• Public media’s coverage of the conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip has some audience members questioning news outlets’ objectivity. Last week, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler and NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos published a total of three blog posts about coverage of the battle between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, rounding up complaints from readers with diverging criticisms.
Getler focused on the PBS NewsHour’s coverage of the conflict in his two reports. In the first, he fielded complaints about the show’s selection of guests and its usage of the term “occupied.” The second column concerned Gwen Ifill’s interview with a UNICEF specialist regarding civilian casualties in Gaza, which Getler said prompted more mail than any segment since the conflict started. Schumacher-Matos took a broader view of NPR’s reporting on Gaza within Morning Edition, All Things Considered and newscasts, touching on subjects such as guest selection and the religious affiliations of the network’s on-the-ground reporters.
NPR has stepped back from plans to curtail its ombudsman’s duties after receiving criticism from journalists and leaders of its member stations. The blowback began with a blog post by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who pointed out Monday that a job posting for NPR’s next ombudsman specified that the in-house watchdog should refrain from “commentary” and “judgment.” Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s current ombudsman, will end his three-year term in September. Rosen saw the change in language as an effort to defang the ombudsman, which he argued would remove a valuable check on NPR’s reporting. Some station leaders noted Rosen’s post and shared his concerns.
An award-winning 2011 NPR investigative series about Native American children in South Dakota’s foster-care system was seriously flawed and should not have aired, according to an 80-page report written by NPR’s ombudsman.
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’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 . . .
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. “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. Of the nine reports filed by the part-time monitors since April 26, three praised public TV docs, two were on NPR news reports from Iraq (Bode did note that the reports “gave a nuanced and balanced view”), one lauded Mississippi PTV for covering a high-profile trial, and one was an “ombudsman operating manual.”
The remaining two mentioned audience concerns about balance issues but only one — Bode’s Sept.
Are CPB’s new ombudsmen promoters of healthy journalistic discussion or unwelcome monitors now peering over reporters’ shoulders? It depends whom you ask. As longtime journalists Ken Bode and William Schulz last week issued their first reports, observers both inside and outside public broadcasting questioned their appointments. CPB officials, among others in the system, said public broadcasting will benefit from the new oversight. Bode’s and Schulz’s first missives had only minor quibbles with recent NPR reports on Iraq.
Jim Lehrer, co-founder and host of PBS’s NewsHour, spoke April 12, 2005, at the PBS Showcase meeting in Las Vegas, where he accepted the PBS Be More Award. At one point, he refers to CPB’s appointment of a pair of ombudsmen, announced a week earlier. Thank you. It is always a pleasure to be among the professionals who make up my public television family, and have done so for more than 30 years. There are indeed many familiar friendly faces in this room, but few that would have been in a comparable place when I began my life in public television.