2018 Year-End Report to the Board

Jan 24, 2019

The major takeaway from my first eight months as CPB ombudsman is that there are no major clusters of complaints about CPB-funded content, which is largely good news.

The “bad” news (and it’s not really bad) is what this really means: I must look elsewhere for column ideas about public media.  To date, I have found various ways to do that.  Mostly, that entails diving into developments and trends in the evolving media landscape that affect content and programming at public broadcasting outlets.

I have written 17 Ombudsman Reports – about two a month -- since I started on May 1, 2018.

From May 1 to Dec. 31, 2018, only about 50 emails have landed in the ombudsman’s mailbox – just over six a month.  Of these, just five presented opportunities for an Ombudsman Report. Others commented on a wide range of issues or simply sought more information, which I tried to provide. Queries ranged from whether there were “fitness standards” for hiring station directors, to whether local pubcasters can hire as reporters people who worked in public relations, and when teachers can fairly use educational programs in classrooms without violating copyright.

Then in January 2019, 27 emails suddenly landed complaining about the bitter dispute between OETA (the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority) and the OETA Foundation, which was created to raise money for the licensee. I felt compelled to do a report, which I sent to those who had emailed. They were grateful, but continued to express sadness and reluctance to fund their statewide public-broadcasting network until tempers cooled. A key issue in this standoff is who controls the funds raised by the foundation, which is an alternate payee for the authority, a state agency.

It strikes me that there is an opportunity for CPB, when funding an alternate payee, to require clarification of who has fiduciary responsibility for any funding – the payee or the licensee? Many of my email writers wanted to see some accountability for dollars dispensed to a licensee.

Similarly, in reporting a column on why background music drowns out dialogue in many PBS programs, I learned that this is quite a frequent complaint, well known to sound engineers at local stations. Here, too, there might be an opportunity for CPB to review guidelines to ensure that programs it funds can actually be heard by audience members, many of whom are seniors.

News releases prompted additional reporting that resulted in three columns addressing: 

A complaint about narrative collateral damage in a “FRONTLINE” report about the reliability of DNA evidence led to an ombudsman column that was later quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Several Ombudsman Reports reflected growing efforts by pubcasters to try to fill gaps in local news, either by acquiring local news startups, beefing up investigative reporting, or trying to engage audiences better through new talk-show formats or via public-powered content.

A handful of emails accused either the “NewsHour,” or NPR or “Amanpour & Co.” of being too liberal or anti-Trump, but these were countered by other emails asserting that conservatives were distorting the news or conspiring to squelch liberal voices.

Finally, in a testament to how vulnerable people feel amid today’s high-tech developments, several email writers complained that they were being either recorded, hacked, neural monitored, or surveilled by robots, or their listening and viewing devices.

Some Metrics

In posting the Ombudsman Reports online, we have added a photo to help attract social media attention when the reports are distributed. New taglines invite readers to subscribe or read other Ombudsman Reports.  It appears that these have contributed to an incremental increase in subscribers.

Subscribers to the reports have increased 37 percent – from about 224 in May 2018 to about 307 in January 2019. I distribute the reports on two social media feeds, @janjlab and @JLab and include @CPBMedia.  @janjlab has attracted 300 more followers, a 20 percent increase since May; @JLab’s followers increased 16 percent to 12,800.

You can subscribe to CPB Ombudsman Reports at https://www.cpb.org/subscribeRead more CPB Ombudsman Reports here.