CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Conservative Bias at WRKF?

Joel Kaplan

July 3, 2013

For my third and final annual report on objectivity and balance for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I have examined the past year's reports filed by the ombudsmen for CPB, NPR and PBS.

During the past year, the CPB ombudsman has filed 27 reports; the NPR ombudsman has written 16 reports as well as posting monthly open forums.

The PBS ombudsman has written 38 reports.

Of the 27 reports filed by the CPB ombudsman, very few dealt with issues of objectivity and balance. Most, in fact, dealt with issues of transparency.

This report is part of the requirement established when the most recent Office of the Ombudsman was created in 2011, which requires that an annual report reviewing CPB-funded programming for "its objectivity, balance, fairness, accuracy and transparency."

Under Section 396(g)(1)(A) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, CPB is authorized 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".

Among the issues that the CPB ombudsman addressed this year:

  • Allegations of conflicts of interest at KNAU and plagiarism at KUNM
  • Allegations of censorship involving Code Switch, the NPR project that reports on race, culture and ethnicity.
  • Questions about whether David Koch, co-owner of Koch Industries has improperly influenced public media, particularly its programming involving climate change
  • Whether the takeover of Georgia State University's public radio station (WRAS) by Georgia Public Radio violated the independence and integrity of one of the country's best college radio stations
  • Whether public media effectively covered such controversial issues as Obamacare, the Red Cross' handling of the Hurricane Sandy disaster, and the Tea Party.

Among the issued faced by the NPR ombudsman this past year were:

  • Whether NPR journalists should continue to refer to the Washington's NFL franchise as the Redskins. Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition, refused to identify the team as such, but NPR as a news organization decided to continue to use the Redskins name.
  • The decision by NPR to discontinue its show, Tell Me More. The show dealt with important issues of diversity, but NPR chose to shut it down because of its relatively small audience and the show lost money.
  • An ethics controversy about whether NPR journalists should express their personal views in tweets. Specifically the discussion centered on whether it staffers retweet another's tweet it should be considered an endorsement of the original tweet. NPR's Standards and Practices editor says such retweeting should be considered endorsements and NPR journalists should not retweet any information they would not put on the air or in a traditional online news story.
  • Whether Weekend Edition host Scott Simon's interview with Bill Cosby was appropriate since he asked the comedian about the sordid allegations relating to assault. It was the first time Mr. Cosby was publicly asked about the assault allegations, though he did not answer the question.
  • Whether a story on All Things Considered about El Salvador's restrict anti-abortion laws used poor examples in an attempt to politicize that country's abortion politics.

Finally, among the issues addressed by the PBS ombudsman were:

  • Whether PBS should consistently disclose that one of its contributors on the PBS NewsHour, New York Times columnist David Brooks, has a son that volunteered to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
  • Whether PBS intentionally pulled its advertisement from Harper's Magazine after the magazine ran an essay critical of PBS.
  • Whether the POV documentary "After Tiller" about late-term abortions and the assassination of Dr. George Tiller contained enough opposing viewpoints.
  • Whether Frontline's investigative report, "Losing Iraq" was fair to the Obama administration and its role and tactics.

One major development concerning objectivity and balance that occurred at the beginning of 2014 was the decision by NPR to discontinue its quarterly review of its coverage of Israel and the Palestinians. Those independent reviews, conducted by John Felton for the previous 11 years, went a long way in helping insure that NPR's coverage of the various conflicts in the Middle East kept to objectivity and balance standards.

The decision by NPR to discontinue this review was made partly as a cost-savings measure but also, management said, because the number of complaints about the coverage has declined recently. But I think that was a mistake. One of the reasons the number of complaints declined is probably because of the reviews themselves.

And it would be foolish to believe that coverage of these issues will subside, as we have recently seen with the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appear before Congress over the objections of the Obama administration.

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