As CPB watches, PBS panel debates balance policy

Should net adjust its balance or is that submitting to bias?

Warnings that CPB is imposing conservative objectives on PBS were sounded not only in press reports last month but also from two members of an advisory committee to the network.

Carl Stern and Marvin Kalb, two prominent TV journalists on PBS's Editorial Standards Review Committee, said CPB's push for ideological balance already has compromised PBS's editorial integrity.

By distributing weekly series showcasing conservative opinion-makers — specifically Journal Editorial Report — PBS is choosing programs "on the basis of their bias," said panelist Stern, a veteran NBC reporter who teaches journalism ethics at George Washington University.

"It has perverted the standards under which the public expects programs on the Public Broadcasting Service to be selected," Stern said. Most other panel members did not appear to be swayed by Stern's urgings that the guidelines expressly prohibit PBS from selecting producers on the basis of ideology.

The panel reviewed but did not oppose a CPB contract that renews $22.5 million a year for PBS's National Program Service while requiring for the first time that the network submit its editorial guidelines to CPB for comment and review.

In the two-year NPS contract, "PBS agrees that investments of CPB funds in programs of a controversial nature shall meet the statutory objectivity and balance goal, and PBS will be adopting guidelines and standards that give meaning to that," said Steve Altman, CPB's v.p. of business affairs.

CPB President Kathleen Cox signed the contract before her ouster on April 8. PBS Chief Operating Officer Wayne Godwin signed for the network.

The contract would extend to PBS language similar to the congressional mandate that requires CPB to foster objectivity and balance in controversial programs.

Both Stern and former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center for the People and the Press, pressed PBS executives to explain why they added CPB-backed series featuring the Wall Street Journal's editorial board and conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. While PBS executives described the series as broadening the range of views found on PBS, neither panel member was satisfied by the explanation.

With public curiosity and concern aroused by CPB's April 5 announcement of ombudsmen to review programs and the unexpected departure of Cox three days later, speculation about the corporation's ideological agenda for PBS returned to the press last month.

The left pushed back last week. Media reform allies Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America cited public TV's financial woes and ideological factors in PBS program decisions in calling for a series of local town meetings on its future (see story above). Common Cause President Chellie Pingree questioned the CPB Board's commitment to protecting public broadcasting from editorial interference in an April 28 letter to CPB Board members.

The fervent disputes make the advisory committee's meetings much livelier than an overdue update of dusty pre-Internet guidelines — the routine assignment PBS pictured when it announced the panel appointments in February.

The committee includes six additional journalists and three station executives who appear to accept PBS's rationale for adding series with conservative hosts. During an April 18 working session in downtown Washington, the majority did not go along with Stern's recommendations to end the practice of choosing programs on the basis of viewpoints. As the committee reviewed each section of its working draft, Stern repeatedly recommended editing out references to balance.

"'Balance' is a code word meaning, "I want my point of view on the air,'" Stern said.

But other panelists saw risks in removing the word. "If you take it out, there's a danger of people saying, "They're no longer looking for balance,'" said John Siegenthaler of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. "I think there's a disadvantage."

"It becomes more of a provocation to drop some of these things," said Jennifer Lawson, a former PBS and CPB executive who is now g.m. of WHUT in Washington.

"If we feel in the pit our stomachs that something is wrong, then we have a responsibility to say so," Kalb said. He asked how PBS can present Journal Editorial Report without disclosing that it was chosen for its conservatism rather than its merits.

Putting balance in the contract

During the standards panel meeting April 18, PBS Associate General Counsel Paul Greco outlined the terms of the new NPS funding contract that PBS leaders worried would lead to governmental interference in program funding decisions.

The contract required that PBS update its editorial guidelines and submit them to CPB for comment and approval. CPB also added language from the Public Broadcasting Act that requires CPB to assure "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs . . . of a controversial nature."

"There were great difficulties in that negotiation," Greco said. "Our standards incorporate journalistic approaches to objectivity and balance," but CPB wanted to apply legal standards in the contract, he said.

The risk in accepting the language was that "PBS in program decisions cannot rely on our own standards but has to look to this external one," Greco said.

"Until this point CPB has always been willing to accept our standards as being appropriate standards," Godwin said.

"What's most important to us is that we underscore that these are PBS's standards of performance," he said. "We will obligate ourselves to be guided by and live by our standards, and CPB can decide whether they wish to accept them."

CPB views the new provisions as an appropriate means of meeting its obligations to assure balance and objectivity in the programs that it funds, said Altman.

Altman denied reports that the contract requires balance within every program.

During contract negotiations, CPB recommended that the PBS guidelines recognize that standards for balance and objectivity can vary among different categories of programs, Altman said. For point-of-view programs, CPB hopes for language asserting that competing views will not be belittled or misrepresented. For news programs, CPB suggested that competing "mainstream" views be presented.

"I want to emphasize that this was a very productive conversation, and we have every indication that PBS was comfortable with what we were discussing," Altman said.

CPB management, not its politically appointed board of directors, decided to add the language so that terms of the PBS contract would be consistent with those required of other producers receiving CPB funds, Altman said.

The corporation's requirement that it review PBS's new standards is no different than what CPB required for Independence and Integrity II, a 2003-04 project to update public radio's journalistic ethics guidebook, according to a CPB spokeswoman.

"We think it's appropriate for us to read a document like this and give PBS our thoughts," Altman said. "I have every expectation that we will be approving it."

Godwin also expressed a willingness to put past differences aside. "We feel that what will come out of our process is something that any reasonable individual would see as reasonable, appropriate standards," said Godwin, referring to the work of the Editorial Standards Review Committee. "The people involved are credible and this will be work that CPB will accept."

After reviewing a working draft April 18, members of the committee are circulating revisions among themselves. They plan to write a report to accompany the final document, which PBS hopes to present to its board during meetings June 13-14. Committee members with dissenting views can contribute separate commentaries.

Stern doesn't see any great appetite among committee members to address the basic flaws that he identified in PBS's program standards.

"I can't say this is the greatest peril for PBS, but certainly for someone like me who deals with journalistic ethics and standards . . . I can't think of a larger issue for the committee to deal with, but if we've been put to the test, we've flunked."

Web page posted May 5, 2005
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CPB's hiring of two ombudsmen elicits mixed reactions from pubcasters and other ombuds (5/2/05).

Events at CPB stir fears among lefties and inspire skeptical media reports (5/2/05).


PBS announced in early February the formation and first meeting of its Editorial Standards Review Committee.