Michael Getler, a longtime journalist and PBS’ first ombudsman, died Thursday at a hospice in Washington, D.C. He was 82.
His wife Sandra said Getler died from complications from bile-duct cancer. “His illness was mercifully brief,” PBS President Paula Kerger said in an email to GMs Thursday.
Getler’s appointment in 2005 was part of a push by PBS to reinforce editorial standards after several controversies over content. He served in the position until his retirement in 2017.
In his role at PBS, Getler was the first ombudsman at a national television network, the Washington Post reported when he was hired.
Getler was “fully committed to the integrity of our work,” Kerger said. “I applauded his efforts to keep us focused on all that contributes to building the trust that the American public places in public television.”
“He had such high expectations for us and saw public television as critical to an informed citizenry,” Kerger added. “Indeed, we were all the better for his careful scrutiny.”
During his tenure, his columns often focused on complaints he received about PBS NewsHour coverage. “If he thought a particular viewer’s criticism of a segment had merit, he always sought our response before publishing it, and then accurately reported the entire exchange,” said Linda Winslow, who led NewsHour from 1983 through 2014. “Knowing Mike had his eye on us kept the entire NewsHour staff on its toes.”
“I think Mike played a very important role at PBS,” Winslow said. “Given the loosely connected nature of public broadcasting, he provided a link between viewers and program producers and helped to foster direct communication between them.”
Frontline was another frequent subject of Getler’s columns; he referred to the program as “PBS’s venerable and, in my view, indispensable, weekly investigative and documentary series.”
“Mike demonstrated the best of the relationship between editors and ombudsmen: He was tough and fair-minded, didn’t let us off easy or pull his punches, and we were the better for it,” said Frontline Managing Editor Andrew Metz. “We are lucky to have had such a consummate professional look over our shoulders and question what we publish.”
“He’d tell us now and again, in his straightforward way, ‘We disagree,’ which made it all the more meaningful when he said, ‘You folks are, routinely, the best television has to offer,’” Metz said.
Before arriving at PBS, Getler had a long career in journalism, including serving as ombudsman at the Washington Post. He joined the Post in 1970 as military affairs correspondent and worked his way up to deputy managing editor. From 1996 through 2000 Getler was executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, jointly owned by the Post and the New York Times.
He was born Nov. 13, 1935, in New York City and graduated with a bachelor’s degree from City College of New York. Getler served in the Naval Reserve from 1956–60.
Survivors include his wife; children Belinda and Warren Getler; four grandchildren; and a sister.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. April 13 at the Newseum in Washington.
Friends and colleagues may leave messages online.
Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the incorrect year for Getler’s retirement from PBS. He retired in 2017, not 2016.
This post has been updated with information about Getler’s memorial service.