Ombudsman's Mailbag — Contrary Views
By Michael Getler
August 23, 2006
In my Aug. 16 column, I wrote about a situation, first disclosed two days earlier by Washington Post columnist Al Kamen, who writes the popular "In The Loop" feature. This one involved PBS's long-running, all-women, weekly current affairs panel show "To The Contrary," hosted by Bonnie Erbe.
It turns out that one of the panelists that appears frequently on the program, Karen Czarnecki, is a Bush administration appointee to the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and senior adviser to the Secretary of Labor, but is identified on screen only by name and with the label "conservative commentator." Viewers are not told about her full-time job. In my column, I said I thought it was "a big mistake for the program and PBS . . . not to make her other full-time association clear to viewers in some fashion" and that "it may also be a violation of PBS editorial guidelines."
Last week's column included letters from viewers who wrote to me about the Post's revelations and were upset by the program's lack of fuller identification of this panelist. In recent days, there were also a fair number of additional letters, after my Aug. 16 column had appeared, and several of them are included in this edition of the ombudsman's mailbag. Erbe, whose views were quoted in my Aug. 16 column, also responded to the appearance of the ombudsman's column with a further statement on-the-air at the close of the most recent "To The Contrary" program this past Saturday, Aug. 19.
What follows is, first, Erbe's statement. Then comes a new statement from PBS and the new e-mails to me from viewers and online readers of the column. Finally, I have some further thoughts on what Erbe and PBS had to say.
As Erbe Sees It
Here is the statement by "To The Contrary" host Erbe aired at the close of the Aug. 19 program. It is also posted online at the program's Web site:
A few remarks about the PBS Ombudsman's posting, highlighted on pbs.org. Ombudsman Michael Getler disagrees with our decision to identify regular panelist Karen Czarnecki as a conservative commentator. She first joined the program 12 years ago and has held several positions in that time, most recently as a Bush appointee at the Labor Department. When she last changed jobs, I did mention her job change on the program, but we have not changed her on screen title, Getler writes on the PBS website I should "at least describe the association verbally to viewers and state that she is not speaking for the department." I did so once about five years ago and am doing so again here. Viewer input and trust is important to us. For the record, we did not change our relationship with Karen, so we did not feel we were ethically required to change her on screen title. Viewers should know she takes personal leave time to appear on the program and does not speak for the Labor Department when she does appear, even disagreeing with certain Bush Administration policies when it is her personal view that they are wrong. We invite viewer feedback on this issue and will take it heart.
As PBS Sees It
In last week's column, I cited a portion of PBS's editorial guidelines which state: "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."
PBS does not agree with my assessment that this may be a violation of those guidelines. Here is what PBS spokesperson Carrie L. Johnson says:
"PBS is satisfied that TO THE CONTRARY's current policy of identifying panelists according to political spectrum when speaking as individuals and not as official spokespersons for organizations meets our editorial guidelines. TO THE CONTRARY has a long-standing commitment of providing balanced discussions with two panelists identified as conservative and two as liberal. This form of identification — used from the series beginning 15 years ago — alerts viewers to the 'bias' of the commentator, which is what our editorial guidelines envision when labeling material. In this case, it flags the fact that what is being delivered is commentary and that it is from a particular point of view. When guests are speaking in an official capacity for an organization, they are clearly identified as such."
As Viewers See It
Here are letters to the ombudsman received from viewers and online readers after last week's column:
I really cannot believe there can be any question at all as to whether having a government official on a PBS talk show without making it crystal clear as to her government orientation can in any way be considered ethical. Your credibility has been badly damaged by this very poor judgment, if, in fact, it is just poor judgment.
Thomas Baumgartner, Edenton, NC
It is amazing that PBS would allow Karen Czarnecki, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, to appear on any network or local program for that matter and just identify her only as a "conservative strategist" when she clearly works for the Bush Administration. I cannot understand the policy of PBS or any network to not professionally identify a guest panelist or a guest contributor on a news program. I am stunned and disheartened by your producer's apparent stubbornness and lack of professionalism and journalistic ethics. Is PBS guilty of consciously withholding information? Sounds unfortunately familiar.
Rodney Hurst, Jacksonville, FL
Your comments were on target today. The producers should have known better (Journalism 101).
Los Angeles, CA
I know I wrote you yesterday about the Czarnecki situation, but Bonnie Erbe's comment to Justin Rood reveals a mystifying defense of a very serious lapse in ethical standards by PBS. A quick updating of this policy by PBS/To The Contrary would have been the proper response with perhaps an apology to the listeners for lack of "complete disclosure." It's late, but not too late to do this.
Michael Lambert, Santa Cruz, CA
As a journalist who wrote a story on the web related to this subject, I think this problem could be easily resolved in some minds if Ms. Czarnecki were to cease appearing on episodes of "To The Contrary" that deal with subject matter directly relevant to her government career. I can't see how Ms. Czarnecki can be said to speak on an un-conflicted basis on subjects related to women in the workplace — a frequent topic on "To The Contrary," and one that she is chiefly responsible for as Director of the Office of the 21st Century Workforce in the Labor Department.
Michael Roston, New York, NY
Cutting It or Covering It?
Thank you for your position on this. The "happy talk" from Erbe and (PBS spokesperson Carrie Johnson) doesn't cut it. It's clearly a CYA from people who need to be held accountable — especially in light of the issues you raised concerning covert paid media. Which is exactly what this comes down to. This creeping undermining of all things by the right wing is very real. If the PBS experience with Tomlinson wasn't a wake up call, I don't know what would be.
Anthony Wilson, Setauket, NY
I was greatly relieved that you were willing to recognize and acknowledge the problem with the Czarnecki participation without identifying her political affiliation. As a very long-time member of PBS station WBEZ I am particularly worried that the network will be unduly swayed by rightwing political forces. We have enough of that without PBS losing its independence.
Edward Haley, Chicago, IL
It's curious that the producers (Malkie, Erbe) would say, "If it's okay with your bosses, it's okay with us." An ethical unbiased view from this Administration? Why wouldn't they want another spokesperson for their views? I say identify her position up front; let viewers decide if she's a mouthpiece or an independent conservative.
As for Karen Czarnecki, I don't care if she works as a cleaning lady on a hog farm, when she talks she makes sense. End of story. "PBS viewers" are really beginning to scare me. How can it be "egregious behavior" to fire some hussy who maybe SHOULDN'T BE working with young children? Some women on TTC have a problem with "every time they open their mouth something dumb falls out." But I never think that of Karen Czarnecki.
Last year I watched "To The Contrary" because I thought it would give me some valuable points of view. But when the conservative mouthpiece disdainfully scorned the press for failing to tell the good news about Iraq, I took the show off of my list. It only takes one participant with no integrity to ruin an entire program. You may want to view that particular episode, it was disgusting. And she never identified any of the 'good' news. I thank the Ombudsman for showing the common sense that is lacking in "To The Contrary."
J. E. San Jose, CA
Regarding conservative commentator or Bush administration official Karen Czarnecki, I'd be interested to know what she was commenting on — if it was foreign policy, who cares what her day job is — it wouldn't be relevant. However, if she were to be involved in discussions related to her day job in the Department of Labor, then there is an obvious and flagrant violation of ethics. Now, if a violation is discovered, what is the remedy? Heavy fine — in the neighborhood of the current obscenity fines? — of Ms. Czarnecki and her employer would seem to be ideal, and would require a dignity and honor rare in the current administration. Public humiliation of Ms. Czarnecki and her employers is probably the best to be hoped for — can we look forward to a public apology?
"Neurotic Liberals on the Loose"
After reading some of the responses to Ms. Czarnecki's appearances on PBS, it is becoming more and more obvious that there are a lot of neurotic liberals on the loose. With the additional references to Fox News, one can only imagine how limited the exchange of ideas will be if the "left" regains control. Even to this moderate, that's scary!
Dan Zobenica, Sahuarita, AZ
This latest "slip" of allowing Karen Czarnecki, a Bush-appointed Labor Department official to speak as an independent commentator on a PBS talk show, is just one more indicator of PBS's slide to the right. This latest problem is one of countless errors of omission which give the conservatives in the U.S. unfettered control of the information in the mainstream media. It is heart breaking that PBS has succumbed to the mind control of the right. I will no longer support my local PBS station as it simply no longer provides an alternative to the conservative propaganda machine. Independent news like Pacifica Radio is now the only way to get an alternative viewpoint. PBS has abdicated its responsibility as the press to protect our country from the unethical and unlawful actions of the political right. We're on our way to fascism thanks to the inability or lack of will to report truth to power on the part of the press.
Peter Green, San Mateo, CA
Any defense of PBS use of Czarnecki as a commentator without revealing that she is an employee of the Bush administration is a crock. No reasonable person would conclude that she can act independently of her job interests and appear as a disinterested "conservative commentator" as her byline appears to indicate. You demean yourselves by attempting to justify your attempts to hide her affiliation from the public. Shame on you for perpetrating this fraud. Shame on you for defending it. Shame, shame, shame. How far down the slippery slope have you slid already? How low will you go?
Honesty is not only the best policy, it should be your guiding policy. You once held the public trust as an independent source of news and commentary. Your continued defense of the indefensible taints ALL your programming. What don't we know about your contributors?
I am pleased to read you agree with me and, apparently, a large number of viewers who took the time to register their displeasure about the "To the Contrary" affair. But with all due respect to your worthy position as ombudsman, you can only comment on policy. What is most troubling about the column is not the decision process of a panelist, host and executive producer for yet another talking heads segment. It's been clear for some time that the Bush administration thoroughly explores every potential avenue for press manipulation.
No, what's really troubling is PBS's complacent response. Apparently filing leave papers for a few hours solves everything. If it's OK for a sub-cabinet appointee, then why not a lobbyist, or even someone similarly buried within the bureaucracy of either party's national committee? PBS should stick to cooking and travel shows, augmented by whatever English-accented conventional programming it can rent from the BBC. It is clearly not competent to run a news division. That's the real story in your column.
Your 8.16 comments on Ms. Czarnecki's appearance on "To The Contrary" bring into question whether PBS Editorial Standards are any longer of importance, particularly: "never make choices that mislead or deceive the audience."
Newlin Booth, Jenkintown, PA
I find it discouraging that for any public official to speak publicly they not only have to be free from any error of any kind but they have to meet the demands of any incomprehensible maize of legalism. How do you spell "potatoe" or "invent the internet" without crucifying oneself?
Chris Wisehart, Portland, OR
Wrestling with Those Libs
Let's all just cut to the chase. The only thing the previous responders are really incensed (and obsessed) about is that their PBS has the nerve to put a conservative on the air with half a brain who might challenge their one-sided views. It's my impression they think George Bush is a stupid, lying, war-mongering disaster of a president and they all wish he would drop dead. How pathetic — do you REALLY believe the president has any clue that Ms. Czarnecki is appearing on a PBS program, that is probably seen by a few thousand people, and on which she had appeared for 5 years before she joined this administration, with the exact same identifying title, and the same conservative viewpoints. It seems the producers of the program, and Ms. Erbe, practically begged for her to continue appearing, and even bribed her with a huge amount of money (a hundred bucks per appearance) — woohoo, time to buy that Porsche! (Oh wait, you can't fit three kids in it.) It's sort of like the huge paycheck we all get for jury duty — except Ms. Czarnecki gets to wrestle with libs. Sort of unfair for them though — what is it, usually 3 or 4 against Karen?
The fact is, some of you would like for her to appear as a representative of the president and hope to catch her saying something ridiculous, like "macaca," and then bashing the administration over the head about it. This whole thing was raised by some malcontent who needed to make another tempest in a teapot — sort of like the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame non-event. Maybe you guys are upset because you haven't been able to pin anything on the president. Perhaps I don't read enough news and I missed something, but has anyone in the administration ever been convicted of anything or gone to jail (besides the guy who ripped off Target)?
I hope Ms. Czarnecki is able to continue on the program — an infrequent and barely tolerated conservative voice in the vast liberal PBS wasteland.
I believe whether it was Ms. Erbe's negligence, disregard for the truth and the viewers, lack of editorial judgment and news standards, or blatant deception, this is not a show that PBS should put on television.
Los Angeles, CA
I read with interest that Bonnie Erbe, talk show host, is sticking to her guns not to use Karen Czarnecki's title when introducing her. I'd like to let her know that I'll be sticking to my guns as well and won't be donating any money to PBS this year as is my custom. It seems obvious that the Bush administration has put the squeeze on PBS and is trying to take more control over it. Too bad.
Calixta Luther, West Des Moines, IA
Some Further Thoughts of Mine
I had no intention of writing another column about this episode, but Erbe's comments spur me to make a few more observations.
First, I'm pleased that she took note of the column and viewer reaction and offered an on-the-air response. The more openness between viewers and producers these days, the better it is for everybody.
What isn't clear to me from Erbe's statement is whether she will now continue to identify Czarnecki, each time she appears as a panelist, as a senior Labor Department official in addition to the "conservative commentator" label. Or, is Erbe only saying that she was doing it once again, on her Aug. 19 show, as she said she did once five years ago. My view is that there are a lot of different viewers and they should be told whenever she appears.
Erbe says "we did not change our relationship with Karen, so we did not feel we were ethically required to change her on screen title." Setting aside the ethics, I disagree with that judgment. What changed, big time, was Czarnecki's full-time job. She was appointed, in June 2001, to a senior position at Labor, as a Deputy Assistant Secretary and, according to her resume, a senior adviser to the Secretary of Labor. What is amazing to me is that in this day and age, a fairly regular panelist on a current affairs program — who also is a Bush administration appointee to a senior position in the Labor Department — can be a guest for the last five years without the producers and host routinely and frequently letting the viewers in on that in one way or another. This is, as one viewer wrote, Journalism 101.
Not only did Czarnecki's job change five years ago, her frequency of appearance on "To The Contrary" increased rather dramatically after she was appointed to the Labor job. According to my count of the list of show subjects and panelists on the program's Web site, which goes back to March 1996, in the five years before her appointment to Labor, she made a total of 24 appearances, which means a little less than 10 percent of the roughly 250 shows during that period. But in the five years since her appointment to Labor, she made 109 guest appearances, by my count, more than four times as many as the previous five-year period.
Erbe also stresses that when Czarnecki appears she takes leave from the Labor Department, does not speak for the Department and even disagrees with certain Bush administration policies when it is her personal view that they are wrong. I'll take Erbe's word for that but in the handful of transcripts that I've been able to find on LexisNexis, there certainly seem to be examples of speaking for the administration.
Here are some brief examples:
On Jan. 10, 2004, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who is clearly identified, says that "women see a jobless recovery." Czarnecki answers: "First of all, there's no jobless recovery. We're creating jobs. Maybe not at the pace you would like, but we're creating jobs."
On Oct. 18, 2003, panelist Patricia Sosa, listed on screen as a "progressive commentator," says, during a discussion of AIDS funding, that she admires the president. "I think we should be very supportive of his rhetoric, but I think we need to see the money." Czarnecki answers: "He's backed it up with money . . . What's upsetting to me is that he stood up, he did something no one expected him to do, he's putting some of the money for it, it's not all forthcoming. It's very tough to deal with Congress. And yet every time you do a good thing, you complain, there's never enough money."
On April 11, 2004, in a discussion about the dispute between the administration and union leaders over what union leaders claim will eliminate overtime pay for more than 8 million workers, Czarnecki says, in response to a question by Erbe about certain kinds of possible job losses: "No, it's not true. There's a huge misinformation campaign out there. And let me explain, it's only a proposed rule right now . . . but the bottom line is this, nurses, firefighters, policemen, and first responders won't be affected by this."
In last week's program, the one on Aug. 19 in which Erbe made her statement about the issues of identification at the close, something also caught my ear. In one of her interventions, Czarnecki referred to "the Democrat Party," a term that is widely viewed by Democrats and many non-partisan authorities as a political epithet used to disparage the Democratic Party, which is its proper name and the one that is in the dictionary. It is not a new term but seems to have had a renaissance in frequency of usage by the current administration, including the president.
Finally, as I said in last week's column, "To The Contrary" is a "lively, fast-moving and very informative" 30-minute, all female, weekly news analysis program. And Karen Czarnecki is a very quick and well-informed panelist with a lot to offer. But not to routinely identify her more fully is not being fair and upfront with viewers, in my opinion, and amounts to withholding information they have a right to know.
I must also say, therefore, that, having looked further into this, I also disagree with PBS's assessment. This, in my opinion, is a breach of faith with broad journalistic principles of full and pertinent identification and much closer to being a violation of PBS's own editorial guidelines than it is to meeting those guidelines, as PBS maintains.
Now, Really, Finally: A Melanie Update
This column is way too long already, although mailbag columns get that way. But I did want to add one more thing.
In July and August, I wrote three columns, in whole or part, about the firing by the PBS KIDS Sprout Channel of Melanie Martinez as the host of "The Good Night Show" because of two 30-second video spoofs about teenage sexual abstinence she made seven years ago. I received hundreds of e-mails about this and I mention it again because the mail objecting to her removal has continued to pour into the ombudsman's mailbag — some 95 more letters and phone calls from viewers, only four of which support the decision, since the main column was done on Aug. 3.
Here's a small sample:
I find this so unfortunate. My daughter loves Melanie. She always looks forward to watching the "Good Night Show." Partly for the programs they show, but mainly for Melanie. Melanie is the one that taught her to do sign language. Some may say that anyone in Mel's spot would do the same, but I beg to differ. Melanie is so real. Not an actor, in this instance, but a real person talking to children. You can see it in her eyes. Where as in the videos she was in, she was an actor. Plus, though she really did nothing wrong, everyone has done at least something that doesn't appeal to someone else. Look to the other supposed "role models" of our time, sports stars, musicians, even the President. Maybe when parents return as role models to their children, things like these will be less important. Nonetheless, they did a great disservice to many children when they fired Melanie!
E. Dado, Marysville, MI
Although I truly appreciate your attempt to keep my and other children from experiencing things they should not, I truly believe the removal of Melanie was unjust. The odds of my 3-4-5 or 6 year old seeing whatever it was Melanie did are so remote I doubt odds could be given. My child certainly won't "go looking" for it. My daughters WERE used to a certain degree of comfort at night watching Melanie and for you to not even be able to wait for a new season, well, I really don't know what to say. If you really care about my children why not take it a step further. How many people working for you smoke? I don't like my daughters seeing that and maybe getting the idea it's okay to smoke, or how many in your employ practice pre-marital sex or even have kids out of wedlock? I think you may have opened a Pandora's box with this one. Where do you draw the line? I myself along with my wife and a few parents where I work have decided to boycott your station. I know, so what, but at least I feel better knowing my kids won't be subjected to such hypocrisy.
Bob Kaza, Flint, MI
As a father of a 3 and 5 year old who loved Melanie, as well as a long time supporter of PBS, I am deeply disappointed that PBS/Sprout would make such a ridiculous decision. Aside from the issue of whether making humorous videos (you say some would find them shocking but no one that I know) years before coming to PBS should have any bearing on her employment, I am stunned by the nonsensical explanation given. What values does this action demonstrate to my young children — what lessons do they learn? That if they do something that might be seen as wrong that they shouldn't tell anyone because they'll get in trouble? That if they choose to have some fun in their careers that they'll forever be banned from some jobs? I guess it does give me the opportunity to teach them that political decisions are rarely logical and often very wrong.
Eric Hudson, Sharon, MA