The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
September 8, 2006
Welcome to another sampling of viewer and online reader comments that have landed in the Ombudsman's Mailbag in the past week or two. The first batch deals with reaction to the last column, on Sept. 1, about the movement of sponsorships and some advertising online at PBS, and some more about two columns in August, one on the 16th and a follow-up Mailbag on the 23rd, about identification of a panelist on the "To The Contrary" weekly news analysis program.
About Those Ads
How refreshing (and surprising) to see the issue of PBS ads finally addressed, even if in an unsatisfactory manner. I am mainly concerned with children's programming, which I believe should be ad-free, period. While your "soft ads" (my term) may be generally for a brand rather than a product, the corporations are smart enough to advertise where the brand IS the product. Chuck E Cheese's is a prime example here, but it also applies to McDonald's, Danimals yogurt, etc. They've achieved their goal of advertising to kids. And at least in the first two examples, despite PBS's "neutral" stance on advertisers' products, that's reprehensible.
This whole policy remains a primary reason why we will never, ever contribute to our local PBS station, WGBH, which seems to be swimming in money anyway judging by how many programs it produces for PBS. No one is more sorry than I am that the PBS-hostile Republicans have controlled Congress for the last decade, but you have got to get your funding there if you want to truly be Public broadcasting again. Otherwise you're just another broadcasting corporation exploiting its viewers for funding.
Brian Wessels, Westminster, MA
We came from "Nick Jr." because of the advertisements there, and from "Noggin" because my son found PBS Kids shows to be more fun and more educational, without the ads. Sprout replaced PBS Kids on DirecTV and for a while I was okay with it, one advertisement aimed at me every so often. Fine, I could handle that, since the shows were more educational than elsewhere. The "Good Night Show" had a fun hostess and my son enjoyed her segments as well as the shows before he went to bed at night.
They fired the hostess, leaving gaps in between the shows. Right, fill them with James the Cat and Pingu. I could handle that. Then the advertisements slowly grew in number during those "gaps." What?! It went from one to three commercials during a gap.
So, my problem here is two-fold: I loved to watch this with my son because I could forget my problems and enter the easier world of his. Now my world is encroaching on his. I am having to wean him from Sprout to Noggin, who doesn't air commercials during their preschool hours, even though the educational level of their programming is nowhere as high. I'm worried that PBS will become "just another Discovery Channel." I used to love watching PBS when I was a kid and my mom loved it because she didn't have to listen to the "I wants" that come with other channels. Up until now, I felt the same way.
And it's becoming more obvious that PBS's commercial guidelines aren't strict enough or aren't strictly enforced enough, because with Sprout, I distinctly think one of the commercials was more geared towards the children than at the adults. Please, go back to doing the "This show is sponsored by." It was so much more relaxing and far easier to deal with.
Christy Hunter, Donaldson, AR
We should distinguish between Advertising and Sponsorship.
The former is an overt attempt to sell a good or service; the latter is a donor's public endorsement of an activity of the recipient. If needed to raise funds, the latter is acceptable, but not the former. Of course, governments of all stripes adhere to the old adage of "He who pays the Piper calls the tune." So you may expect them to constantly tighten the budget either directly or by their other weapon for not paying bills in full, namely inflation. Unfortunately you will find that in seeking advertising all you are doing is changing masters who have much the same objectives i.e. brook no criticism.
Advertising is a cost of doing business and it is so reflected in the price to the consumer. Like it or not we all pay in full for commercially broadcast programs whether we use them or not. Why do we accept the notion we should donate to PBS fundraisers when they are overtly advertising goods and services? The Federal Government was duly authorized to set up PBS by the people through their representatives and we pay for it through our taxes. Why then, because it is underfunded, should we have to pay a second time for programs? We do because there is no alternative at this time.
In all fairness, however, PBS does need oversight. In its early days it spent recklessly and has paid for it ever since. In addition, all institutions whether government or not in time lose sight of their mission and focus merely on their continued existence. It could happen to PBS too.
Philippe Petit de Saint Pierre, Columbus, OH
I emailed several years ago when I first noticed regular commercials being aired on PBS by corporations. I have since quit giving any money to PBS until they quit selling out to corporate influence. Of course like all bureaucracies, the management of PBS will always find the need for more money. PBS was much more of a public service when it got by with less and did not allow commercials. It is especially bad if they are aired during children's programming.
Now that the process has begun, I'm sure the management will find excuses as to how they cannot live without corporate allowances. Just like our political leaders cannot live without those contributions and the resulting corrupt political system that has created. However, the fact remains that it will warp PBS's ability to report against corporate power's abuses and inform the general public. It's pretty much a sure thing that unlike previous decades, PBS will now allow ads promoting the Ford Pinto and suppress documentaries exposing its flaws.
Hopefully a change in political structure will help create a change in PBS management and a return to actual Public Interest television.
Tim Snowden, Forks, WA
I'm becoming more and more concerned with the integrity of PBS. I have been a devoted fan of PBS for years and years. One of the things I liked best about your/our stations was that you always boasted the fact there were no commercials, and how PBS was not "indebted" to anyone except the viewers. But now it seems to me that I see a new commercial every week and frankly, some of your sponsors scare me. What has happened to the documentaries about the strip mining of our forests, mountains, etc. by the big, powerful and sometimes corrupt mining companies? I haven't seen anything about this subject in quite a while, however, I have seen the commercials for the Mining Companies (or should I say "this show made possible by ________" — same thing). I guess that I won't be seeing any more shows like I've seen in the past, now that you're on their payroll. And don't forget the commercials for BP Oil, GM Trucks, and on and on.
When will you start running political campaign ads, or commercials showing the "good-side" of the bad guys you used to expose? I have always been confident that whatever I was watching on PBS was the unbiased truth, after seeing what's going on lately I'm not so sure I can still say that.
Yet you still have the nerve to ask for my money — I was giving $25 to $50 a year, anonymously except for one year, but stopped when I began to see so many damn commercials. If the viewers are not giving enough money to keep the stations running you should come to us and show your case, and yes, I know you're trying that without much success. But maybe you need to lay it on the line, or cut back on some popular programming to prove your point — kind of like what they call "take away" in the sales business. Anything would be better then letting PBS be taken over like the rest of the networks. If I can't trust PBS I can't trust anyone.
Bob Koelble, Winter Springs, FL
Related to your discussion on advertising, I am greatly concerned with what I see as a growing trend of using infomercials as part of your national fundraising week. As an example, a couple of weeks ago, PBS broadcast nationally the Brenda Watson H.O.P.E. show which is nothing more than a plug for Ms. Watson's books and alternative-medicine products. A quick perusal of Ms. Watson's "Getting Started Guide" (which contains an "as seen on PBS" splash on every page) shows a large number of claims as to how her products "support healthy immune function" and "support brain health" and more. But the kicker is that there's an asterisk on all the claims! If you read the fine print claims NONE of the claims are backed by the FDA, nor are the products meant to "treat, prevent, or cure" any disease.
So WHY is PBS giving national play during pledge week to the Watson program when it is obviously just an infomercial presented as "news"? Why give credibility to unproven claims? As far as I can tell none of the claims are backed up with any scientific studies (I'd like to be proven wrong on this). What next, Pet Psychics? Sorry for the rant, but I feel much better now . . .
Kerry Alt, Las Cruces, NM
More About That "Conservative Commentator"
How does one separate the person from the job? Even if one is taking personal leave time, isn't that person still holding the political appointee post 24/7 and probably even "on call" no matter where they are or what they are doing? Can the President or the Defense Secretary or any other political appointee take personal leave time to do some consulting or commentary on the side and then argue they are not speaking for their administration? This is ridiculous! Identify that woman, every time she appears on TTC.
RD H, Normal, IL
Ombudsman! Thank you for printing my letter. It's obvious I'm in the minority but you gave me a voice too, so thank you.
What scares me is, "To The Contrary" means: to gives voice to different opinions . . . and all these scary people wanting to cut off funding to PBS because TTC actually has a conservative voice on it.
Judi W., Alexander, ND
Just read thru all the "Standards of Editorial Integrity" comments & story. I don't get it . . . why can't a person appear as an individual, taking personal time to speak as an individual even if her job is currently working for GW & his cronies — isn't this guilt by association . . . especially when it comes out that Ms. Czarnecki has been associated with the program over a decade. In short, get a life — try commenting on something that means something to the listening public of all persuasions.
F.A. Carroll, South Central, TX
At the very minimum Ms. Erbe should make the verbal disclaimer that the "conservative commentator" on her show is in fact a high level Bush Administration official. To ensure that the viewing audience is informed of her status, it should be part of her on-screen label. Again, if the Bush Administration doesn't want her identified, Ms. Erbe needs to find another person to fill her slot.
Ms. Erbe states: "I did so [identify the commentator's position] 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."
With all due respect, once in five years is totally inadequate. If I missed that show, I would have no idea that she is a Bush appointee. Even if Ms. Erbe's relationship didn't change with her, the commentator's relationship to policy making did change and that needs to be acknowledged every time she is on the show. This is a breach of journalistic ethics that taints the show and PBS.
Dr. Sherwood Wang, Nederland, CO
Really, the only issue with PBS not identifying a Bush Administration official on "To the Contrary" is one of openness. By identifying Karen Czarnecki as a "conservative commentator" PBS is only telling part of the story. By identifying her as an administration official, you tell the whole story. Why, then, is PBS only interested in telling part of the story? The only one who gains from this arrangement is the Bush Administration, who gets a mouthpiece on the air to defend their policies without having to be identified as such. It's a free pass, and it amounts to the same thing as the secret payments the Bush Administration made to columnists like Armstrong Williams to espouse their views. Except that in this case PBS is in on the game.
It is not enough to parse the ethics paragraphs of the employee manual and say "we are within bounds." The larger picture is that a news organization is deliberately withholding information that would help viewers better understand the news. Whether this is due to sloppiness or a desire to cater to the Fox News demographic is largely irrelevant. This is dangerous territory for a news organization to tread on, and all viewers would rightly ask, "What else is PBS not telling us?"
Chris Winters, Seattle, WA
I'm embarrassed by the lack of journalistic integrity that PBS shows by producing "To the Contrary" — or even allowing it to be on its stations.
As regards the identification of a Bush Administration employee only as "a conservative commentator," there is no need for an involved discussion of your organization's codes and standards or of this person's long history with the show. Failure to identify someone as an employee of an organization or company when they are on your network discussing issues impacting that employer is intellectually dishonest.
The claim that they are there in their capacity as a private individual and not as a work duty is specious. Does Erbe's "explanation" even come close to passing the sniff test? I think not. If she can't bring herself to fully identify her guest (and why is it important to keep her employment secret if not to mislead watchers?) then the network should caption shots of Ms. Czarnecki with her name and employment status — perhaps with a comma and then "Conservative Commentator" on the next line.
Do that for all the guests! What a thought! Honest identification of employers and affiliations on a current affairs show! Sounds almost like journalistic integrity.
Thank you for standing up for viewers' right to complete and open disclosure. I am in complete agreement with your view that the identity of Karen Czarnecki as a Bush administration political appointee should be revealed to viewers. This incident challenges the network's commitment to provide viewers with all relative information needed to judge the speech of commentators. Management is violating this viewers' trust in thorough coverage of issues.
New York, NY
Once again I appreciate the Ombudsman report, agreeing with most viewers that the show "To the Contrary" has seriously undermined its credibility, and thus PBS, by not properly identifying the Bush/Labor appointee, lo these last five years! Their response deserves the LAME award of the Month! I especially liked the research giving numbers and examples . . . which pretty much makes the argument on its own. Fix the problem, the woman should be identified, each time she appears.
The Melanie firing was just plain silly and sad. Come On . . . let's give the ol' PC Spin Machine a rest, I think this latest overuse is just about to blow out its bearings!
Jim Fuge, Durango, CO
I was a big admirer of yours when you were ombudsman at the Post. Am not a PBS watcher (not a TV watcher at all) but did become aware of your comments on the Karen Czarnecki issue. I'm astounded at PBS's position and want to thank you for sticking to yours. I can't believe anyone in journalism would think there was any dispute on this one.
Arnold Isaacs, Pasadena, MD
The Karen Czarnecki scandal is another example of government subversion of the media. Orwellian redefinition of words appears here. PBS spokesperson Carrie Johnson seems to equate bias with balance. Conservative Dan Zabenica believes conservatives control PBS, evidenced by his phrase "if the left regains control." Peter Green thinks we are on our way to fascism. I think we are already there.
Erbe's failure to disclose Czarnecki's administration position must not be repeated. Failure to disclose such background information in jury selection would result in dismissing the candidate. If the info is disclosed, the parties to the case can decide whether to dismiss or not. The examples given in the column where Czarnecki appeared to speak for the Bush administration are cause to cease inviting her to the show. This is indeed very, very sad.
Carrol Nast, Colfax, CA
I'll be away from the office on business during the week of Sept. 10. But please keep your e-mails and phone calls coming.