PBS Creates Ombudsman Post

Jun 14, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Giving the public another venue in which to beef about programming on public television, the Public Broadcasting Service announced Tuesday that it is creating an ombudsman position. At the same time, PBS announced the publication of a new set of detailed editorial standards and policies that are intended to put the public on notice on how PBS programming decisions are made.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels federal funds to public broadcasting stations, recently announced that it had hired ombudsmen of its own-and critics have been blasting CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s efforts to ensure that PBS programming is objective and balanced, saying those efforts are part of a thinly disguised campaign to make PBS programming more amenable to Republican concerns.

In an interview, Jacoba Atlas, PBS senior VP of programming, said the upgrades of PBS’s standards, which have been in place since 1987, and the plan to hire an ombudsman were in the works long before the current controversy with CPB made headlines.

“PBS has been contemplating adding an ombudsman to the PBS staff for quite some time,” said Pat Mitchell, PBS president and CEO, in a statement. But Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said PBS is clearly trying to erect a “heat shield” from political pressure. “This is designed to resist the direct editorial control over programming that CPB is seeking,” Mr. Chester said. The PBS ombudsman, who has yet to be hired, will report to Ms. Mitchell, the PBS statement said.

Among other things, the new editorial principles call for statements of opinion, points of view and commentary to be “appropriately identified,” and for the identification of all sources of program funding.

“PBS may reject a program or other content if PBS believes that it contains any unfair or misleading presentation of facts, including inaccurate statements of material fact, undocumented statements of fact that appear questionable on their face, misleading juxtapositions, misrepresentations, or distortions,” say the new PBS guidelines, which have been published in full on the PBS Web site at pbs.org/aboutpbs/aboutpbs_standards.html.

The move comes in the wake of a vote by the House appropriations subcommittee to slash federal funding for public broadcasting from $400 million to $300 million next year and to eliminate a $23 million program that provides funding for children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards From Buster.”