JEFFREY BROWN: For the first time in its history, PBS has appointed an ombudsman, someone to serve, according to PBS, as "the public's editor"-- taking a hard look at programming and responding to viewer's questions and complaints.
The man hired for the job is Michael Getler, who served for five years as ombudsman for the Washington Post, and for several decades before that as a reporter and editor at the Post, and executive editor at the International Herald Tribune. He joins us now. Welcome to you.
MICHAEL GETLER: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is a chance for us to introduce you to our audience, so why don't you start by defining your role.
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, what I do is I try to carry out this public editor's function. I basically listen to and receive comments from PBS viewers, complaints, usually, compliments as well, and I try to sort those out and focus on the ones that go to, basically, the journalistic mission of PBS.
And I try to then question producers or reporters or editors about the comments and complaints from the public, get their responses, forward those at times to viewers.
But in cases where there is really a dispute over how something has been presented, I also give my own independent assessment of those programs for publication.
JEFFREY BROWN: So let me just tick off a few things to clarify and help people understand. You report directly to the head of PBS, Pat Mitchell.
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: But are you an independent factor?
MICHAEL GETLER: I'm totally independent. The contract is ironclad, nobody interferes with anything that I write, nobody sees what I write before it goes online on PBS.org or on the air.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you have complete freedom to choose what you write.
MICHAEL GETLER: Complete freedom. That is exactly the way the job functions. And yes, I do report to Pat Mitchell but I actually haven't seen her since I was hired.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. And what you write about, is that a factor of what you hear from viewers, or I think you said, partly your own --
MICHAEL GETLER: Yes, I use -- of course it's initiated by viewers. And then I use my own judgment in terms of those issues that really do seem to go to the heart of what PBS does and to its own standards and guidelines and try to write or comment about those that seem to be journalistically important and that go to the credibility of what PBS does and how it does it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And is your mandate to look at everything in PBS or just, not just the news and documentary but even children's programs?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, I really focus mostly on news and public affairs because the journalistic standards really go to that mostly. But there is really no, no limit on it. It can go to all kinds of programs that have important public issues surrounding them.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you do not get involved before something goes to air?
MICHAEL GETLER: Absolutely not, no. I have no, no preprogramming role at PBS whatsoever. I operate as a viewer, and the first time I see the program is after it has been on the air, or as it goes on the air.
JEFFREY BROWN: And one more thing to clarify because there has been a controversy, of course, as you know with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting looking at some of the content in the programming on PBS. You have no relationship to CPB or the ombudsman that they hired?
MICHAEL GETLER: No, none whatsoever. I'm completely on my own.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay so, when you decide to write about something, tell us what -- what are the criteria that you apply?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, they -- PBS has a good audience. They have a lot of people out there who are concerned about what they see and what they hear. And so they are perceptive about things that they believe are either biased or tilted or since of omission or things of that nature. And they write to me and I try to assess that.
And I have a lot of experience at doing this. So I can tell the kinds of things that actually do go to basic, fundamental journalistic fairness and issues and issues of balance and other journalistic ethics and what not. All of these things are spelled out, actually, in the PBS guidelines. So you can -- you can tell when something hits one of those bells and causes a reader reaction that needs to be dealt with.
JEFFREY BROWN: I looked at the first three reports you've done. And people can go to your web site and read your full report but to summarize briefly, one was on a documentary on child abuse on which you wrote about whether it was balanced enough.
MICHAEL GETLER: Exactly.
JEFFREY BROWN: A second one was an American experience on the history of Las Vegas where you wrote about the issue of sponsorship.
MICHAEL GETLER: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Who had funded it, I think some Las Vegas organizations had been involved; most recently about the program NOW -- a segment on some workers hired after Katrina, and there was a dispute of one of the subjects about whether they had a fact right.
MICHAEL GETLER: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Three different issues. Are these the kinds of things that interest or you think are important to reach to the audience with?
MICHAEL GETLER: Exactly. I mean, I -- these first three items were very fundamental journalistic issues. One was a question of balance in a program. I'm not saying that -- I'm not a big fan of balance as a big measuring yardstick. It's important but you can have a false equivalence by giving precise balance to all sides of an issue. But this program had none.
And it was about family courts and child custody battles but there were no fathers on it. There was not even -- the audience wasn't even told whether or not the fathers were asked for their views or denied or declined to be interviewed or things of that nature. So I thought it was quite a one-sided presentation.
On the Las Vegas, the -- there were really no complaints about the quality of the film but a number of reviewers and some viewers noticed that the funding was by three entities from Las Vegas; they actually accounted for about half of the funding for that program.
And the issue there was credibility, was it worth taking the funding from three potentially involved entities or economically beneficial entities and where it could possibly damage the credibility of PBS, which is a very important outlet. My feeling of that was no, it wasn't worth it. They should have tried to find funding elsewhere.
On the final one on NOW, the company that was the focus of this segment actually supplied information denying the thrust of the program and the wages that were discussed, and the contract they provided, new information on the contract that was at the heart of the program, and the program didn't use it.
And I thought that was a real misstep, a real failure there. Now to NOW's credit, they broadcast a correction last Friday and also PBS with respect to the first program, the "Breaking the Silence," first that I reviewed, they announced yesterday that they are going to do another documentary to take a broader look at this issue.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that is where I wanted to go next. Does your experience with the Post suggest that the role having an ombudsman makes a difference? Does it make a difference to the content or does it make a difference to bringing the audience into a different relationship with the organizations?
MICHAEL GETLER: I think both. I think clearly readers in the case of the Post, viewers in the case of PBS like having someone there that they can complain to, that they can get a response from about substantive issues that they have with what's been put on the air.
It's very hard to measure the internal impact on the news organization. I mean if you write something critical, the editor or producer is not going to come over and say gee, thanks for that. They are not going to do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: You don't hear that.
MICHAEL GETLER: You don't hear that often. On the other hand, I think what ombudsmen generally do is make journalists think about what they are doing, make producers think about what they are doing, think harder about it think more about it.
And so that -- so that the presence of an ombudsman, I think, is a positive beneficial thing for elevating still further even a first rate organization, as PBS is and as the Washington Post is.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. And two quick things, I suppose it is important to say that our program is something you will be watching and writing about from time to time?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, perhaps. It's up to you, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: We'll see. And most important for our viewers is: how do they reach you?
MICHAEL GETLER: Well, you can reach me at email@example.com.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Michael Getler, thanks, good luck.
MICHAEL GETLER: Thank you.