PBS monitor a hard sell

Pubcaster taps Post's Getler

Another flare-up in the ongoing debate over alleged political bias in pubcasting occurred Wednesday as Public Broadcasting Service announced the appointment of its first ombudsman.

PBS said it has been considering the move for at least a year and is also following a recommendation made last June by a committee of journalists and the appointment of an ombudsman at National Public Radio.

But some see it as caving to pressure from conservatives.

Org announced the hiring of Michael Getler as its first ombudsman. Getler, in the last weeks of his tenure as ombudsman for the Washington Post, begins his new job Nov. 15.

“PBS is a public institution,” prexy Pat Mitchell told Daily Variety. “We get some public money and, gratefully, we enjoy a high position of trust among the public. We want to strengthen that in any way we can.”

Mitchell said she’d spoken about a year ago to NPR topper Kevin Klose, who told her that NPR’s then-recent hiring of an ombudsman had strengthened relations with auds because they felt they had gotten a voice about programming and content.

CBS News, the New York Times and ESPN are some of the news organizations that have created ombudsman positions in the wake of scandal. What makes PBS different is it commissions original programming and distributes it to member stations. It does not create programming itself.

Mitchell noted that a committee of journalists, convened to review PBS’ editorial standards last year, concluded that adding an ombudsman “would be an effective mechanism for implementing the transparency, responsiveness and accountability required of a modern media organization,” according to the committee’s report issued last June.

But Jeff Chester, exec director of the watchdog group Center for Digital Democracy, isn’t buying it. “Ombudsmen serve an important journalistic role,” Chester said in a statement. “But it’s troubling that PBS decided to do this as a consequence of the pressure campaign led by (former Corp. for Public Broadcasting chairman) Ken Tomlinson and the CPB board.”

Tomlinson, who remains on the CPB board, and the newly elected chairwoman, Cheryl Halpern, have criticized PBS, claiming the programming has a liberal bias.

“For Mr. Getler to be successful,” Chester continued, “PBS will … have to stand up to … Halpern — she wishes to continue the effort to force public broadcasting to conform to conservative viewpoints about the role of the press.”

“The atmosphere at CPB undoubtedly contributed to PBS’ decision to hire an ombudsman,” said Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, another watchdog group. “But unlike the CPB, it’s actually appropriate for PBS to have an ombudsman. The example of NPR’s ombudsman suggests that having someone in this position can be positive. Hopefully, Getler will be a constructive critic and not a political hack. His job should be representing viewers, not the views of Tomlinson or Pat Mitchell, for that matter.”

Steve Rendall, senior analyst with the liberal watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, agreed that PBS is responding to criticism from CPB conservatives but added that “an ombudsman might be useful in disproving some charges CPB has leveled against PBS.”

Mitchell denied that PBS is in any way caving into pressure. “I’m not surprised by the charge, but I’m disappointed with it because it’s not based in fact,” she said. “We started looking at this before Mr. Tomlinson made his criticisms known.”

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