With conflicts over bias in programs spinning off into a full-fledged funding crisis for public broadcasting, PBS did a delicate two-step June 14  when its board of directors approved an update of the editorial policy it has followed since 1987.
PBS leaders talked up the central conclusion of the panel of journalists and PBS Board members who reviewed the old policy — that editorial standards adopted nearly two decades ago were “well-reasoned and clear” — but they also sought to demonstrate that transparency and responsiveness to public criticism will be PBS’s modus operandi.
President Pat Mitchell announced she will appoint an ombudsman to respond to viewer complaints and queries, an idea endorsed by the Editorial Standards Review Committee (story below). The committee also called on the PBS Board to “state its intention to preserve the pre-eminence” of the PBS standards as the “constitutional document” governing its editorial decisions.
PBS program decisions have come under increasing scrutiny this year with controversies over the depiction of lesbian mommies in a children’s series and perceived biases in public affairs series helmed by PBS veteran Bill Moyers (who retired in December), conservative pundit Tucker Carlson (recently departed for MSNBC), and Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot (whose weekly series is struggling to gain carriage on big-city stations). As the committee that revised the editorial policy asked tough questions about PBS decisions on its public affairs programs, the controversy over political balance in its lineup gained an unexpected momentum from CPB, which appointed a pair of ombudsmen in the same week that President Kathleen Cox resigned, and in Congress, where House appropriators proposed deep cuts to several pubcasting programs. The PBS Board approved the new editorial policy unanimously and forwarded the standards to CPB. Under terms of a two-year program contract recently renegotiated with PBS, CPB made next year’s $22.5 million National Program Service production grant contingent on CPB’s acceptance of the guidelines. CPB aims to review the guidelines by Sept. 30, according to Eben Peck, spokesman.
Mitchell, who has criticized CPB Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson for injecting politics into pubcasting program decisions, downplayed the conflict at the PBS Board meeting. To ensure that producers understand the policies and use them to guide their work, PBS will seek CPB funding for seminars on the new standards.
Clarify reporters’ who and how
In its five-month examination of the PBS guidelines and editorial issues facing the network, the committee decided to emphasize the principles of transparency in editorial decisions and responsiveness to the public. “An editorial organization that fails to interact with the public will be perceived as arrogant and will tend to become isolated,” the committee warned in a report explaining the policy changes. The committee advised PBS that hiring an ombudsman would help prevent that from happening.
“PBS is, in fact, going to hire an ombudsman,” Mitchell told the board. PBS began researching how ombudsmen work at other media organizations a year ago and has already developed a job description, she said. “We felt our audience would be better served if they had another mechanism by which they can communicate with us.”
The review of PBS’s editorial standards has proven that they “still reflect the best practices in the broadcasting business,” Mitchell said. Adherence to the policy over so many years has “led us to the position of the highest trust of any news organization,” she said.
Most of PBS’s policy changes were in four areas: applying editorial standards for its TV programs to content in other formats, including PBS.org; requiring PBS and producers to respond to and interact with the public; updating PBS’s standard for journalistic objectivity to emphasize transparency and require labeling of commentary; and describing CPB’s role among the various entities involved in national programming.
The Editorial Standards Review substantially revised PBS’s definition of objectivity. The old policy defined it too narrowly to mean neutrality, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who led the review. “This was not consistent with the rest of the policy and the standard in the minds of working journalists,” he said at the board meeting.
The policy now says objectivity is served by clarifying for viewers how producers do their work, develop analytical reports and arrive at conclusions. Reporters are asked to begin their journalistic inquiries with an open mind and not with the intent of presenting a “predetermined point of view,” the policy says. They must also achieve “a certain level of transparency” so that viewers can understand “the basics of how producers put the material together,” including who their sources are and the potential biases of those sources.
The PBS Board’s Content Policy Committee will take up other recommendations
of the editorial review panel: that PBS establish a process for regularly
reviewing editorial policies, that the board formally recognize the pre-eminence
of the PBS standards and that PBS publicize its guidelines within the system
and to the public.
Panel wants one, even though CPB has two
Originally published in Current, June 13, 2005
By Karen Everhart
The panel charged with updating PBS’s editorial standards will recommend that PBS appoint an ombudsman to respond to criticism of its programs.
PBS execs welcomed the idea, among other policies endorsed last week by the PBS Editorial Standards Review Committee. The network declined to release the text of the proposal until after the PBS Board considers it this week.
The committee didn’t discuss whether PBS is a more appropriate perch for an ombudsman than CPB, the funding agency that named two longtime journalists as ombudsmen in April. An ombudsman appointment at PBS would help fulfill the committee’s overall recommendation that the network find ways to be more responsive to the public and transparent in editorial decision-making.
“It is absolutely imperative that the ombudsman have total independence, and we would support that,” said Jacoba Atlas, PBS co-chief programming executive, during a May 27 report to the committee. Atlas proposed that the ombudsman report to the PBS president without intervention by board or staff.
Although the decision to hire an ombudsman rests with the PBS president, the recommendation adds credence to an expansion of PBS’s editorial authority that will surely feed the controversy over political interference in public TV’s program decision-making.
PBS convened the committee in February to review and update program policies that have not been substantially revised since 1987. Seven prominent journalists and three station managers from the PBS Board met monthly for briefings on editorial issues confronting PBS — addressing mundane logo policies as well as volatile questions about political bias in programs. After several drafts, the committee adopted unanimously its recommendations June 6, sending it to the PBS Board for a vote June 14.
CPB’s view of the guidelines may carry some weight with PBS: Under a new contract with the network, next year’s $22.5 million CPB grant aiding the PBS National Program Service rides on the corporation’s acceptance of the new policy.
PBS still has many issues to work through before hiring an ombudsman, such as how to disseminate findings and how this new appointee would relate to its far-flung producers. Unlike NPR, which has had an ombudsman since 2000, PBS doesn’t have a staff of journalists and producers, though it does distribute and help pay for programs.
Producers “still get a check from us and it comes with a contractual obligation,” PBS President Pat Mitchell told the committee. “They’re required to adhere to the guidelines that this committee has just reviewed and if we set up an office of an ombudsman it will require them to cooperate fully.” PBS also must reassure producers that the ombudsman will not evaluate programs until after broadcast, she said.
With the two ombudsmen that CPB installed in April—appointments that pubcasters, the media and some members of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen criticized as politically motivated—the potential exists for dueling ombudsmen between two national organizations already engaged in a tense stand-off (Current, May 2, May 16).
In discussing their PBS ombudsman recommendation during a May 27 meeting, committee members were mindful of political sensitivities. “I don’t think we should tie this to CPB at all,” said panel member and former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, a D.C.-based professor for the Missouri School of Journalism.
“I echo that,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who led the committee’s review. An ombudsman will help PBS be more responsive to the public and transparent in its editorial decisions, he said. “This creates a logical mechanism to respond when questions are raised” about PBS programs.
The committee added one caveat to its recommendation on the ombudsman—that PBS ensure that he or she have enough independence to pursue inquiries and report findings without interference.
“I think that PBS viewers will benefit from having someone who is their agent,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR ombudsman. “I frequently hear from PBS viewers, and this would relieve me of forwarding e-mail to PBS’s audience services people.”
Dvorkin receives a steady flow of comments from confused PBS viewers. “It usually has to do with something on the NewsHour or Frontline,” he said. “The NewsHour attracts the most attention.”
Labels on commentaries
After reviewing existing PBS guidelines, the committee concluded in March that policies would need revisions to deal with contemporary standards of objectivity and the many ways the network now delivers content.
“Objectivity is used as a synonym for neutrality here, and that’s not what any of us have as a modern definition,” Rosenstiel said in March, pointing to old guidelines. “My suggestion is to introduce the notion of transparency . . . that making work transparent is essential for objectivity.”
The committee defined transparency as letting “viewers know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” explained Carl Stern, a former NBC reporter who teaches journalism ethics at George Washington University, in an interview.
As the committee reworked the policy—and asked PBS execs more questions about how the network acquired CPB-backed programs starring the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and conservative pundit Tucker Carlson—the panel split over how far it should go to fortify PBS’s program policies against political pressures.
Stern and Marvin Kalb, a former CBS correspondent and senior fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, repeatedly criticized PBS’s decision to distribute Journal Editorial Report, the public affairs series that CPB Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson promoted as the conservatives’ answer to the liberalism he saw in Now with Bill Moyers. Both TV veterans said airing the show compromises PBS’s editorial integrity because it emphasizes conservative ideology over open-minded journalistic inquiry.
In an April meeting, Stern pressed for policies to bar PBS from accepting programs “on the basis of their bias.” But other committee members rejected his proposals. Last week’s proposed policy addresses his concern by requiring a “commentary” label on programs with a fixed viewpoint.
“I was persuaded by others on the committee and the PBS staff that words like ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ are part of our charter and are going to have to stay,” Stern told Current last week. “Even though I’d expressed the concern that balance is being used to foist viewpoint-specific programming on public TV, I was persuaded that the best we could do is to require programs that have an ideological mission and are not genuine open-minded inquiries to be identified as opinion.”
“Carl and I felt this would go a long way to alleviate some of the pressures that were there,” Rosenstiel said when explaining the new wording May 27. “If something is clearly labeled as commentary, audiences in print and on television are less likely to be bothered by that because they know this is clearly someone’s opinion.”
But the wording alarmed media watchdogs from the left who attended the May committee meeting. “I’m concerned that the paragraph suggests that the analysis that journalists do, after they do research and develop their thesis, somehow may be required to be labeled as commentary,” said audience member Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Rosenstiel pointed to a proposed guideline: “Any content segment that presents only like-minded views without offering contrasting viewpoints should be considered commentary.” This, he said, is a “fairly operational way” of dealing with the issue.
Even with the proposed labeling requirement, Stern was not quite satisfied the committee had done all it could to protect PBS. He tried again June 6 to change a policy that lets PBS programmers seek balance by judging a program’s internal balance on a subject or its contribution to balance in the overall schedule.
“That’s the lever with which the flat-Earth people are going to insist that you present their viewpoint,” Stern said.
“My reaction is tactical—if it ain’t broke, don’t tinker too much,” Rosenstiel said in the meeting.
After debating the wording for 10 minutes, and hearing from Mitchell and former PBS chief programmer Jennifer Lawson about how the principle applies in program decisions, the committee agreed on minor edits.
The final policy applies the revised standards to PBS content on all platforms. It also includes new sections on responsiveness to the public and CPB’s role and responsibilities among the various players in national programming.
For Immediate release
June 14, 2005
Stephanie Aaronson, 703-739-5074, email@example.com
Jan McNamara, 703-739-5028, firstname.lastname@example.org
PBS ADOPTS UPDATED EDITORIAL STANDARDS FOR ON-AIR AND ONLINE CONTENT
CEO PAT MITCHELL ANNOUNCES PBS WILL HIRE OMBUDSMAN
ALEXANDRIA, VA - June 14, 2005 - Today the PBS Board voted to adopt an updated set of Editorial Standards and Policies that will guide PBS’ programming and content development decisions. In a separate action, PBS CEO and President Pat Mitchell announced that PBS management has decided to add an ombudsman position to the PBS staff. The ombudsman will report directly to Ms. Mitchell. A search has not yet begun and details of the process are to be announced in the future.
The updated standards and policies are the product of more than a year of careful evaluation by PBS, including the creation in Fall 2004 of a committee of national experts for the purpose of conducting a formal review of PBS’ content policies. This assessment included a thorough examination of the standards and codes of many media and journalistic organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the Poynter Institute of Media Studies, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, among others. The panel met in a series of open meetings from February to June 2005. The policies were made available to the public today and are currently posted on pbs.org (at pbs.org/aboutpbs/aboutpbs_standards.html).
“More than a year ago, we set out to assemble a committee with the knowledge and experience necessary for this endeavor and equal to the enormity of the task,” said PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell. “We were so fortunate to have a panel of such outstanding experts rise to this challenge. The committee members gave unselfishly of their time and exceptional talent to help us secure the course for PBS programming in the 21st century.”
“PBS has been contemplating adding an ombudsman to the PBS staff for quite some time,” continued Pat Mitchell. “We are delighted to have our thoughts about the value of such an addition seconded by this distinguished committee. Our goal is to provide a public way for us to listen to our viewers. The ombudsman will have a free hand to determine what he or she examines.”
The updated policies do not represent a significant departure from those PBS has used since 1987. In its report to the Board, the committee members stated, “After completing its review, the Committee concludes that PBS’ [original] Program Policies are well-reasoned and clear, articulate enduring principles that encourage high-quality content and a wide range of information, opinion, and artistic expression, and embody high journalistic standards. To reflect that sentiment, the Committee determined during its deliberations that the Policies need only minimal changes and should be altered only as necessary to reflect evolving technology and journalistic norms.”
Most of the changes made to the policies were done to make them more relevant in a multi-platform media environment where the public obtains information from a diverse range of sources that include not simply television and radio, but also Web sites, blogs and online journals, among many others.
Included with the updated standards is a set of findings and recommendations, the latter of which will be reviewed by the Content Policy Committee of the PBS Board and PBS management for consideration.
The Editorial Standards Review Committee team of experts included:
The committee also included distinguished public television leaders from the PBS Board, including:
Note: Alberto Ibargüen, Publisher of the Miami Herald, served as the initial chair of the Committee until his resignation as Chairman of the PBS Board following his selection as President of the Knight Foundation. PBS is a grant recipient of the Knight Foundation.
posted June 16, 2005, updated Oct. 5, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee