CPB will have not just one but two longtime journalists as ombudsmen, the corporation announced April 5.
Ken Bode, former host of the PBS staple Washington Week in Review, and William Schulz, retired executive editor of Reader’s Digest, will monitor public broadcasting content and serve as liaisons for complaints.
Appointed for two-year terms, they will cover journalistic programming whether CPB puts money into it or not, but Chairman Ken Tomlinson, formerly a longtime colleague of Schulz’s at Reader’s Digest, told Current they won’t weigh in on entertainment and educational programs — the Buster lesbian-mommies flap, for example.
The ombudsmen will initiate their own reports and consider concerns raised by the public and government officials. They will decide which broadcasts or complaints to discuss and post their reports on CPB.org.
“This gives people a place to go without affecting the journalism . . . when we’ve had complaints in the past, we had no way of dealing with them,” Tomlinson added.
Does CPB have a credibility issue? He replies: “All of journalism struggles with balance and objectivity concerns.”
The ombudsmen will not engage in “prebroadcast censorship,” Tomlinson said, and their findings will not result in “postbroadcast penalties of public broadcasters.”
CPB President Kathleen Cox presented the ombudsmen as “a tested and reliable way” to oversee public stations, as the Public Broadcasting Act requires. The law directs CPB to “protect the production of public broadcasting from undue interference,” she said, and “ensure that it represents high standards in accuracy, balance and objectivity.”
CPB has tried other oversight mechanisms — taking testimony in open forums, commissioning essays and operating a phone hotline.
When Cox first mentioned the ombudsman plan at a House hearing in February, legislators were more concerned with perceived imbalances — several accused NPR of bias against Israel in Middle East coverage — than with heading off undue interference.
Pubcasting takes heat from the right for perceived liberal bias while the left complains that Journal Editorial Report and the soon-to-end Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered pander to conservatives.
Bode reported for NBC and CNN and later served as dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, but most pubcasters probably remember him as moderator of WETA’s Washington Week in Review from 1994 until 1999, when he was fired. He is now a visiting journalism professor at Depauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
Schulz worked nearly 40 years with Reader’s Digest and was its Washington bureau chief for many years. He and Tomlinson joined the bureau in the late 1960s and advanced to top jobs, Tomlinson retiring as editor in chief in 1996.
Ombudsmen generally are hired by news media that have final responsibility for programming, while CPB is neither a producer nor broadcaster.
Critics found the distinction important. “CPB should stay away from programming decisions; they should remind Congress that their role is supposed to protect public broadcasting from political pressure,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the progressive Center for Digital Democracy.
CPB spokeswoman Jean Bunton said the appointments are of a piece with CPB’s past efforts to strengthen public responsiveness and accountability. It has backed Best Practices in Journalism workshops and the updated pubradio ethics guidebook Independence and Integrity II. “Promoting public discourse is the key to this,” Bunton said.
CPB chose to have two ombudsmen so that it can encourage more “healthy discussion,” Tomlinson said. NPR has had an ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, since 2000, and the PBS editorial review committee may suggest that the pubTV network hire one, PBS spokeswoman Jan McNamara told Current.
Said Tomlinson: “The more we have, the better.”