Print This Page

The Ombudsman Column

The Lone Rangers

It is often the case that a single viewer raises a question or challenge to PBS procedures that helps surface answers and explanations about how the complex organism that is PBS works, or doesn't work.

There were two examples of this in the past week or so.

A viewer in California, Noah Belikoff, wrote to me and said that an exchange he had recently with the station manager of his local PBS broadcast affiliate—KCSM in San Mateo, Calif.—left him "with some concerns regarding the specifics of PBS's program selection process."

In December, Belikoff wrote a strongly-worded letter to the station concerning a just-aired, one-hour program called "The Privileged Planet," which Belikoff viewed as "a faith-based propaganda and disinformation piece produced by a right-wing religious 'think' tank that exists solely for the purpose of promulgating its peculiar religious notions of the origins of the universe." He called the program "a stealthily-disguised and highly deceitful showcase for the patently non-scientific ideas that constitute the so-called 'theory' of intelligent design." He said that presenting this "in programming that implies a scientific foundation for its ideas. . .is in apparent conflict with the public interest mandate of the public's broadcasting system."

The program was produced by "Illustra Media," a California-based, non-profit organization whose Web site describes how its "video productions are becoming significant players in the intelligent design movement." The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which plays a leading role in promoting intelligent design, describes the film as "a science documentary" based on the book of the same title by astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez of Iowa State University, and Jay Richards, a philosopher and vice president of the Discovery Institute. Both are featured prominently in the film.

The film was distributed by the National Educational Telecommunications Association, a non-profit group based in Columbia, S.C., that lists 92 members representing 96 public broadcasting licensees in 45 states and the Virgin Islands. According to PBS data from Tribune Media Service, 11 stations carried the program between mid-January, 2005, and mid-January of this year, only about 3 percent of the 344 PBS stations in the television broadcasting service.

Marilyn Lawrence, the general manager of KCSM, respond to Belikoff by saying, "You are correct in that the program presented a theological interpretation. When selecting the program from within our standard public television sources it was not identified as such. This was unfortunate and has been communicated to that distributor. Public television," Lawrence wrote, "must be known for presenting multiple perspectives on controversial issues so viewers can see all points of view and then determine their own. When a program features a particular point of view, it is identified to the audience as such. 'Privileged Planet' did not satisfy this standard and should not have been inserted into the public television system without this qualification. For this we apologize."

"The Privileged Planet" has been a source of controversy before. Last June, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History announced that it was withdrawing its co-sponsorship of a showing of the film in Washington and returning the $16,000 screening fee that the Discovery Institute had paid. A museum statement said, "We have determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research."

In January, 2006, the Associated Press reported that another film produced by Illustra Media—also challenging Darwin's theory of evolution and distributed by the NETA—was pulled by a PBS television station in Albuquerque, NM, after the station discovered it was funded by evangelical Christian groups. The funders of this film, titled "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," have "a clear and specific agenda that they openly promote," KNME-TV marketing manager Joan Rebecchi told the AP. The station, she was quoted as saying, "has no position regarding this agenda, but we must guard against the public perception that editorial control might have been exercised by the program funders."

So, How Does PBS Vet Its Programs?

In the case of KCSM in California, the viewer, after receiving an apology from the station general manager, then wrote to me raising the larger question: "Precisely what IS the process by which PBS vets production content for listing to its member stations?"

That is, indeed, worth reviewing and explaining. Here's how one of PBS's top program executives, Jacoba Atlas, explains it. "As you know," she says, "we are a very complex system. While PBS vets and approves programs" that go out as part of the National Programming Service—the major package of programs that PBS distributes to its member stations—"our stations are free to acquire programs from all sorts of sources. We do not control what our individual stations choose to run. This is both the strength and perhaps the weakness of the system."

"'The Privileged Planet,'" Atlas says, "is NOT a PBS program and did not come through our process. It was not distributed by us, with our logo attached at the end. Considering who produced it, it would not have met our Editorial Standards, as the viewer rightly references." It was distributed by the NETA, she continues. "They acquired the program independently and offered it to their members. It is then up to individual stations to choose to run the program or not. Of course I understand why a viewer—watching a program on a local PBS station—would assume that we have vetted this and that it met our Editorial Standards even though that was not the case."

I should add that PBS's "Editorial Standards and Policies" are quite clear on this point. They say that in addition to broadcasting "PBS Program content, public television stations produce their own content and obtain programs—including some rejected by PBS—from suppliers other than PBS." They say that, "Program Content distributed by PBS carries the PBS logo at the conclusion of each program, identifying the program as one accepted and distributed by PBS as distinct from other program distributors." The "Privileged Planet" film did not carry the PBS logo.

The problem in San Mateo, managers there say, is that the blurb accompanying the distribution of the film didn't give enough of a clue about what was really going on and, they acknowledge, that they only watched the beginning of the film in the review process before airing. "The Privileged Planet" is actually a very well-presented exposition on a theme. But that intelligent design theme doesn't really evolve, so to speak, until the second half of the presentation.


Steve Opson, programming director at KCSM, says he reviews thousands of hours of programming each year but acknowledges that he only watched about the first third of this program. Nevertheless, he says he felt "sandbagged" by NETA on this because "I trusted the people who brought it to me."

"As a public television station we are held to a higher standard of responsible programming. Opinion without balance or disclosure is inappropriate and something we carefully avoid. In the case of 'Privileged Planet,' a long-trusted source of programming provided a documentary without this standard of review and this was more than unfortunate. Our relationship with our viewers has been harmed and the content provider we depend on is now no longer as valued," he said.

For me, there is both a lesson and an issue here.

The lesson is for independent member stations to review entire programs before they air. Producers and distributors should be clear and upfront in the promotional blurbs that accompany their material. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of station executives to make a fully informed choice.

The issue is not the debate over intelligent design. Rather, it is, as Jacoba Atlas puts it, the fact that you can't blame the viewer for being confused about what is and isn't a PBS vetted and approved program when it airs on a station that is part of the group of independent local stations that make up the PBS network. The guidelines are clear but you can't expect viewers to know this, either, and you should be forgiven for not spotting that PBS logo at the end.

This is a time when more and more transparency is being demanded of the media, and PBS and each of its member stations ought to find a better way to let viewers in on the provenance of all its programs.

Mr. Smiley Goes to Venezuela

The other issue raised by a single viewer recently came from a woman in Irving, Texas, who has asked that her name not be used. She was watching the Tavis Smiley show on the night of Jan. 9 and heard the popular talk show host say that, "I was in Venezuela, talking to Hugo Chavez, believe it or not, over the weekend." Hugo Chavez is the President of Venezuela and a very sharp critic of President Bush. Smiley's comment came as he was interviewing Judy Woodruff, the former host of CNN's "Inside Politics" program, about domestic and international matters. That was Smiley's only comment—really just an aside—about his trip.

But that line caught the attention of the Texas viewer because the previous day, Sunday, Jan. 8, there had been news accounts of a "delegation" of Americans visiting Venezuela. They were led by famed American singer Harry Belafonte and included, among others, actor Danny Glover, who is also president of the TransAfrica Forum, Princeton University scholar Cornel West, farm worker advocate Dolores Huerta, and Malia Lazu of the Hip Hop Coalition. They met with Chavez for more than six hours on Saturday. Then on Sunday, several members, including Belafonte, attended the president's television and radio broadcast.

During the broadcast, the Associated Press reported from Caracas, Belafonte told Chavez, "No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people. . .support your revolution."

The viewer says she is "no big supporter of President Bush's policies, but these people do not speak for me. More importantly, I would like to know why Tavis Smiley is a regular on U.S. public radio and television if he lends his personal support, and the professional name he has built at U.S. taxpayer expense, to people like Hugo Chavez? This is a serious complaint about the increasingly lax enforcement of the 'wall' which should exist in journalism between news and program content, and the reporter's or program host's personal beliefs and/or action."

The day after Belafonte made his comments, the AP also reported that the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, put out statements that Belafonte was speaking as a private citizen, not a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Belafonte, 79, has been a civil rights activist for decades and a UNICEF goodwill ambassador since 1987, traveling throughout Africa, South and Central America and the Caribbean and speaking out against injustices and for the rights of children, in particular. He has helped raise millions of dollars for UNICEF. The current issue of the AARP magazine features him as one of "ten people of the year who improved our world."

I summarized the issues raised by the viewer and sent them to Smiley, and also asked about this at PBS headquarters as well.

An Explanation Is Offered

Two executives with KCET in Los Angeles, where the show is based, called me back in a conference call. Mary Mazur is the executive vice president of programming and production at the station, and Karen Hunte is the executive director of program development and the executive in charge of the Tavis Smiley show.

First, some background. Smiley's show is very popular. It is, according to its own descriptive material, a mixture of "news and pop culture" featuring interviews with "newsmakers, politicians, celebrities and real people." He has interviewed, among others, President Bill Clinton, Cuba's Fidel Castro and had a "conversation" with Pope John Paul II. The show is produced through KCET and Smiley's own production company. He is not an employee of PBS, but about one-sixth of the cost of the program, according to the two LA executives, comes from PBS funds.

There is not much information on the activities of the "delegation" beyond Belafonte's news-making comments. According to the Web site "Venezuelanalysis.com," there were, aside from Belafonte, 13 other "prominent activists" from the U.S. in the group. Aside from those already mentioned, the site reported that "other members of the delegation included the President of the community organization coalition 'Barrios Unidos,' Nane Alejandrez; the Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Ralph Paige; the PBS radio and TV talk show host, Tavis Smiley; the Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Cultural Heritage Policy, James Early; and the Vice-President of the progressive satellite TV channel Link TV, Jack Willis."

Mazur points out that the label of "activist delegation" was not something the traveling party used, but was ascribed to them in press accounts. There is no indication that Smiley said anything publicly on the trip or took any position with respect to the views expressed publicly by Belafonte. "Tavis speaks for himself, unequivocally," said Hunte. "There are no quotes from Tavis," she said. Mazur said Smiley went on the trip during his vacation time. "He was invited, which is why he went. He learns in his spare time and when an opportunity is presented to you, when you can see more of the world," you go, she said. "He travels with lots of high-profile individuals," Hunte said, and is especially close friends with West and Belafonte. "He had an opportunity to go someplace he has never been," she said, "with people he has a relationship with, to a place that he wants to experience first hand. . .and with people like Cornel West and Harry Belafonte. How great is that."

As for the "quote, unquote delegation" label, Mazur acknowledges that "the question is the affiliation. I understand the distinction and it would have been a fair one at the time." The complaining viewer, she said, "raised a point that was not on anyone's radar" at the time. In short, rather than just gathering information and impressions, the trip made news in an unexpected fashion through Belafonte's remarks.

Asked if there are any guidelines to cover the kind of participation involved in Smiley's trip, PBS Chief Operating Officer, Wayne Godwin, said that "because PBS by its Articles of Incorporation is not allowed to engage in the production of broadcast television programs, we have no employees who are engaged in producing television programs. As such, from an employee standpoint, we have no employee policy specifically restricting our employees' relationship with delegations such as the one" that I described to him.

Godwin added that, "We do have a Political Policy that reminds employees about restrictions on the use of corporate funds in political elections, and cautions employees against doing anything that could be construed as involving the organization in any political activity at the federal, state or local level, or in any foreign country."

But, as noted earlier, Smiley is not a PBS employee. So where does this leave things? Clearly, there is no law against going to Venezuela and Smiley should go wherever his interests and instincts take him. And he talked openly and briefly about it on his own program. One gets the sense that this would never have become an issue, even with one viewer, had Belafonte's remarks not made news, and there is no reason to associate anyone else with those remarks. So, in hindsight, the question is whether it was proper to go as part of a "delegation," even an unofficial one.

I can easily understand the appeal of such a trip with good friends into a country very much in the news these days and to gather first-hand impressions about a president that has emerged as a central figure in a Latin America where anti-American feeling has spread well beyond Castro's Cuba.

The PBS Difference

On the other hand, PBS is different from ABC, NBC, CBS or major American newspapers and news magazines in that a portion of its revenue comes from the federal government through tax revenues and grants. To viewers, that often means taking a special focus on what PBS does, as opposed to the commercial centers of news and public affairs activity. And for those who accept financial support from PBS, it seems to me that they are required to think harder about whether what they do is consistent with that public linkage.

If I were Smiley and had been invited to go on such a timely trip with such an engaging and eclectic mix of people, including some close friends, it would have been hard to say no. But it would have been better to say no; to go on your own, do the same things but don't take the chance of leaving the wrong impression out there about PBS—the impression that you are engaging in something or representing something, perhaps accidentally, that seems inconsistent with the way viewers view PBS.