t count on any one place to get your message out, so politicians have to be much more flexible in how they use the media.”

Falling in Love with Politics

In his junior year of college, Stephanopoulos went to Washington, D.C., for the first time as an intern for his local Ohio congressman, and he fell in love with politics. “I was completely taken with it—the issues and the atmosphere,” he said. “It was the first time I was in a place where everyone was talking and caring about the same things.”

He went on to work for what turned out to be the losing presidential campaign of then Massachsuetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. “I moved to Boston on the day that Dukakis was 17 points up, and it looked like he would just walk into the White House. Important lesson learned,” Stephanopoulos said.

His next presidential campaign with Bill Clinton in 1991 fared better. “When we started in a small paint store in Little Rock, I wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort,” he said.  “I had no concept of what it would become. Clinton was a once-in-a-century political talent.”

And what is his opinion on how Hillary Clinton should approach her presidential run should she announce? “Hillary will have to win her campaign on her own—using Bill Clinton would just be a distraction,” Stephanopoulos said. “She has to convince people not only that she has experience, but that she has a vision for the future—that is her biggest challenge going forward.”

After Stephanopoulos made the switch from politics to journalism, he never looked back. Today, in addition to being ABC News’ chief anchor, he is anchor of Good Morning America and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. His political experience, he said, has made him a better journalist.

“Because I worked on Capitol Hill, on campaigns and in the White House, I had a pretty good idea of the rhythm of decision-making—when issues come to the fore, what the dimensions of issues are, when they reach a crisis point—and also familiarity with the issues,” he said. “It also gave me a lot of empathy for people who work in politics and government, and a little more understanding about the kind of pressures they face.”

Journalism’s future is strong, he said, as it adapts to new technologies and culture changes. “Journalism today has to be delivered over many, many different platforms in real time, but we still need journalism to understand our world,” he said. “We need people to go out and dig up stories and ask tough questions and provide the context and analysis and get it out there. How it gets out there has changed, but why it is there has not.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.