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PBS Ombudsman

'Silly' or Serious?

Sometimes issues that come to the attention of an ombudsman are clear cut: they do or do not violate an organization's guidelines, or something important has been left out, or something is inaccurate or unfair. At other times, things are murky, more on the margins, and we cruise on instinct.

The subject of this column is one in which I'm cruising on instinct. It involves a short article that appeared in the New York Times' Business section on Monday, Oct. 23, about the well-known PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, and in which I am quoted.

The article reports that Rose, who had done an interview with H. Lee Scott Jr. — the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores — that aired on Aug. 1, was listed as among the hosts of a private dinner party in New York for Scott to be held on Oct. 23. The Times reported that Rose was listed along with "a dozen other prominent figures from the New York media and financial industries" as a host for the party which, the story said, was to honor Scott for his environmental initiatives and was paid for by Bob and Harvey Weinstein's production company.

The story quotes Rose as saying he does not see any conflict in these two events. "If I go somewhere and do something that is an appreciation of somebody I have interviewed in the past, that is not a conflict of interest," Rose told the paper. The well-known TV host, who has interviewed some 20,000 people, said, "I have no relationship with Wal-Mart. I did one show with Wal-Mart. Period." The story went on to report that, "Mr. Rose agreed to be a dinner host, he said, because 'Harvey Weinstein, who is a friend of mine, called and asked me to do this as a favor. I said I would do it for him as long as I do not have to do anything.' A spokeswoman for the Weinstein Company said that 'to suggest there is anything improper about him lending his name to an event honoring someone's efforts to save the environment is just plain silly.'"

Feeling the Squeeze

The quote attributed to me in the story by reporter Michael Barbaro is accurate. But I gave a fuller statement so that more of the context of my remark was missing. This, of course, is exactly the kind of thing that people who get quoted in the press always complain about when they read about themselves. But it was a relatively short article so I can understand how some material got cut.

After hearing about the situation from the reporter and making some inquiries of my own with PBS officials, here is what I stated to the reporter: "PBS says it doesn't see any cause for concern here and I can imagine that many people would not give this a second thought. Rose's show, by the way, is distributed by PBS but there is no PBS or taxpayer money. It is funded by his own underwriters. Nevertheless, if I had a say, which I don't, I would say something like: 'Don't do this. It's not necessary. A lot of other people can be co-hosts. As the host of one of the most respected and popular public affairs shows distributed on public broadcasting, you have an obligation not to do anything that could be seen by viewers as even a possible conflict of interest, or as diminishing the integrity, or credibility, of public broadcasting.'"

This got boiled down in the news story to: "The timing of interview and dinner raised the eyebrows of Michael Getler, the ombudsman at PBS, which distributes Mr. Rose's talk show. 'Don't do this,' was Mr. Getler's unsolicited advice to Mr. Rose. 'As the host of one of the most respected and popular public affairs shows distributed on public broadcasting,' he said, 'you have an obligation not to do anything that could be seen by viewers as even a possible conflict of interest, or as diminishing the integrity or credibility of public broadcasting.'"

I'd also like to clarify two other things. The headline on the article reads: "Interview and Then Dinner Crowd PBS's Comfort Zone." Reporters don't write headlines, but one thing I made clear in my statement was that the PBS officials I spoke to before responding to the Times' inquiry did not see any cause for concern about the incident in question. So as far as I know, PBS is not uncomfortable with this situation and I'm the only one raising a question. Secondly, the Times article could be read as reporting that I gave advice directly to Rose. I didn't.

Remaining Thoughts

So, what's left for me to say? The Times piece doesn't say, but can be read to imply, that there might be some connection between being granted the interview with Scott, which the article describes as "a coup even for Charlie Rose," and being among the hosts for the dinner three months or so later. There is no evidence of that in the article and Rose says "there is no connection and the facts speak for themselves. We did the interview in July and the request from Harvey Weinstein came on Sept. 26."

On the other hand, I think the Times was right to take note of the dinner and Rose's willingness to be listed among the hosts and, to repeat, my advice to Rose would have been not to do it.

I have said a couple of times in various columns over the year that, as a viewer, I think the Charlie Rose program is among the very best on television and on PBS and that it is widely appreciated, according to my mail, by viewers. Tens of millions of viewers tune in to one or another PBS station every week and the broadcasting service incorporates its sense of trust that the public has in PBS in the way it presents itself. Rose is also very popular because he is widely trusted as an interviewer. And it is that trust that, in my view, can get jeopardized even by small acts that may not seem a big deal to many people.

I made a similar point in two columns earlier this year, one in January commenting on a trip that popular PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley made with an unofficial delegation of Americans to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and another in June when Republican Party operative Mary Matalin was chosen to sit in for Rose as a guest host for one program when Rose was still recuperating from heart surgery.

I don't mean to sound like some politically correct, journalistic goody-two-shoes shaking a finger at someone for doing something that didn't strike him as unreasonable. But if PBS is important, and trust is important, then the people who are the public face of PBS, even if they aren't on the payroll and have independent companies, have a duty to always keep that trust in mind. Even though this was a "private" dinner, and CEO Scott was being honored for his environmental work, Wal-Mart is a hugely controversial operation and this should have been, in my opinion, one of those moments to keep PBS, rather than friends or former interviewees, in mind.

A Strange Beast

PBS is a strange beast. It doesn't produce anything. The affiliated but independent member stations, and numerous independent film and TV documentary production companies, produce the programs that are distributed by PBS. So Rose doesn't work for PBS and his show doesn't get money from PBS or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But his show, and all others, do come under PBS's editorial guidelines.

Those internal guidelines are fairly extensive. They state, in part, that "PBS expects producers to adhere to the highest professional standards" including "real or perceived conflicts of interest." It gives some examples, but none of those go to the kind of subtleties that at least some could perceive as a conflict in the matter at hand.

When I asked PBS's Vice President for Communications, Lea Sloan, about the Rose co-hosting role last week she said the Charlie Rose show "must meet our editorial guidelines, and it does." She said she saw no conflict of interest or "cause for concern here, especially as Mr. Rose is the host of a talk show, rather than a news show." She said that "Lee Scott is a legitimately newsworthy figure for a Rose interview. Charlie Rose is a legitimately noteworthy figure to co-host an event honoring Mr. Scott, as many other current news figures did at the recent News and Documentary Awards. There is no fiduciary relationship between Scott and Rose or anything else that indicates improper conduct."

So this situation did not "Crowd PBS's Comfort Zone," as the Times headline said. But I think it should have.

The Mailbag

Here are some samplings of e-mails from viewers on other subjects that arrived recently.

Response to Moyers

I would like to thank PBS and Bill Moyers for presenting shows about Internet freedoms and lobbying. All Americans need to stay informed about important issues before our freedoms, rights, and liberties are quietly sold.

Rockland, MA

Not everything PBS does is always impressive, however, there are a few standouts that I am pleasantly surprised get made at all. Frontline definitely leads the pack. When I consider what investigative journalism is, this show is the finest realization of the idea. It goes further and deeper than any other I'm aware of. I am also quite impressed with most of Bill Moyers' work. His departure from "NOW" was a sad event. I still appreciate the show tremendously, just not as much as I had. "The NewsHour" is the only nightly broadcast program that I would even bother calling news.

Dino S., New York, NY

I just want to welcome Bill Moyers back to PBS. He is so refreshing in his approach to an issue & considering all sides. Whether liberal or conservative he gives much to think & consider.

Phyllis Koch, Portland, OR

Bill Moyers is terrific. I find his reporting to be accurate and insightful and revealing. This is something the MSM should be doing but when the Bush/Repubs came into power that all stopped. Americans can now only count on a few American sources to speak truth to power and secrecy. PBS, C-Span and Democracy Now are all we have left. The Catholic Church, my religion, has, since Pope John Paul II and continuing to this day, used its clout via the Catholic voters to support the Repub Party when they should either stay out of politics or, if it chooses to be involved in politics, it should stand for issues and NOT just the Repub Party. Merging of church and state is obviously corrosive to both. So, as the Repub Party has been revealed to be involved in scandals and the corruption of our democratic values and institutions so also is the Catholic Church complicit in these things via its total support of the Repub Party. As the Repub Party goes down so also does the Catholic Church go down into the pits. Unfortunately so also does the entire country.

Religion should be about religion, not about politics and the shaping of US foreign and domestic policy. The use of religion to further the political goals is an abomination unto the God and unto we his children, the community of man.

Many, many thanks to PBS and C-Span for allowing Americans to speak to each other via these respective forums.

Bob D'Amico, Cleveland, OH

And Frontline

I have just watched the Frontline report on the lost year in Iraq. It is very detailed, and is accurate from a historical viewpoint. However, some false conclusions are drawn. The view that if the Baathists and the army had not been disbanded things would have been different is probably not true. Let me explain: Most of the Middle East is a feudal society. If you look up "The Middle Ages" and feudalism in the dictionary, you find a remarkable resemblance to what we see today in many of the Middle Eastern nations. Certainly it is true of Iraq. Now suppose in the Middle Ages someone had suggested that everyone should have a vote. But loyalty was to the church and to the lord, whether a duke, a knight, or whatever his rank. Similarly, now the average person owes fealty to an imam or a sheik, to the point of death. Saddam overcame this by a labyrinth of deals and threats. Now we are punishing him for the very thing which is necessary for the rule of Iraq, and we cannot do it ourselves. Democracy simply makes no sense in this situation.

Leonard Clapp, Wilmington, DE

I am very proud of you and your stunningly honest assessment of the war in IRAQ. Who would have thought dear old benign PBS could expose some really bad guys, i.e., the Bush administration!! I was against it from the beginning, calling my Congressman John Mica's aide until I know she thought I was crazy. If only you had let loose about 3 years ago!!! The American press has failed in its obligation to inform us, I think. Please PBS, do whatever you can now! It's really bad and I don't just mean in IRAQ. Even our Constitution went down the tubes today with that new law eliminating Habeas Corpus signed by the President that makes illegal combatants of us all.

Cecil Herring, Deltona, FL

And Last Week's Omb Column

A first-rate piece. The problem is, I think, especially severe in Washington. How many stories about the Medicare prescription drug benefit were about Bush winning or losing, compared to how many were about seniors getting drugs on good or poor terms? It is a particular failing of political reporters who can't be bothered to learn the substance of an issue. It's probably at its very worst in presidential campaigns, when candidates make lots of proposals and reporters flying around the country have no time to figure out what's plausible. A few papers have big enough staffs to have someone collaborate, but for most papers, that's a luxury they can't afford.

Adam Clymer, Washington, DC

Still More About FAIR

Thanks for your response to FAIR about the NewsHour. I was impressed by the thoughtful way you handled it. I was less than impressed, to put it mildly, with Ms. Winslow's response and her arrogant attitude is unfortunate. She tells us that the NewsHour covers those who are the "deciders." I thought that was Tony Snow's job. We don't need another unchallenged mouthpiece for the ultra-powerful. We need voices that do not have a reason to speak other than to help the American people understand what is truly happening in the world. There are ZERO progressive voices on this show and when the segments conclude with all the guests agreeing on the topic of discussion your producer has failed. Simple as that.

Mark Varner, Boulder Creek, CA

Please pass on my congratulations to Ms. Winslow on improving the NewsHour's level of racial and gender diversity over the past fifteen years from a D to a D+. No wonder she defends herself so proudly.

Seriously, I don't watch the NewsHour or any other television news shows. Why should I? I know what the establishment will say in its defense. There's nothing "new" about what they have to say. (NOW and Bill Moyers' various programs, on the other hand, consistently offer valid presentations of underrepresented perspectives. Thanks at least for them.) Maybe Ms. Winslow can expand her definition of "the most qualified guests" to include citizens (whose votes put her "decision makers" in office) who are interested in and affected by the "news" her program reports. Such a change would be worth tuning in for.

Ann Arbor, MI

NewsHour is still the best thing on PBS but there needs to be a concerted effort to balance the type of guests on the show. I'm more interested in the views of the people on what ever issue instead of the administration's. So, please do a better job of the signature of the moniker "PUBLIC BROADCASTING." Other than that, it is still the best thing going!

Robert DeLuca, Erie, PA

This response is in regard to your take on the FAIR study questioning the NewsHour's balance. I appreciate your response and the fact that you took the study seriously enough to address the problems raised by that study.

The only problem I'm not seeing addressed is the scapegoating made because, in your opinion, FAIR is a liberal-minded organization. Even if I felt that way and agreed with you, why would it matter? Politics are what they are but I've yet to ever see the mainstream press as anything even remotely liberal. To this day, anytime someone in the mainstream media makes a comment that is considered to be "liberal" you can count a clarion call from conservatives to "fix" that assessment, and more often than not, it happens, sometimes with a vengeance.

The fact of the matter is that while the media had a field day over Bill Clinton's infidelity there was very little, and no serious, coverage regarding President Bush's lies to get the U.S. into a war with Iraq. Why was infidelity so much more important than obvious lies used to get us involved in a war?

I can list the way mainstream news biases have cost the taxpayers both billions of their dollars and quite possibly two major elections and still all we receive are talking heads from the White House pooh-poohing those allegations and sidetracking news coverage with votes regarding gay marriage, immigration reform (that goes nowhere) and the railroading of Bush appointees to our Supreme Court.

There was that matter of the conservative spin machine accusing mainstream news of being liberally biased. Even though there wasn't a shred of viable evidence to back up the accusation, every news agency in the USA decided to "clean up their act." What did that get the popular news agencies? Despite their obvious swing to the right, FOX news beat the mainstream news agencies in the rating wars. I hope this wake-up call will bring some lasting changes and not just defensive remarks as some of those I've read by Executive Producer Winslow. Here's to a better future with clarity and balance (and a bit of skepticism regarding stated political policies) for all.

Richard Tucker, Kaiserslautern, Germany

The NewsHour is a truly GREAT program. Keep it as is and continue!!!

B.E., Santa Clarita, CA

Having read the original FAIR post, your reply to it and the FAIR reply, I find that I must still agree with FAIR's assessment of the NewsHour. It is the reason why I ceased watching the program in favor of watching and listening to the BBC, Keith Olbermann and other news programs to get actual balance to counterweight what comes from official sources, which are covered by the print media and the major networks. Olbermann does what a journalist is supposed to do, to probe the extant powers for truth. I have yet to catch him in factual inaccuracies like I have Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and, yes, you also. I have grown accustomed to the follow up, sometimes aggressive follow up, of interviewees who render false or evasive answers to the interviewer's questions on the British network. Rarely does anyone from the NewsHour offer in-depth follow up on the NewsHour, even when I detect outright falsehoods in the answers. It's as if those in the NewsHour have been infected by some fear of power, allowing outright lies to go unchallenged, when you really are supposed to face power down, as journalists. You have become a bastion of the he said, she said laziness. He said, she said "neutrality," which passes now for "objectivity," necessarily favors those who are in power, be they left or right.

Richard DiMatteo, San Diego, CA

I have been following both the study done by FAIR and your response with great interest. As a subscriber of my local PBS station and a viewer of the NewsHour since the days of Robin McNeil, I have to agree with many of the FAIR findings. Many of the guests are on so often I know what they are going to say before they say it. Both Brooks and Shields fall into this category, as do some of the other so-called experts. I also get very frustrated when the interviewer does not challenge the obvious misstatements of guests.

Larry North, Sacramento, CA

Yes, they (the NewsHour and NPR) ARE better than commercial media in the United States, most especially Fox. But that is damning them both with faint praise. ANYTHING, almost, is better than Fox, and its corporate-spin brethren. I notice, especially about NewHour, that it is SO exclusively focused on Washington folks. It is also SO exclusively East Coast focused it is simply unbelievable. The story may originate elsewhere, but that part is done as a sound bite, then, back to the Washington crowd to tell us what to think about it! Sadly, the NewsHour does NOT do remotely enough to begin to counter balance that. It does not report on dissent outside the daily spin promulgated by the Beltway idiots, and then broadcast by the talking fools on radio and conservative TV.

Tim Remple, Longmont, CO

I am a FAIR.org subscriber, have read through their latest analysis of the NewsHour and have read your response. First I want to thank you for what appears to be an open, honest willingness to engage and discuss the criticism rather than dismiss it outright. Sadly, I cannot say the same about EP Winslow's defensive and dismissive retort.

However, both you and Winslow shared a common and disturbing idea: that the show reports about those who make the news. Today's Presidential Administration and the Republican Party are actively engaged in media affairs to an unprecedented degree. Conservative commentators dominate prominent airwaves with an unprecedented level of help from media corporations. They decide what's important, shape a message, and then send that message out as a solid, coherent worldview. Their goal is to "make the news," and then point to it, once made, as "real." In a phrase, it is the laundering of ideas.

If the NewsHour continuously defers to those who are "making the news" rather than asserting its own power — and responsibility — to decide what makes the news, then it is not a form of journalism, but a passive conduit for the propaganda of whomever happens to be in power. It is disturbing that the NewsHour can tout itself as so "balanced" and yet defend its passive acceptance of the message of those in power.

Ethan Young, Portland State University, OR

Finally, a Word About Casanova

I was greatly distressed and morally offended Sunday evening when I clicked onto my local PBS station 11 (Tulsa). The movie was "Casanova", the scene was of a brother and sister in a sex act. Nothing was left to the imagination. I cannot believe "Masterpiece" produced such a vile film, nor would I believe PBS or Chanel 11 would show it had I not seen it personally.

Claremore, OK

(Ombudsman's Note: There were other viewers who telephoned with similar complaints about this program.)

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