Annual Report on Objectivity and Balance: 2012
January 1, 2013
My first full calendar year as CPB ombudsman has been 2012. My charge as the ombudsman is to listen to complaints from the general public; from public officials; and from employees of the public broadcasting system throughout the United States. Where appropriate, I investigate and opine on the validity of those complaints and post my reports on the CPB website. During 2012 I posted 26 such reports.
Another role of the CPB ombudsman is to enforce standards of objectivity and balance by calling attention to those instances where public broadcasting failed in its statutory obligation.
Section 396(g)(1)(A) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, authorizes CPB to "facilitate the full development of public telecommunications in which programs of high quality, diversity, creativity, excellence, and innovation, which are obtained from diverse sources, will be made available to public telecommunications entities, with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature".
In his 2005 report, the Inspector General was critical of CPB and its then chair, Kenneth Tomlinson, for how he dealt with issues of objectivity and balance, and CPB, for its lack of definitive policies and procedures in which to review programs for objectivity and balance. As a result, one of the IG's recommendations is to "establish formal policies and procedures for conducting regular reviews of national programming for objectivity and balance. This policy should be developed in conjunction with all significant stakeholders in the public broadcasting community to ensure transparency and agreement on the criteria to be used to evaluate objectivity and balance."
CPB took a number of steps to address these recommendations, including bringing together a roundtable of journalism deans and commissioning several white papers to address issues of objectivity and balance.
The most recent step was revising the charter for establishing the Office of the Ombudsman in early 2011 and appointing me to that position in June 2011. One of my tasks, under the charter, is to annually prepare a written review of CPB-funded programming "for its objectivity, balance, fairness, accuracy and transparency."
This report will focus on that task. It should be noted that my role as CPB ombudsman has been to concentrate on concerns and complaints throughout the public broadcasting system. NPR has its own ombudsman—Edward Schumacher-Matos and PBS has its own ombudsman—Michael Getler.
When complaints and concerns come to the CPB ombudsman that deal with issues and programming at PBS or NPR, those are sent on to the ombudsmen for those entities. I have read all the reports written by both Mr. Schumacher-Matos and Mr. Getler for 2012, many of which also dealt with issues of objectivity and balance and so their findings will also be included in this report.
Of my 26 reports, about half dealt in some way, shape or form with issues of objectivity and balance. The two complaints during the calendar that generated the most heat in terms of objectivity and balance were news reports both broadcast on the NewsHour. One of those reports involved global warming and the other involved coverage of the Palestinian missiles striking Israel and the subsequent Israeli incursion into Gaza. Mr. Getler also wrote about both these issues since the NewsHour is a PBS program.
The gist of the complaint involving the global warming report is that the NewsHour should not have given substantial airtime to global warming denier Anthony Watts. In this case, the NewsHour was being criticized for actually providing balance in its report. Since the report dealt with the issue of global warming, the NewsHour felt an obligation to give airtime to those who didn't believe in the phenomenon.
But those criticizing the NewsHour said such "balance" was really a false equivalence. They said that since the consensus of the scientific community is overwhelmingly in support of global warming then giving equal treatment to deniers is misplaced.
As one viewer wrote:
"The NewsHour interview on September 17, 2012 on with climate denier Anthony Watts was irresponsible.
"The most prestigious scientific bodies in the world have all issued public statements that global warming is real and is caused mainly by human beings, including the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, China, India, and Russia.
"According to a peer reviewed analysis of the published peer reviewed scientific literature 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC [Anthropogenic Climate Change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"Since 'journalistic balance' is the overarching principle that you are guided by, then I expect that the interview with the denier Anthony Watts will be followed by 97 interviews with actual climate scientists who hold the consensus view that is grounded in evidence; namely, that warming is real and is caused mainly by human beings."
Mr. Getler, in his report on the program, had this to say:
"Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.
"What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and (NewsHour correspondent Spencer) Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide 'balance.' I had never heard of Watts before this program and I'm sure most viewers don't, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.
"I'm not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist."
NewsHour's Nov. 22 report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip generated the most complaints this year about what critics see as an anti-Israeli bias in public broadcasting. This is a recurring theme, particularly involving NPR, with pro-Israel media monitors continuously pointing out flaws and lack of balance in Middle East coverage.
In terms of the Nov. 22 report, those critics appear to have a valid point. That report showed scenes of death and destruction from Gaza, but the report from Tel Aviv showed a normal day in Israel, leaving the impression that only the residents of Gaza had suffered from the conflict.
Taken by itself, the Nov. 22 report failed in its attempt at objectivity and balance.
However, as Mr. Getler points out in his report on the issue, any assessment of objectivity and balance should not focus in on one specific report, but should look at the overall coverage of an issue:
"Because I also watch the NewsHour almost every night and I had seen earlier segments on the fighting, including reports from Israel of the threat from and damage by rockets launched from Gaza, and a lengthy interview with the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, among other clips presenting the Israeli view. I've made the point many times that news programs need to be judged on a continuum of coverage rather than on any one segment which self-interest groups can use as a hammer to try and make a larger point."
Still, public broadcasting should be cognizant of the fact that some viewers do not have the luxury of seeing all such coverage and should be made aware by reference to previous stories posted on its website that other reports do exist.
During 2012, Mr. Schumacher-Matos issued 92 reports posted on the NPR.org websites, including several which he called "Open Forums." Many of his posts deal with the specific issues of objectivity and balance. Here are a few examples:
- Mr. Schumacher-Matos investigated a complaint in mid-December that there were too many Republican voices when it came to a discussion of the fiscal cliff. In his report on the matter, Mr. Schumacher-Matos also pointed out that while complaints of liberal bias by NPR seems to be the status quo; he actually receives as many—or more—complaints from liberals claiming a conservative bias on NPR. In terms of the fiscal cliff complaint, of the 239 "voices" heard in news stories, interviews and discussions between Nov. 7th and Dec. 6th, 94 of those voices were clearly Republican, 77 were clearly Democratic and 68 were classified as others. Despite more Republican voices, Mr. Schumacher-Matos was not prepared to say that coverage of the issue was unbalanced. It would be interesting to see how those numbers changed as Jan. 1st approached.
- During the 2012 presidential campaign, a number of news organizations employed "fact checkers," staffers responsible for checking the assertions of the candidates. NPR was one of those news organizations and its fact checking was cited by several listeners as being unfair and biased for concluding that Gov. Romney made more false statements than President Obama. Mr. Schumacher-Matos decided to fact check the fact checkers following the three presidential debates and the single vice-presidential debate. He concluded that the NPR fact checkers called out the Republicans for being incorrect by a score of 24-14 over the two Democrats. But he also concluded that, "The numbers by themselves don't mean much. What is important is that the NPR fact checkers were remarkably right, all criticisms to the contrary."
- In the spring, President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. Following that endorsement, NPR ran 38 reports about the subject over the next eight days. While each story included an acknowledgement of both sides of the issues, 34 of those interviewed supported gay marriage, 22 opposed and five were uncommitted. Mr. Schumacher-Matos said that in the future, more opposition voices should be brought into the discussion.
Besides his reports mentioned above concerning the NewsHour, during 2012, Michael Getler issued 44 reports posted on the PBS.org website, including several that he called Mailbag. Like the NPR ombudsman and the CPB ombudsman, many of Mr. Getler's reports deal with issues of objectivity and balance. Here are some examples:
- PBS broadcast a show called Race 2012. In a complaint to the CPB ombudsman, one observer called it "tilted left and aggressively anti-conservative." Mr. Getler said the program also drew sharp criticism from John Ziegler, a documentary filmmaker who was interviewed for the program but was unhappy with how his remarks were used, saying that the film was "done almost completely from the perspective of liberal people of color." Mr. Getler disagreed with that critique. He said that he found the film "as more complex, candid and balanced than he gives it credit." However, he adds that the program was missing "more of a 'white' voice in the production:
"But what seemed absent was at least some visual/vocal presence reflecting the millions of whites in this country that do not live in gated, white enclaves and who have not fled the cities and who are okay with and absorb the country's growing diversity. In other words, millions who live among, work among — and, in some cases, for — people of different races and ethnicities; who go to school with, play sports with, are friends with, and sometimes marry. It seems incomplete to experience the enormous diversity in America and not acknowledge that whatever prejudices and retreat-into-comfort-groups exist — and it is not just whites who do this — there are millions, including people of all political persuasions and certainly the younger generations, for whom a huge and natural transition has taken or is taking place."
- The NewsHour tried to be balanced on the issue of welfare reform by hosting two sides of the issue: Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official. Judy Woodruff signed off on the report by saying, "Clearly two very different perspectives, but we have learned something from listening to both of you." But many viewers disagreed with Ms. Woodruff's assessment and were particularly upset at her failure to challenge some of the statements her guests made. Others criticized Ms. Woodruff for not knowing enough about the topic. In response, Ms. Woodruff said that she planned the segment as a nine-minute debate on the issue. "It would take far longer than nine minutes to provide the level of detail that clarifies each disputed allegation," she says.
- In an email to the CPB ombudsman that was passed on to Mr. Getler, a viewer in Texas was upset that the host of "To the Contrary", Bonnie Erbe, is anti-immigrant when it comes to her programs on immigration. Mr. Getler concludes that the dominant tone in the program was anti-immigration and that there was not much to the other side.
Besides the reports on global warming and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I also dealt with several local issues involving objectivity and balance:
- A complaint involving KUOW in Seattle about a report on limited service pregnancy centers. The report ultimately became an issue before the Washington News Council, which ruled that KUOW's report was not balanced because it had not contacted representatives of the Vitae Foundation before it ran its story. The use of the Washington News Council to arbitrate issues of objectivity and balance could be a model that CPB may want to consider at the national level perhaps by helping to establish a national public media news council.
- The executive director of KVNF radio in Western Colorado was accused of being biased because she took a leave of absence to run a local Democratic candidate campaign for state senate. While I concluded that the station manager did not do anything wrong because she received approval for her leave of absence, I did point out the importance of public broadcasting stations to adopt and subscribe to a code of ethics (see below).
The above report indicates that while public broadcasting has not been perfect during 2012 when it comes to the issue of objectivity and balance, it does take its obligation seriously. One example of that is its continuing employment of ombudsmen to investigate and report about these issues.
A second example is the decision by public broadcasters to enact codes of editorial integrity. Earlier this year, the Editorial Integrity for Public Media Project has finalized its report, which has been endorsed by the Station Resource Group and the public television Affinity Group Coalition. This 18-page code deals with important issues like transparent fundraising; employee activities; and preventing undue influence. In particular, the code directly addresses issues of objectivity and balance. For example:
"Whenever feasible we attribute the sources of our information. We resist anonymity, especially with respect to opinion, speculation, or personal attacks, and permit it only if we are without other means to gather compelling, verifiable information.
"We place the facts we report in context. In our coverage of politics and controversial topics, we emphasize not only accuracy and full attribution, but also an impartial, non-partisan approach and attention to competing views.
We welcome comments and corrections. If we receive additional facts that add to the precision of what we present, we are committed to timely modifications or corrections.
We present a full range of views on controversial subjects - sometimes in a single story and sometimes over the course of a series of programs or set of commentaries presented in a timely fashion."
During 2012, NPR also unveiled its new 72-page ethics code handbook, which deals directly with issues of accuracy, fairness, independence, impartiality and transparency.
While 2012 was a highly charged, highly partisan election year, public broadcasting acquitted itself well when it came down to reporting on many of the important issues of the year. Most importantly, public broadcasters were made aware through viewer email and ombudsmen reports when their reports did not live up to public expectations and they were willing to respond to such criticism and, where appropriate, make changes.
Contact the CPB Ombudsman
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
401 Ninth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
The views expressed in these reports are solely those of the author and are not to be regarded as those of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, its board of directors, officers, or employees.