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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

"Conservative Commentator" Unmasked, Anonymously

My friend and former colleague at The Washington Post, Al Kamen, revealed last Monday, Aug. 14, in his popular "In The Loop" column that an anonymous inquiry from one of his readers asked: "Please explain to your readers how a government official who is paid by hard-earned taxpayer dollars is allowed to moonlight as a Republican mouthpiece on television."

The reader sent along a picture of Karen Czarnecki, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, appearing on a Fox News program, identified on screen by name but only as a "conservative strategist."

The article went on to report that she is also a regular on the PBS show "To The Contrary." I didn't know that, nor, apparently, did PBS viewers. So Kamen's column has attracted a fair amount of attention from several Web sites and a fair number of PBS viewers who wrote to me in recent days to criticize, rather sharply, this arrangement. A sampling of those letters is included below. But first, here is some background and some observations.

"To The Contrary" is a weekly, all-female, 30-minute news analysis program that is now in its 15th season on public broadcasting. It has been hosted all this time by Bonnie Erbe, who joined forces with PBS and Maryland Public Television to create this forum in 1992. The program brings together a panel of four women each week from across the political spectrum "to discuss national and international issues and policies. It presents news and views that are rarely, if ever, available elsewhere on television," according to its own descriptive material.

I've watched it a couple of times and have found it lively, fast-moving and very informative. And it is true, from my limited sampling, that one doesn't often hear this particular kind of illuminating and thought-provoking discussion and perspective elsewhere on the tube.

The program lists 27 women as panelists. There have been 32 shows this year so far, and Czarnecki has appeared on 13 of them, or about 40 percent of the discussions. On the programs, she is identified on screen only with her name and the description "conservative commentator." There is no other identification of her, or other panelists, other than that which appears on the screen. In other words, host Erbe does not tell the viewer that Czarnecki is a top official at the Labor Department or that someone else is a this-or-that in some other organization.

A Curious Mix of Identifications

The on-screen designations are also curious to the viewer who doesn't get the unexplained rationale. For example, some women are clearly identified. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) is a frequent guest and identified clearly on screen. So is the National Organization for Women's President Kim Gandy, for example, and Independent Women's Forum President and CEO Michelle Bernard, two guests who joined Norton on the Aug. 4 program, along with Czarnecki, the "conservative commentator." At other times, there are panelists who are named and labeled "Democratic commentators." I found one this year who was labeled "Republican commentator," but the others on the right were called "conservative commentator," at least as far as I can tell from the program's Web site.

In the aftermath of Kamen's column in The Post, I asked the producers of the program — Persephone Productions of Washington, D.C. — if they knew of Czarnecki's Labor Department job and whether that should have been disclosed.

Paul Malkie, executive producer of the program, answered as follows: "Karen Czarnecki was a panelist on PBS's 'To The Contrary' with Bonnie Erbe for five years before taking her position with Labor. After she took the position, we asked if she could continue on our panel on an irregular basis. She received all the appropriate clearances from the Department of Labor's career ethics panel, and we continue to use her, identifying her as we always have, conservative commentator. We do not identify her as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor because she is not appearing as a spokesperson for the Labor Department, and the views she expresses are her own." Malkie also says that the production company, not PBS, pays all panelists a $100 stipend per appearance.

Erbe says, "Here's the whole story. Karen was a regular panelist a good five years in advance of getting her Bush appointment. When she got the appointment we said to her, can you please keep appearing on "To The Contrary" because normally nobody appears on television who's not either the Cabinet Secretary, Elaine Chao, who was also a regular on "To The Contrary" before she got that job, or somebody out of the press office, and Karen was not going into the press office. So she said let me check. She checked with ethics, which is an independent agency. They said yes you can continue to appear as long as you take leave time and appear in the same capacity as you were before you got this job; to wit, you are not speaking as an official Labor spokesperson. That's what we did. She files leave papers even if it's just for a few hours. She appears not in her capacity as a Labor appointee or a Labor deputy assistant secretary, but as a conservative commentator, as she was for five years before she got that job. That's how we deal with it. I don't think there's an ethical issue when it is portrayed factually and in full."

A PBS spokesperson, Carrie Johnson, told me that "To The Contrary" adhered "to a sound policy. She's not speaking as a spokesperson for the Labor Department, so the policy is, if it's somebody speaking for themselves, we identify them according to the political spectrum."

Here's What I Think

I'm with the viewers on this, although that doesn't mean I'm endorsing the language or interpretations that some viewers used in some of the e-mails printed below.

Czarnecki, as far as I can tell, is a solid and thoughtful contributor on the panels. But it seems to me that it is a big mistake for the program and PBS — no matter what the Labor Department says — not to make her other full-time association clear to viewers in some fashion. If they don't want to change the on-screen captions, then Erbe ought to at least describe the association verbally to viewers, and state that she is not speaking for the department. Viewers can understand that. If that's not good enough for the Labor Department, the program should have dropped her. PBS's credibility is more important than any one guest, and there are lots of smart, female conservative commentators around.

It may also be a violation of PBS editorial guidelines which state, within the section dealing with "Fairness," that: "To avoid misleading the public, producers also should adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels, disclaimers, updates, or other information so that the public plainly understands what it is seeing."

My view is that "conservative commentator" is not an appropriate label, by itself, for someone in her position, even if she is not speaking on government time or is speaking for herself and not the department. The fact that Czarnecki was an occasional guest well before her official duties began at Labor adds a new wrinkle, but not enough, in my view, to merit hiding her association with the current administration.

The Deputy Assistant Secretary level is a big and important one at any government agency. Her resume pops up on the Labor Department Web site and shows that she joined up in June 2001, is "a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao," and says that "Ms. Czarnecki carries out the vision put forward by President Bush and Secretary Chao of a prepared workforce to meet the needs of both workers and their employers." Oddly, if you click on the 27 panelist names on the program's Web site, you get a resume and/or background information for most of them, but not Czarnecki.

One reason I, personally, find this episode interesting, and surprising, is because we have gone through a series of highly publicized media embarrassments in recent years that involved the Bush administration and the presentation to the public of things that were, we later found out, different from the way they appeared.

In 2005, for example, USA Today disclosed that conservative radio and television commentator Armstrong Williams accepted $241,000 from the Education Department to promote the administration's "No Child Left Behind" law on the air. Another syndicated columnist, we learned from The Washington Post, had not revealed that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services back in 2002 for services associated with her efforts on the administration's "marriage initiative." Then we learned about that department's distributing, in 2004, fake news videos used by some 40 local stations around the country in which a fake reporter — actually an employee of an HHS subcontractor — extolled the benefits of the Medicare prescription drug plan.

I'm not putting this episode in the same category. But it seems to me that, given the history of recent years, the near certainty that everything eventually gets disclosed, and the great importance of PBS's credibility, that the program's producers or the network should have sought a way to keep Czarnecki on the program, if that's what they wanted to do, but be more forthright and forthcoming with the viewers, or dropped her.

And Here's What Viewers Think

Shame on PBS for deception and duplicity — and a basic breach of editorial ethics. So, Erbe did not reveal to viewers that Karen Czarnecki was a government employee — a high ranking Labor Dept. appointee — because the Feds told her to not reveal this or Karen would not be allowed on the program. Are you folks dense as wood? How many things are wrong here?

The reliability of PBS with me and many others just plummeted. How many more skeletons do you have in your closet? Was this a quid pro quo with the Bush administration to get public funds to continue broadcasting? How many more people on PBS news shows have the obvious conflicts to disqualify them as independent? Poof goes your credibility.

John Servais, Bellingham, WA

Labor Department deputy assistant secretary Karen Czarnecki on PBS as an analyst? While she is free to voice her opinion (political activity by federal employees is restricted by the Hatch Act), she identified herself in no way as a U.S. Government employee! I have serious issues with this and it is reminiscent of G.W. Bush and his paying the media. Instead, now we are using government paid employees.

Lewisville, TX

I was surprised to learn that the PBS program, "To the Contrary," featured White House appointee and Labor Department official Karen Czarnecki, that her commentary touched directly on the administration and labor issues, and that viewers were not informed of this connection. As you know, this fits into a pattern of covert administration propagandizing through media outlets. Surely some editor, if not Czarnecki herself, should have realized there was a problem here?! It is not like she was discussing Scuba Diving or French Cooking. Perhaps more disappointing has been PBS' apparent disinterest in remedying this glaring conflict of interest. Should I then assume that PBS regularly features such "shills" in its programming?

Gregory Stroud, Urbana, IL

I recently read an article about Karen Czarnecki appearing on PBS as an independent conservative pundit when in fact she is the senior advisor to Labor Secretary Chao. How disturbing that she would be allowed to appear on PBS without explaining her affiliation. Unfortunately, it confirms what I have come to believe about this administration and that is they are not to be trusted. They are incredibly deceitful.

Rita Luther, West Des Moines, IA

I will be watching to see if PBS tries to again pass off Karen Czarnecki, a Bush appointee and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Intergovernmental Affairs, as some sort of neutral analyst. You should be watching as well. Are you? The producers of "To the Contrary" attempted to deceive the viewers by not being forthcoming enough about her ties to the administration. Is that acceptable? Perhaps it is in the new PBS "environment" of welcoming members of the right into its management circles. If so, just tell us that this is how it will be from now on so we can move on and seek integrity elsewhere. I'll be watching for your response to this blatant act of dishonesty as well.

Doug Sanders, Brighton, MI

I find it execrable that PBS has had Karen Czarnecki as a conservative commentator without disclosing that she is a senior level Labor department appointee. It is no excuse, and a poor one at that, for one to say that she does it on her own time, or that she is not officially speaking for the Labor Department or the Bush administration. She is obviously very closely connected to the Bush administration — oh yeah, she is the Bush administration! For the love of Pete, how closely do you have to parse the words sneaky, dastardly, amoral, ethics violation or proper behavior, amongst others, before you actually see that what PBS is doing is plain wrong and collusive?

Mark Carberry, Denver, CO

This is the kind of nonsense and deceit that has caused me to withhold support from PBS.

E. A., Keene, NH

I'm disappointed that the show "To The Contrary" hosted Karen Czarnecki and failed to disclose her highly relevant credentials as a Bush Labor Department appointee. I think it would go a long way toward helping the viewer to understand that she is simply an undercover shill for the Bush administration on otherwise "liberal" PBS. There's a fine point of journalistic integrity when it comes to disclosing your political connections and occupation. The show is putting her forward as a "conservative commentator" and giving her a platform for political discourse. I expect PBS will at least change the relevant policy and reprimand those involved for this small but important breach of the public trust.

Portland, OR

As a PBS supporter who just recently renewed his membership to the local PBS affiliate in Minneapolis, I have to say I'm very troubled to hear that PBS may have allowed an administration official to pose as an independent commentator on certain commentary programs.

I expect this kind of stuff from Fox News (on which she has apparently also made such appearances) but I hold PBS to a higher standard. If this really happened, PBS has fallen below that standard. Please understand, I don't have a problem having an opposing viewpoint, or an administration viewpoint presented. But I do have a problem (a big problem) with an administration official posing as an independent commentator, regardless of whether or not her personal opinions coincide with that of her employers.

Peter Benson, North Oaks, MN

A Link to Melanie?

Allowing her to make statements expressing support of Bush policies without clearly identifying her as a member of the Bush administration is deplorably dishonest. Shame on you and shame on PBS for continuing to air your show! Together with the firing of Melanie Martinez, this egregious behavior shows the extent to which PBS is becoming yet another lapdog of the Bush administration. I, and many other Democrats, will be withholding financial support of PBS until some sense of objectivity and balance has been restored.

Fort Wayne, IN

A White House appointed government employee who "apparently files leave papers, even if for a couple hours, before heading off to the studios" might be considered appropriate by the current administration. Not identifying her position is inappropriate for PBS; the rules need to be changed; this is not a "sound policy." The listener can decide whether Czarnecki is speaking for herself or if her job or its $100,000+ salary plays a factor in her statements.

M. L., Santa Cruz, CA

I have always trusted PBS to be absolutely impeccable about their sources. This article from Democracy NOW! has really upset me. I am a member of Rocky Mountain PBS and I want to know how could you present a representative on the payroll of the White House as an un-biased commentator? I am shocked, dismayed and very, very angry.

Laura Hatfield, Florissant, CO

Why is Karen Czarnecki posing as a "conservative pundit" while an official in the Bush administration? The rightwing media owns the airwaves — and PBS deceives the public! Oh Boy!

Nancy Terrell, Jacksonville, FL

What would have happened had she been a Labor Department appointee in a Democratic administration who was appearing on PBS to discuss administration policy and was presented as an unaffiliated "liberal commentator," but who failed to disclose her full-time job to viewers? Need I ask?

Morton Mintz, Washington, DC

It is a conflict of interest in a democracy to have Karen Czarnecki appear on your network as a pundit. Please discontinue this policy for the sake of your audience.

Alex Montanez, Washington, DC

As a decades-old supporter of PBS, I'm concerned over the allegations posted on several blogs relating to the participation of a US government employee (Karen Czarnecki) in broadcast discussions without stating her affiliation to the current administration. If true, it strikes me as an abrogation of the trust viewers have come to expect from PBS. I would be very sad to see PBS begin to follow the national trend toward less honesty and transparency.

Jerry Boetje, Mt. Pleasant, SC

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