CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Mitt Romney and Public Media

Joel Kaplan

October 19, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made it clear that he is against continuing taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting. Whether such subsidies continue is a political question that does not relate to the type of complaints on objectivity and balance that the ombudsman is charged with handling.

What does relate, however, is whether public media is skewing its coverage of the presidential campaign because of Mr. Romney's position on public broadcasting's federal subsidy. Thus, in the remaining two weeks of the campaign, there is a heightened sensitivity to allegations of political bias.

One such observation came from David Griswold, a listener of Washington's WAMU public radio station:

"I was troubled by the political agenda exhibited by the program Studio 360 in the interview with Oskar Eustis," Mr. Griswold writes. "Mr. Eustis was invited to imagine a hypothetical Romney presidency and was allowed to characterize it as a 'Romney nightmare' with the interviewer's implicit agreement. No attempt was made to distance the interviewer or the program from this political opinion. Mr. Eustis is certainly entitled to his negative view of a Romney administration (I might even agree with him) but the impression conveyed was that his view is accepted as a given by the program. Radio moments like this just reinforce conservative hostility to public broadcasting as a liberal echo chamber."

Mr. Eustis is the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York. Kurt Andersen, the host of Studio 360, is a well-regarded journalist and author. While Mr. Griswold heard Studio 360 on WAMU, it is actually produced by Public Radio International (PRI) and WNYC.

In response to Mr. Griswold's complaint, Mr. Andersen had this to say:

"My question was born of my (as it turns out, correct) assumption that Eustis would regard Romney's election as a bad thing, and my curiosity about whether political circumstances that he (and probably most artists) would view negatively might have the effect of inspiring interesting art," Mr. Andersen said. "In other words, my question was about the hypothetically positive effects on art of Romney's election. My response to Eustis was 'That's what I'd thought you say,' which I thought did indeed suggest a certain distance and even skepticism rather than any explicit or even implicit endorsement.

"Additionally, Studio 360 is a show consisting of all kinds of opinions and conversations."

Mr. Andersen's response makes sense but it is also easy to see why a supporter of Mr. Romney might be taken aback from the exchange. Here is the transcript of the segment.

Caryn Mathes, the station manger for WAMU, said that she has listened to the segment maybe 10 times and "in my opinion, Kurt Andersen, the host at no point agreed with Oskar Eustis, implicitly or otherwise. He pressed Eustis repeatedly to move from the position that loss of government subsidy is always bad and eventually he got the guest to concede to that point. He acknowledged that the guest had a well-established point of view and was in a certain camp because when Eustis first said, 'I can't imagine an overall positive effect on a Romney presidency,' Kurt said, 'Well I figured you'd say that.' So, acknowledging that his guest is in a certain point of view or camp. The overarching thing is that when a guest is appearing on a program, it is widely accepted that the opinions they're expressing are their own. And you don't see explicit distancing from points of view because that isn't required. What's required of the host is robust questioning and countering. You know, posing questions and asking the guests to respond. And I think that was certainly present in this instance by Kurt Andersen."

Asked if WAMU has received other complaints from conservatives accusing the station and public broadcasting of being a "liberal echo chamber," Ms. Mathes said this:

"Just as many people that complain we're partisan liberal also complain that we're partisan conservative. And I think that's a reflection of the current state of affairs where what people generally say that they want balance, that's not what they're asking for, they want blackout. They want blackout of any opinion with which they don't agree. So when they hear the opposite side, their reaction is, 'Oh that's too much and that shouldn't be on.' But when they hear something that they do agree with, they're very happy. So this is a trend that's been developing for decades. I think you need to closely examine when someone is waving the balance flag a lot of times it's really that they don't feel that an opposing point of view ought to have any space at all."

Ms. Mathes adds that WAMU offers "truth-based, accurate, balanced, comprehensive information," which includes "a balanced, broad-ranging array of ideas and perspectives."

Mr. Griswold said he appreciated both Mr. Andersen's and Ms. Mathes' comments on the segment and that the exchange was helpful.

In the meantime, the ombudsman has also received other complaints about what they see as the politicization of Sesame Street and Big Bird in the ongoing presidential debates over whether public broadcasting should continue to receive a taxpayer subsidy.

My colleague, Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, addressed some of the fallout from that controversy here.

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