“Frontline” re-cuts segment with official after complaint from Interior Department

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Frontline has re-cut a broadcast interview with an administration official in which one of his responses was used to answer a different question. Every reporter and editor knows that shouldn’t be done, writes PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler. “That’s just fundamental journalistic ethics,” he notes.

Both the broadcast and transcript versions of Frontline’s interview with Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, David J. Hayes are online in the latest Ombudsman Column.

After the show on the BP oil disaster, The Spill, ran on Oct. 26, Matt Lee-Ashley, communications director at Interior, complained to Frontline. An excerpt: “The version of the Frontline piece that appeared last night does not accurately reflect the transcript of the interview. Specifically, the piece substitutes one of David Hayes’s answers for a different answer to a different question. The result of the editing is to make David Hayes appear evasive and as if he is passing the buck. This is an entirely unfair and inaccurate characterization of the Department’s position and David Hayes’ answer.” 

Getler writes that Frontline Senior Editor Ken Dornstein “at first, had strongly defended Frontline in an initial response on Oct. 29 to Lee-Ashley’s charges.” But then on Tuesday (Nov. 2) she wrote to Lee-Ashley: “At issue here, we believe, is whether Frontline fairly and accurately represented the views of Deputy Secretary Hayes and the Department of Interior. We maintain that we did. However, in carefully reviewing the editing decisions in this case again, we have now concluded that using the second answer from later in the interview was not consistent with our past practices. So, even if the result was fair to Secretary Hayes, it’s not a precedent we want to set. We are going to re-cut this exchange to restore Hayes’ original answer to [producer/reporter Martin] Smith’s question. We will post this version on our web site, along with an editor’s note, and include it in all future broadcasts.”