CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WAMC Revisited

Joel Kaplan

September 19, 2013

WAMC's Alan Chartock certainly has his critics. He's been called autocratic and attacked for using Albany, N.Y.'s public radio station to further his liberal political agenda.

Early in my tenure as ombudsman, I received a complaint about how Mr. Chartock parlays his position as president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio to become a liberal political power broker.

Since then I have received periodic complaints about Mr. Chartock and WAMC, the latest from Arnold Finkelstein, who says he has been an occasional engineer for NPR for more than 20 years, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. He said he has been listening to WAMC for just over two years.

"I have found myself increasingly concerned about a consistent political bias that, through some of its programming and an oft-articulated editorial stance, places it far left of NPR and the member stations I've listened to," Mr. Finkelstein says.

Mr. Finkelstein complaint primarily centers around Mr. Chartock, "who is a consistent on-air presence at WAMC and who is proudly vocal about his political views."

But while Mr. Chartock has his critics, he also has some powerful and impressive supporters. In response to Mr. Finkelstein's complaint, Selma Kaplan (no relation), the vice president of WAMC provided the ombudsman with several letters of support from a local congressman to a journalism professor at SUNY Albany to the chairwoman of the WAMC board of directors.

"Mr. Finkelstein's complaint is based on several misunderstandings," said a letter from Thomas Bass, a professor of English and Journalism at SUNY Albany. "WAMC is scrupulous about presenting the news as accurately as possible.

"The goal is not to be 'left' or right.' Nor is it to be 'balanced.' The goal is to be fair to the truth, which includes the use of verifiable and well-sourced information, transparency about the sources of this information, and other best practices in journalism. As a long-time journalist and journalism professor, I would give WAMC an 'A' for the fairness of its news coverage."

While Professor Bass quotes the NPR ethics handbook as saying that journalists should not report or produce stories that create the appearance of balance but to seek the truth, he is wrong when he says the goal of public media is not to be balanced. In fact, public media have a statutory obligation to be objective and balanced that other media outlets do not face. The NPR handbook deals with creating an appearance of balance when one doesn't really exist. This also goes to the heart of Mr. Finkelstein's complaint:

I have heard him (Dr. Chartock) present his own political opinions so often, and occasionally when the context of the program or discussion wouldn't necessarily recommend doing so, that I have wondered if it was a kind of compulsion. Moreover, his occasional on-air references to a kind of embattled position and his detractors, whom he acknowledges accuse him of a lack of balance, suggest a kind of self-conscious defiance.

A defiant tone may be well founded because there is no ombudsman at WAMC and Dr. Chartock is the President, CEO and a member of the board. I contacted WAMC in January 2013 to voice my concerns but was unable to properly do so because I was told (in an email correspondence with someone named Selma) that there was no one at WAMC who was not subordinate to Dr. Chartock.

As my concerns grew, I learned that it was reported in 2005 that similar criticisms had been made (by, it was reported, an NPR producer) and Dr. Chartock responded that WAMC has "as many conservative commentators on the air as liberal ones."

Whether keeping book on liberal and conservative commentators is a useful measure is for someone smarter than me to decide, and any observation of mine is, of course, anecdotal, but I can remember hearing only one conservative voice in the two years I've listened. It was a local Republican politician Dr. Chartock was interviewing and I remember the occasion because I was struck by Dr. Chartock's personal disavowals of the guest's politics during the interview, and how inappropriate that seemed. I have heard interviews with liberal/Democratic figures on WAMC many, many times.

WAMC is a popular, listener-supported station and I would not argue that its listeners should not influence its programming, despite my personal dismay at what I feel is a needless lack of professionalism and perspective, primarily from Dr. Chartock. That I generally share Dr. Chartock's politics does not, in my opinion, make overt editorializing more acceptable.

In response to this complaint, Ms. Kaplan provided the ombudsman with a 9-page letter signed by Anne Erickson, the chair of the WAMC board. It was followed by more than 20 pages of attachments that included a list of WAMC commentators, several commentaries from Herbert London, a conservative who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and several emails WAMC received in reaction to those commentaries from listeners who criticized the station for allowing extreme conservative activists to come on the air.

Here is what Anne Erickson, chair of the WAMC Board of Trustees had to say about Mr. Finkelstein's complaint:

As Chair of the WAMC Board of Trustees, I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the comments that Mr. Arnold Finkelstein addressed to the Ombudsman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I think it is necessary to address two assertions made by Mr. Finkelstein — that there is no one at WAMC who is not subordinate to Dr. Alan Chartock, the station's CEO, and that there is a consistent political bias (to the left) in the station's programming. Both of these assertions are not true.

With respect to the first point, let me assure you that the WAMC Board of Trustees is fully in control of the station. The Board and its Executive Committee (which meets monthly) exercise continuing oversight of the station's personnel, operations and activities. Oversight is accomplished through regular reporting, periodic reviews by independent experts (such as auditors) and virtually constant contact with the station's management. We investigate and take action on matters coming to our attention that require Board action or intervention.

The Board has appointed Dr. Chartock to his position as CEO of WAMC and he serves in that position at the pleasure of the Board.

Mr. Finkelstein first approached WAMC in January of this year. He sought to direct comments about WAMC's programming and Dr. Chartock's on-air role to a WAMC "ombudsman" or someone else who was not subordinate to Dr. Chartock. WAMC does not have an ombudsman, nor are we aware of any persons serving in that role at other public radio stations. However, our then-Vice President, Selma Kaplan, who handles email inquiries to the station, immediately assured him that she would share any comments he wished to make directly with the Board. Mr. Finkelstein declined the opportunity to provide his comments to the Board, apparently choosing instead to send complaints about the station to a variety of other parties, including the CPB Ombudsman. His false assertion to CPB that "…there was no one at WAMC who was not subordinate to Dr. Chartock" was obviously an excuse to avoid engaging constructively with the station about his concerns. He was offered the opportunity to have his comments directed to the Board, and he decided not to do so.

Had Mr. Finkelstein done so, we would have given full and appropriate consideration to his complaint about our programming and our management, and we would have responded to him in due course.

That said, having now reviewed his complaint, we believe that WAMC programming does not have a consistent political bias as he asserts, and we do not believe that the on-air role of Dr. Chartock is inappropriate, journalistically unsound or otherwise not in the interest of the station or our devoted, enthusiastic and supportive audience.

The station has previously provided information to the CPB Ombudsman about Dr. Chartock's qualifications for and activities in connection with an on-air role at the station, some of which information was summarized in Mr. Kaplan's report "Dialing for Radio Dollars" dated November 21, 2011. Although much of the factual information provided by WAMC was correctly stated, we found objectionable Mr. Kaplan's conclusions in that report — including that (1) the president of a radio station should not express his opinions on air, and (2) even though Dr. Chartock is "an able and successful public radio station president" and "a knowledgeable and insightful radio station host," he should not be both. We believe that while these conclusions may reflect Mr. Kaplan's personal opinions, they have no basis that we can discern in established journalistic ethics or good journalistic practice. Our views are confirmed by the support of practicing journalists who, as shown below, support WAMC's programming balance and Dr. Chartock's role as a commentator on the station. We hope that if any report is issued by the Ombudsman in response to Mr. Finkelstein's complaint, that report will focus on WAMC's programming service and whether it reflects objectivity and balance. We are confident it does.

On that issue, WAMC absolutely provides objectivity and balance in its programming. This is demonstrated by the level of community support for the station and scores of awards from organizations such as the Associated Press, the New York State Broadcasters Association, and the Edward R. Murrow Awards, as detailed below. It is also shown by the support the station receives from people across the political spectrum. (Please see appended PDF copies of letters from Frank Raphael, Rep. Chris Gibson, and Prof. Thomas Bass).

Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards

  1. Audio News Documentary: A Conversation with Arlo Guthrie, hosted by Alan Chartock and produced by Ian Pickus
  2. Audio Newscast: Northeast Report: Obama's Inauguration, produced by the WAMC News Department.

New York State Broadcasters Awards: 47th Annual Awards for Excellence in Broadcasting.

  1. Best Individual Public Affairs Program or Series: Bullying Series
  2. Best Feature Story: Lucas Willard on Neil Lerner's Video Game Sound

Associated Press Awards

  • Special Mention, WAMC, Albany, Northeast Report Late Edition 10/18/12-WAMC News Dept
  • Special Mention, WAMC, Albany, Pearl Harbor Over the Radio-Alan Chartock, David Guistina
  • Special Mention, WAMC, Albany, Dear Bully - A Look at Bullying in America-Pat Bradley, Paul Tuthill, Patrick Donges, Lucas Willard, Dave Lucas, Katie Britton

Communicator Awards

  • Award of Excellence — Alan Chartock for his interview with Sean Lennon on fracking in the Overall Programs category.
  • Award of Distinction - News Department in the Overall News category for its live coverage of Hurricane Sandy the night the storm hit the Northeast.
  • Award of Excellence - Ian Pickus in the Production/Use of Music category for the production of his interview with musician Michael Feinstein.

I could detail literally hundreds of examples of responsible, objective, and balanced journalism that WAMC provides. Here are just a few:

  • WAMC solicits and accepts requests to do commentary from observers across the political spectrum. A list of WAMC's current commentators is attached as Attachment A. Perhaps the single most controversial set of opinions is offered weekly by Professor Herb London. His conservative credentials include being a state wide Conservative Party candidate for office. Included below are copies of his commentaries as Attachment B and sample copies of some of the hundreds of letters asking us to remove Professor London's commentaries from the air, for being too provocatively conservative. (Attachment C) (My personal view, by the way, is that if WAMC is criticized from both the left and the right, we probably have a pretty good balance. Furthermore, I believe it's important not to confuse debate and controversy with imbalance. WAMC understands that good public radio needs to be thought-provoking, and sometimes it ought to stimulate intense reactions in its audience.)
  • In its broadcast of commentaries, WAMC regularly informs its listeners that the opinions of the commenters (including Dr. Chartock) are their personal opinions, and not the opinions of the station. In addition, in response to Mr. Finkelstein's characterization of Dr. Chartock as a "newsman," Dr. Chartock's on-air role is not as a news journalist, but as a commentator.
  • WAMC maintains a twenty-four hour Listener Comment Line and invites listener reaction to any of our programs. All comments that are appropriate for broadcast are aired weekly, including comments that are unfavorable of the station and its programming and on-air hosts.
  • WAMC does not endorse any candidate.
  • As part of its flagship Roundtable program, WAMC features a Congressional Corner segment. Every Member of Congress and/or United States Senator who represents any geographical area within WAMC's broadcast range is invited to appear and almost always does. Here is the current list:
    • Paul Tonko, NY, D
    • Bill Owens, NY, D
    • Chris Gibson, NY, R
    • Sean Patrick Maloney, NY, D
    • Carolyn Maloney, NY, D
    • Joe Courtney, CT, D
    • Jim McGovern, MA, D
    • Richard Neal, MA, D
    • Bernie Sanders, VT, Ind
    • Peter Welch, VT, D
    • Republican Congresswoman Nan Hayworth was on the Congressional Corner dozens of times during her two-year term and campaign.
    • So was Republican and now-Congressman Richard Hanna, who unseated Democrat Mike Arcuri.
    • During election season, any candidate who wants airtime has received it, Republicans, Democrats, and third party candidates. Each candidate receives an invitation, even if not everyone accepts it.
    • Republican Wendy Long, who ran against Kirsten Gillibrand, was on Capitol Connection twice.
    • In just the last election cycle, WAMC offered lengthy interview slots to Republican Matt Doheny when he was facing Democratic Rep. Bill Owens; Republican Richard Hanna when he was facing then-Democratic Rep. Mike Arcuri; Democrat Julian Schreibman when he was facing Republican Rep. Chris Gibson. During the 2010 New York gubernatorial race, there were three Republican candidates (Rick Lazio, Carl Paladino, Steve Levy), and they all made multiple Capitol Connection appearances. During Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo's tenure, he has not appeared on the Capitol Connection, but the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Minority Leader, both Republicans, have. Some examples of these interviews are posted below:
    • As part of its community service, WAMC has produced and broadcast a series of debates and forums. We are committed to airing all sides of controversial issues. Among the topics we have covered are hydrofracking; safety on Central Avenue in our inner city neighborhood; and a recent mayoral forum on the environment, co-hosted with the New York League of Conservation Voters.

      It is worth noting that in our initial discussions with the League on the structure of the forum on the environment, the League sought to include only the two frontrunners in the race, Kathy Sheehan and Corey Ellis, at the possible expense of excluding the other announced candidates. WAMC insisted that it would be unfair to exclude candidates in July, two months before anyone had voted in a primary or otherwise, just to placate the schedules of the leading candidates.

      In the end, the frontrunners came, but so did other candidates who often struggle to find coverage in these elections — from the far right Conservative candidate Joe Sullivan to independent Democrat Marlon Anderson, on the other side, to long shot libertarian candidate Jesse Calhoun. Only one of six announced candidates did not attend.

    These examples show WAMC's attention to balance and fairness, a philosophy that has guided the station's journalistic efforts since its early days as a community licensee.

In addition, WAMC provided letters from U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, D-N.Y. and Frank Raphael, who has been a journalist for more than 40 years having worked at the NBC Radio Network, the ABC Radio Networks and United Press International.

"As an elected official, I am grateful for the opportunity to address my constituents through WAMC. I as well as my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, have appeared as a frequent guest on WAMC's daily Congressional Corner segment and I am regularly approached by WAMC listeners who hear me on the air," says the letter from Rep. Gibson. "Additionally, during both of my congressional campaigns, my opponents and I were extended invitations to appear on WAMC's airwaves. In my opinion, my opponents and I were treated cordially, fairly and impartially."

Mr. Raphael states in his letter that:

"WAMC provides local news and local coverage that is fair and balanced and of the highest quality.

"The fact that WAMC's chairman, never identified as a journalist, engages in commentary that's pithy and sometimes controversial is a credit to the station. Sadly, when I started out in the radio business, roughly 12,000 stations had departments that offered news and locally crated public affairs programs, as well as well-intentioned commentary. Now that number has dwindled to a few hundred stations of which WAMC is a shining example of commitment to its community.

"To suggest that Dr. Chartock is a one note, left leaning commentator is to suggest that the complainant rarely listens to the station. Dr. Chartock is uniquely qualified to comment on politics; and to suggest that the savage comments he's aimed at our current and former governors could ever be construed as toting the 'leftist' party line is simply ignorant.

"To be clear, WAMC routinely provides balance to its news stories, as appropriate. To suggest otherwise is unfair at best, evil intended at worst."

In Journalism Prof. Bass' letter, he said that while WAMC does present pointed commentaries, it clearly separates commentary from news and allows all politicians airtime to voice their opinions.

"I know that you yourself have weighed in on these issues asking if 'is the best policy for WAMC's president and CEO to use that radio station as forum to voice his personal opinions,' he writes. "The answer is, 'Yes, of course, when his opinions are labeled as opinions.' In my 30 years of listening to the station, I have found it scrupulous in getting its facts straight, scrupulous in distinguishing between news and opinion, and scrupulous in providing an invaluable service to the community. My final grade for WAMC in another 'A.'

Clearly Dr. Chartock and WAMC have been able to assemble a number of supporters to stand behind the man and the station.

Nevertheless, none of these letters of support really address the fundamental complaint of Mr. Finkelstein and others who find the fact that the president and CEO of a public radio station wears his politics on his sleeve and dominates the commentary broadcast by the radio station he runs.

I stand behind my earlier opinion that the head of a public radio station should not use that station as a forum to air his personal views.

My position was confirmed by an unsolicited email I received shortly after I posted the earlier report on WAMC in Nov., 2011. The email came from one of my former students, who had gone to work for the radio station:

I want to thank you for writing the piece. From my vantage point, you are accurate. While I have not directly been put in an ethically compromising position as a result of my CEO's support of OWS (Occupy Wall Street) or Dr. Chartock's opposition to hydrofracking, for another example, it certainly makes me feel like the newsroom's ethics are tested, and I feel rather squeamish about it, and morally compromised as a journalist.

Dr. Chartock's picture is peppered all over the front page of our website and hangs on the walls in the station along with the bobbleheads that graced the Wall Street Journal article. Alan is on the airwaves several hours a week with his one-hour interviews, commentaries and through other programs and segments. When most people think of WAMC, they think of Alan. I tell people in town that I work for WAMC, and many respond with a wry smile and "Oh, Alan..." The notion that he does not speak for the station is incorrect. He is the face, voice and overwhelming viewpoint of the network. I remember from your, and other, classes at SU the notion of "equal time". While we may offer commentaries or "open forums", they certainly do not occupy equal time. And those open forums are often hosted by Dr. Chartock himself.

I will refrain from ranting and wrap it up with this: I love public radio. I have wanted to work in public broadcasting for years and have tremendous respect for the mission and vision it strives for; and the passion and pride many of my peers possess. Dr. Chartock has created a polarizing station that often fights with other member stations, NPR and the CPB and has created a work place of disgruntled, stressed and overworked employees. I try hard to keep up my love of public radio, but WAMC puts it to the test on a regular basis.

About CPB

CPB promotes the growth and development of public media in communities throughout America.

Programs & Projects

CPB awards grants to stations and independent producers to create programs and services.