Ombudsman seeks details on WAMU ‘meet the producers’ event

CPB ombudsman Joel Kaplan has urged WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., to release more information about a gathering of major donors and station journalists that prompted the Feb. 22 resignation of WAMU News Director Jim Asendio. The “Meet the Producers Breakfast” featured a panel discussion among WAMU reporters and producers for an audience of about 30 donors who had recently increased their annual contributions to at least $1,000. Asendio said he resigned because he believed the event had breached an ethical firewall insulating station journalists from funders. In Kaplan’s comments, posted March 2 on CPB.org, the ombudsman did not explicitly condemn the event but wrote that the issue “goes to the heart of the station’s ethics.”

“The public deserves more from WAMU,” Kaplan wrote.

CPB charters a single ombudsman

CPB’s website, as of February 2013, carries this document, “Revised February 1, 2011,” redefining the assignment of its ombudsman. Kenneth Tomlinson, past chair of the CPB Board, had prompted controversy by hiring two ombudsmen in April 2005. Charter Establishing the CPB Office of the Ombudsman

The founders of public broadcasting saw a clear need for a “system-wide process of exerting upward pressure on standards of taste and performance.” (The 1967 Carnegie Commission Report, p.36) In addition, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was expected to become the “center of leadership” with a “primary mission…to extend and improve . . .

William Schulz and Ken Bode, CPB's dual-track ombudsmen

The ombuddies: Minor attention to balance

Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz found fault with much of former Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s balance crusade, but his report did validate the creation of CPB’s ombudsmen, the corporation’s stated tool for dealing with audience concerns about program balance and objectivity. While Konz criticized the unilateral manner in which Tomlinson selected veteran journalists Ken Bode and William Schulz, he concluded that “by expanding the public’s ability to have issues of objectivity and balance addressed,” the addition of ombudsmen was “consistent with” CPB’s responsibilities (separate story). “The legislative statute requires that public broadcasting be objective and balanced,” Chair Cheryl Halpern told reporters in September. “The ombudsmen were put in place to [help] CPB function within the constraints of the legislation.” But more than six months after CPB engaged Bode and Schulz to assess program balance and objectivity and handle complaints, they have seldom written on these issues in general terms and not once have they responded to audience concerns about the balance and objectivity of specific programs.

When CPB set the ombudsmen to work, Tomlinson told Current they would review news content, but many of their reports have focused on cultural documentaries that aren’t particularly journalistic, such as No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest of Sounds, and The Appalachians. CPB posts their reports on CPB.org [URL updated].