Annual Report on Objectivity and Balance: 2013
February 7, 2014
As part of creating the Office of the Ombudsman in 2011, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Board of Directors requires that the ombudsman prepare an annual written review of CPB-funded programming "for its objectivity, balance, fairness, accuracy and transparency."
To compile this review, I have examined the reports written not just by the CPB's ombudsman, but also by the ombudsmen for NPR and PBS. Combined those reports should deal with most of criticisms of the public broadcasting system in the United States during 2013.
NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos deals with issues of objectivity, balance, fairness accuracy and transparency when it comes to programming created and distributed by NPR. Mr. Schumacher-Matos wrote 45 reports during 2013. Those reports include 12 monthly Open Forums, where listeners are invited to discuss media, policy and NPR's journalism.
PBS ombudsman Michael Getler deals with issues of objectivity, balance, fairness and transparency when it comes to programming created and distributed by PBS. Mr. Getler wrote 37 reports during 2013, with12 of them Mailbags where he allowed viewers to vent about a variety of topics on their minds and he occasionally responds.
The CPB ombudsman answers complaints dealing with issues of objectivity, balance, fairness and transparency when it comes to programming created and distributed by the various public television and radio stations across the country. I wrote 28 reports during 2013.
Occasionally there is crossover. For example, two documentaries run by the PBS show POV were seen by many viewers as anti-Israel. Mr. Getler disagreed with that characterization when it came to the first film, The Law in These Parts, but understood the criticism that accompanied the second film, Five Broken Cameras. Here is what Mr. Getler had to say:
It is a very tough, very one-sided portrayal of daily life inside a Palestinian village that is on the frontline of a very controversial Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied West Bank and constructing separation barriers that seal off these villages and portions of their olive groves. This is a documentary, but not like a documentary on PBS's Frontline, for example, where both sides of an issue are explored. That is the strength of this film, because it is rare that American audiences get such an intimate look at what it is for a family and small community to live under and struggle against such conditions. But it also is its weakness because it opens it up to critics who contend — correctly — that a lot is left out.
In an introductory section of the film, the one-time Palestinian farmer, Burnat — who starts out with the first of what becomes five cameras to record the young life of his fourth son and becomes the recorder of seemingly endless conflict that goes on out of sight of much of the world — explains on camera that people "don't know the reality of our life. This is a Palestinian film, a Palestinian documentary … It is my experience, my personal perspective, my point of view."
So in that sense, this is a documentary of a point of view, and that is what POV is supposed to be about. The film was not meant, as the Israeli co-director Davidi says on camera at the outset, as a "competition of who suffers the most."
What's missing from this film is any sense of why Israel builds these barriers and of the terrorist attacks Israel has endured in the past without such barriers. There is nothing about the failures of peace negotiations, or the shortcomings of Palestinian authorities, or insight into the Israeli soldiers who constantly confront the protesting villagers. The most extensive criticism of the film that I saw was in the Algemeiner, which bills itself as the "fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America" and describes the film as a fairy tale.
However, Mr. Getler says the value of the film exceeds the lack of any balance. I also weighed in on the film because of the numerous complaints received at CPB. I was critical of the lack of balance:
To select these two films given the ongoing conflict and controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is only going to provoke those who already feel as though anti-Israel sentiment is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to public broadcasting. There is little to no objectivity and balance in these two films and POV should not be citing a film from three years ago about a Jewish family who travels to China to adopt a child as an example of balance.
One of the most criticized reports this past year dealing with lack of balance was actually a three-part NPR investigative report from back in October 2011 concerning the foster care system for Native American children in South Dakota.
Mr. Schumacher-Matos took the unusual step of re-reporting the story following complaints from South Dakota state officials that the series was inaccurate and misleading. The NPR ombudsman devoted six full reports to the series plus one report compiling the public's response to those reports.
Mr. Schumacher-Matos' findings:
"The series was deeply flawed and should not have been aired as it was. The series committed five sins that violate NPR's code of standards and ethics. They were:
- No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;
- Unfair tone in communicating these unproven allegations;
- Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;
- Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;
- No response from the state on many key points."
And his conclusion:
"And so a major investigative series filled with errors and placed within a myopic framework slipped through the editorial cracks and on to the air and the Web. It even won major prizes. As the Stoics say, things happen. Fortunately for NPR, they rarely happen as badly as they did in the South Dakota series. But bad things will happen again. Reporters and editors are human. No shame in that. Sullivan and the rest of the NPR team have done great work on other stories and surely will continue to do so on more. My hope with this report is to show how and why the bad things happened in this particular series, and to help minimize the chances that they will happen again."
To be sure, NPR disagreed with the ombudsman's findings and stood by its original reporting. NPR agreed that there were some flaws in the reports, but said the reporting was sound. It also criticized the ombudsman in his attempt to re-report the story:
"We find his unprecedented effort to 're-report' parts of the story to be deeply flawed. Despite the report's sweeping claims, the only source that figures in any significant way in the ombudsman's account is a state official whose department activities were the subject of the series. Additionally, the ombudsman's interaction with state officials over the past 22 months has impeded NPR's ability to engage those officials in follow-up reporting. Overall, the process surrounding the ombudsman's inquiry was unorthodox, the sourcing selective, the fact-gathering uneven, and many of the conclusions, in our judgment, subjective or without foundation. For that reason, we've concluded there is little to be gained from a point-by-point response to his claims."
While it is unusual for an ombudsman to re-report a story, it is something that sometimes needs to be done when a report is complicated and there are several factual disputes about the original reporting. In this case, the time-consuming effort put forth by the ombudsman and his staff was well worth the effort. It was not a helpful response by NPR to say that there was nothing to gain by a point-by-point response. That is exactly what NPR should have done.
The 28 reports written by the CPB ombudsman dealt with topics as diverse as the complaint from a viewer of WXEL television that the station's logo ruined his enjoyment of several programs because it blocked the subtitles to a complaint that a public broadcasting show incorrectly claimed that Amenhotep IV was history's first monotheist when it actually was Abraham.
Of those 28, reports, only about a dozen dealt with issues of objectivity, balance, or lack of balance or transparency.
The most significant issues beyond the complaints over the POV films during the past year include:
- Several complaints about political bias at various public-broadcasting outlets from both the left and right. These include a second complaint that the CEO of Albany, N.Y.'s WAMC radio has been using the radio station's platform to promote his liberal positions and a complaint that the president of WHDD, the public radio station in Sharon, Conn. used his position to further his political ambitions by running for a local school board seat. (The president, Marshall Miles, subsequently resigned his position at the radio station for the duration of the campaign. When he lost, he reassumed his role at WHDD.) A listener of WGBH radio in Boston was upset about the conservative leanings of radio talk show host Margery Eagan during the campaign to fill the vacated U.S. Senate seat there. The news director of WGBH agreed with the listener that Ms. Eagan's comments were inappropriate.
- Complaints about a lack of diversity and racial insensitivity. A U.S. congresswoman and several activists charged that WMPE, a public radio station in Central Florida, lacked diversity in both hiring and program content. Meanwhile, another listener was upset that American Public Media's Marketplace program used a comedian to illustrate a piece on fast food restaurants that contained over the top sexist and racist imagery. A listener of WRKF radio in Baton Rouge accused The Jim Engster Show of exhibiting a conservative bias. He said he was placed on hold and not allowed to contribute to the show because he is a liberal African American.
- KXJZ, a public radio station in Northern California, was accused of running a segment that gave an unbalanced segment promoting gun control. The senior producer for the show acknowledged that the segment was unbalanced though said it was not the result of any bias on behalf of the show.
PBS and NPR also had their share of objectivity and balance issues:
Among the issues Mr. Schumacher-Matos faced this year:
Should NPR fire Mara Liasson? Reminiscent of the controversy over Juan Williams that roiled NPR three years ago several listeners were upset about Ms. Liasson's additional role as a Fox News contributor. Mr. Schumacher-Matos followed Ms. Liasson's reporting for 10 weeks and found nothing that warranted such criticism:
"I find that her NPR stories were straightforward and based on solid reporting. Her Fox contributions were the same. She was smartly analytical, but did not take a position on issues or veer into opinion. Just as important, she did not tilt or load her characterizations of political figures such as President Barack Obama or Republican leaders.
Much of the complaints about Liasson, it seems to me, are really about Fox. The complaining listeners do not like Fox's rightward stance, and especially the incendiary views of some of its prime time talk show hosts such as Bill O'Reilly. They tar Liasson by association."
- Should NPR have allowed former Reagan and G.W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams to call then Defense Secretary Designate anti-Semitic without proffering proof of such a loaded allegation? Mr. Schumacher-Matos ultimately decided that NPR's decision to air the interview was defensible even though he would have edited out the offensive charges in subsequent airings. He said two things swayed him:
One is that you, members of the NPR audience, are smart and by hearing the Abrams charge and reasoning, you yourself can hear the thinness of his evidence, which came across pretty clearly. This is apparently what is happening across Washington and the country as the charge appears to be fading away.
A second observation that sways me has to do with American character and constitutional history. Few countries match the United States in free press and free speech. Protected by the First Amendment, Americans have flung accusations against public figures with an ease that astounds citizens of most other countries, even those with mature democracies such as Britain and France. I share the fear — or the civility — of those listeners who feel that giving a megaphone for unproven, inflammatory smears unnecessarily divides and perhaps even undermines us as a nation, not to mention the damage it does to the individual such as Hagel.
But the country has prospered with the rough and tumble system we have. Will it always? I don't know. Other countries have strong democracies and more regulated speech. As one media lawyer told me last week, falsely accusing someone of being anti-Semitic might even be criminal in Germany, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. We shouldn't be so arrogant as to think our way is the only true democratic way. But it has worked so far for us.
Still, I personally would have cut or re-recorded the offending parts of the Abrams interview, for reasons of simple fairness and civility.
Is NPR regionally biased when it comes to how it reports the news? Specifically, is NPR biased towards news from California, New York and Washington, D.C. compared to what is happening in other parts of the country?
Mr. Schumacher-Matos and his staff conducted a study of six years of NPR's coverage by state and found that there were far more stories out of Washington, D.C. than anywhere else, mostly dealing with national politics and policy. The top two states that followed were California and New York. He also found that the median number of stories per year for each state was 45.
There is no way economically for NPR to avoid concentrating most of its staff in one place, and that one place happens to be Washington. The science, economics, entertainment and cultural teams are more efficient working under an editor in one place. National security and national political teams are naturally in Washington. But the danger of management practices designed for efficiency is that they become prisons, too, locking you into doing things a certain way. NPR seems partly to be a prisoner of Washington, as the numbers show.
There is no defined level of ideal geographic diversity. You know it when you hear it, and we all hear it differently. Still, most of us seem to agree that we want to hear more regional voices — to hear voices like us — but we also know that there are practical limits in achieving that. What this means, then, is that editors and reporters have to keep making that extra effort to find stories and Americans in the great heartland, and to beware of becoming self-satisfied, particularly from a cubicle inside Washington.
Some of the issues faced by PBS ombudsman Michael Getler faced included:
Whether NOVA's hour-long documentary on the development and use of unmanned drones should have accepted funding from Lockheed Martin since the company is a leading defense contractor that develops drones.
Mr. Getler's conclusion:
I think the Lockheed funding does present a perception and commercial test problem for PBS. My feeling is that this particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed support. That is easy for me, an outsider, to say when it comes to finding funders for programs.
In a similar vein, Mr. Getler addressed a critical piece in The New Yorker which raised questions over whether billionaire David Koch, the co-owner of Koch Industries and a trustee of PBS-member station WGBH, as well as PBS-member station WNET, was able to influence a critical portrait of him in the program, Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream. An additional question was raised as to whether he played a role in a different documentary called Citizen Koch given that Mr. Koch has contributed millions of dollars to public broadcasting.
Here's what Mr. Getler had to say about this:
It is hard for me to assess the charges flying back and forth about what actually happened and the New Yorker piece. For one thing, the "Citizen Koch" film will not be distributed by PBS to its member stations, so we are talking here about a film that very few people have seen other than those who saw it debut in January at the Sundance film festival. I have not seen it yet.
More to the point, however, is that what we may be dealing with here may be a form of self-censorship in which officials at ITVS, and maybe at WNET and PBS itself, become wary of the impact of another PBS-distributed film critical of a hugely wealthy and politically active trustee of two key PBS stations who had already donated $23 million to public broadcasting and was reportedly considering a new, very large gift. Self-censorship is frequently impossible to prove because it suggests you know what is going on inside a person's head. But the unspoken influence of money — especially big money — can be thought provoking inside organizations, especially public ones that are always scrounging and live within a unique and uncertain fund-raising environment.
Although some of Mayer's reporting about "Citizen Koch" is based on unnamed sources, the strength of the article does reflect the internal concerns that can or did, as the thrust of her article suggests, lead to intense internal pressures that come to equal self-censorship. The reporting and quotes throughout appear convincing. One unnamed public television official, referring to the "Citizen Koch" proposal, is quoted as saying that, "because of the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it. Never." Mayer had also reported that WNET's Shapiro was so livid about being blind-sided by ITVS's "Park Avenue" that he threatened not to carry its films in the future.
Overall, however, there were far fewer complaints directed at public media in terms of objectivity and balance this year than last year continuing a trend over the past few years.
Whether that is because public media has improved in this area; people have grown tired of complaining about a lack of balance; or there were just not that many controversial stories this year is not clear.
What is clear, however, is that public media outlets have, for the most part, been very responsive when complaints have been brought to their attention and have generally responded on a timely basis.
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.