George Stephanopoulos believes journalists should always be ready to seize the moment. He put that idea to the test on a recent Thursday, surprising a student journalist with a call from his personal cell phone just 56 minutes after the reporter sent an interview request.
Stephanopoulos is the anchor of This Week and Good Morning America for ABC News, where he has worked since 1997. Prior to that, he freelanced for the nonprofit news organization Christian Science Monitor and served as White House communications director during the Clinton administration. In this interview, Stephanopoulos shared his unique path to the news industry and gave advice on purposeful communication.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in the news industry?
I took an unusual path into this industry. [When] I first started journalism in college, I worked in my college radio station as a sportscaster. I did play-by-play for baseball and soccer. [Later] in graduate school, I did some freelance jobs for Christian Science Monitor and ended up getting hooked up with CBS Television, helping them do documentaries. But the first part of my career was actually in politics. I worked for the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1987 and 88. I went back to work for Dick Gephardt in Congress. And then, of course, I worked for Bill Clinton. I didn’t get back into journalism until I left the administration after the first term in 1997, when I joined ABC News as a political analyst and contributor.
How did you transition from covering political news to becoming the anchor for GMA?
I started out as an analyst at ABC News, [it] gave me the opportunity to learn how to become a reporter and anchor. I would do stories for the weekend news and I would fill in on the overnight shifts and anchoring and learn how to do it. [In 2002] I became This Week anchor, I did that till 2009 when ABC asked me to take over as anchor of Good Morning America. [This] was not something I was eager to do at first, I actually said no [to it] three times. But I ended up deciding it was the right thing for me to do and my family was okay moving to New York and I realized it would be a different challenge. And I’ve been there ever since.
Could you elaborate more on the different challenges?
[For starters] it’s two hours of live television every day versus once a week, [and] it’s not just politics. It was all kinds of different stories. You’ve got human interest, consumer, entertainment and the challenge [to me] was learning how to be myself and be authoritative as I dealt with a wider range of subject matters.
How does your background covering politics prepare you for the transition?
What would always help me is that I always had a base of expertise to fall back on. My home base was [covering] politics, political analysis, and political news, and from the security of that home base, I was able to stretch [out to] cover other topics.
Could you walk me through your preparation for the interview and how you build an interrelationship with your interviewee?
A lot of it depends on what the interview [is] about and who the subject is. [When you] handle an interview with a politician who you’re trying to hold accountable or someone who’s in the news like Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX, you’re going to challenge them in a different way than interviewing [ a] mother [who recently] lost their child. [The] context and the subject matters [in a situation like this]. When I [interview] the president of the United States, I’m going to do a lot of research, [try to] know everything that he has said about the subject at hand. And then I’m going to work with my researchers, coming up with an outline and thinking through what are the two or three most important things I need to get out of the interview and [focus] on those.
In your masterclass, you talk about your interview with former President Trump in his Oval Office. It wasn’t something part of your plan, how did you recognize the moment and how do you capitalize on it?
It was instinct and preparation. Luckily I’ve been in the Oval Office many times before because I worked for the president, so I wasn’t as intimidated as others might be. But also, I realized that he was going off script, so I knew that I had to adjust as well. Take the shot there to get the answers that I needed to get and he was willing to go down that path [with me]. And, [that] wasn’t even the main interview where we made all the news. But by seizing that moment, I was able to reveal something about the president and his plans.
How do you set your own opinion aside when pursuing a story?
What I would do in those moments is to illuminate the issue for the viewers and let them make up their own minds. As for doing that, I never do anything or I would try never to do anything that would run against my beliefs or my values. But I think there’s nothing wrong with asking the questions [that need] to be asked. Even tough ones to people that I generally agree with.
What do you think of my interview with you?
I like that you are prepared. I kind of surprised you with the call you weren’t expecting at the moment, but you were ready to go. I think that’s the sign of [being] a good journalist. You’re always ready and you seize the moment.
More about these From the Classroom submissions:
Students in an intro to reporting and writing course interviewed working journalists and asked their career advice and how they got their start. It’s a rare assignment where they were allowed to have just one source in the story or Q&A. Read more work “From the Classroom” here.