‘Power Trip’ with George Stephanopolous is an ineffective CNN+-like show hiding out on Hulu
September 25th saw the premiere of the new George Stephanopolous docuseries Power Trip on Hulu. George Stephanopolous is a veteran ABC reporter (and former highly partisan Democratic political consultant) who we best know for his long-running work on the Sunday politics talk show This Week and the morning news program Good Morning America. The whole concept of George Stephanopolous productions might sound a bit absurd, given the fantastic failure of CNN+ earlier this year to leverage a serious streaming presence based on the popularity of political reporters.
But the quieter, steadier success of George Stephanopolous making exclusive shows for Hulu demonstrates the hubris of CNN+ in a lot of ways. A George Stephanopolous-branded news documentary is the kind of thing that a person is more likely to watch on a streaming service they already subscribe to then something they’d deliberately seek out a new one for.
Power Trip is, despite the deliberate George Stephanopolous branding, and frequent George Stephanopolous appearances, actually a subtle, concerted attempt to get away from the cult of personality style news coverage that has come to plague politics coverage in general. The term Power Trip refers to those who chase power- literally. Power Trip centers around various junior embed reporters whose job is basically to follow around major political figures in the weeks leading up to the midterms and just observe what they’re doing and why.
The editorial slant on Power Trip is, as is usual for neutral reporting, thoroughly obfuscated. The reporters refuse to express clear opinions on anything, and try to get other people to express those opinions for them, to varying success. Because the big news story at the time of filming was Florida governor Ron DeSantis sending Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, that’s the main thing we see. The embed reporter is the son of professionals, and has a Harry Potter book in his hotel room.
He asks DeSantis at a rally whether DeSantis’s people misled Venezuelan migrants with false promises into agreeing to get on the plane. DeSantis says no before running off, this not being a press conference. In one of the few genuinely interesting style flourishes in Power Trip, we see both the actual ABC News footage of the denial taken by the embed reporter, but also the wider Power Trip footage where the journalist himself is clearly visible.
Meanwhile, in Houston, another embed reporter covers the issue from another angle–Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar’s promise to investigate DeSantis for breaking the law in giving these migrants false promises. A native Spanish speaker raised in Philadelphia, this embed reporter also speaks to various Venezuelan migrants who Republicans approached for the scheme. None of them seem to have any real idea what was going on, they just know that operatives promised them jobs and a better way of life in exchange for agreeing to the plan. Ironically they might not be wrong, considering that the only reason we’re discussing the issue at all is because of DeSantis.
This is a common theme in Florida, Texas, and Arizona for this episode. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the entire story is political theater. Republicans sympathetic with DeSantis think this is justifiable, as he’s making an important rhetorical point about how blue states don’t want to deal with migrants either. The political enemies of DeSantis allege that the Venezuelans are human beings and don’t deserve this kind of treatment. Both arguments come off as correct, mostly because neither one really addresses the other.
Despite Power Trip being premised in part on showing the positive human face of reporters on the job at the news cycle, events as they play out are weirdly nihilistic. The degree to which the Martha’s Vineyard story has aged in only two weeks has only magnified the farce. The extremely neutral framing doesn’t help matters, making the young reporters seem hopelessly aloof despite all efforts on their part to persuade the viewer otherwise.
The sheer overbearing presence of George Stephanopolous is also a problem. In a late section quite off-brand from the rest of the episode, George Stephanopolous has a long talk with Nancy Pelosi which is framed by the knowledge that George Stephanopolous and Nancy Pelosi have known each other for a long time and have a good working relationship. This doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence that George Stephanopolous will call out Nancy Pelosi for wrongdoing. And indeed, when Nancy Pelosi gives a very canned, very useless answer on the question of whether Democrats will win the midterm elections, there’s no pushback from George Stephanopolous.
Another problem with the reporter-centric premise is that it completely crowds out any discussion of why the Venezuelan migrants are even here in the first place, which would seem to be a pretty crucial component to understanding what either party intends to do beyond mere politicking to solve the problem. But Power Trip, much like the mainstream style news reporting it tries to act as apologism for, validates the tone and process of journalism over any actual material aims. That might be enough for the George Stephanopolous fans who make up enough of Hulu’s subscriber base to justify the continued release of his shows, but Power Trip isn’t likely to impress anyone else.