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The Ombudsman Column

For Brewers Like You

In the midst of a really big news week for all Americans, including the release and reaction to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report, came one of the weirder bits of news involving PBS.

On Dec. 6, it was announced that the Public Broadcasting Service and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters had formed a partnership to launch a new organic coffee blend known as PBS Blend. The press release says the new blend will be offered in "whole bean, 10-oz. packages and single-serve K-Cups for use in Keurig Single-Cup brewers," also owned by Green Mountain.

The press release itself seems to present a masterpiece of politically, environmentally and socially correct blended images of this new marriage, in keeping with discriminating TV watchers and coffee drinkers.

"Sweetly balanced and smooth," it states, "with full flavor and a rich finish, PBS Blend is grown in the lush, tropical rain forests surrounding the El Triunfo Biosphere in Mexico. PBS Blend carries the Fair Trade Certified™ label, which guarantees farmers a fair price for their coffee harvest and enables them to reinvest in their communities. In addition, PBS Blend is environmentally-friendly. A certified organic coffee, its beans were grown using agricultural practices that preserve biodiversity and vital habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife.

"'We are pleased to be working with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which shares PBS's commitment to social responsibility and community education,' said Andrea Downing, Vice President, Home Entertainment and Partnerships. 'This partnership allows PBS a new way to engage and inform consumers around a quality product, provides them with another way to support public television through their every day lifestyle choices and purchases, and ensures that our member stations can continue to deliver a valuable public service in their communities.'

"Robert Stiller, President of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, said, 'This collaboration with PBS reinforces our belief that when like-minded organizations join together, they can be an agent for positive change. We admire PBS and its member stations' focus on public service and education, as well as its long-standing reputation as a trusted community resource. This delicious coffee provides us with new avenues for supporting our global community and advancing public education about Fair Trade.'"

Now, Who Could Possibly Find Fault With That?

Enter the irrepressible Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and unofficial watchdog always waiting to pounce on any and all signs of PBS straying into commercial activity. In the aftermath of this announcement, which was noted primarily in the trade press, I only got one message from a viewer, and that was from Chester. The message said only: "PBS is outrageous." It was attached to a brief article on MediaPost.com reporting that the new partnership was "the first of several such enterprises" and that "early next year" PBS "plans to launch other such partnerships, most likely in food and beverages, and accessories."

Chester elaborated the next day in a story reported on BostonHerald.com on Dec. 8, questioning the revenue-sharing arrangement with a for-profit company and saying that it pushes PBS toward more commercialization and away from its media-focused mission. "PBS should smell the coffee and realize that such for-profit ventures threaten to undermine the rationale for taxpayer support. Why should the public fund a TV network which is just another competitor to Starbucks?" he asked.

PBS spokeswoman Stephanie Aaronson countered, in the story, that PBS is definitely not becoming another Starbucks and not moving away from its mission. And she points out that lawmakers in Congress have encouraged PBS to find creative ways to raise funds beyond those it receives from viewer contributions, corporate and foundation sponsorships, and federal funds via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The story points out that PBS has long sold DVDs and videos of its own programs, and that PBS Blend won't be sold in retail stores, but will be available via the Web or Green Mountain catalogs.

So What?

Nevertheless, this partnership is indeed something new and moves the Public Broadcasting Service further down the road toward commercial linkages on the margins of its still largely commercial-free main mission of delivering high quality programming free of interruption and free of the influences that network and cable television impose.

In August and September, ombudsman's columns dealt with a still small but steadily growing number of complaints from viewers upset at what they see as a steady growth of "commercials" and "advertisements" on various PBS outlets that they see as undermining the network's special mission. Much of this was focused on the new PBS KIDS Sprout digital channel offered by Comcast, which is the biggest partner in that enterprise, and which contains real commercials. I still get a small but steady stream of mail from viewers who don't like that idea.

(Here's one from last Saturday from Susan McCarthy in West Haven, CT: "What are you thinking? The number of commercials on PBS Kids Sprout is absolutely unacceptable from a station with PBS in its name. Has PBS sold out? I understand financial reality, and the need for corporate support. The diaper semi-commercials were one thing. Now I can't leave the room while PBS Kids Sprout is on for fear of a toy commercial, or a van commercial with "The Bump" as its theme music. I can't believe what has happened to our beloved PBS Sprout! This has tainted my view of the PBS television brand overall. I hope that you will listen to the scores of viewers who have written you and make a change. Delete the commercials on Sprout!! And bring back Melanie, too.")

Then, PBS signed a deal with Google to allow so-called "sponsored links," which are text-only paid advertisements from commercial firms provided by Google, on a small number of its top viewership Web pages. Then it signed another deal allowing the sale of display underwriting and digital sponsorships on PBS.org that allowed sale of sponsorship banners on various Web categories, including some kids program homepages.

And now PBS has begun branding products. Personally, I don't see that this is going to affect editorial content on the screen or on the Web site. And it is clear, as reported in those earlier columns and touched on in several others, that PBS seems always strapped for money and has used a formula for more than 35 years that relies on some commercial and foundation sponsorship, along with public and government funding, to continue bringing viewers the kind of programs that they are not likely to see produced on commercial or cable channels.

Nevertheless, this new arrow in PBS's growing quiver of commercial marketing-on-the-margins projects strikes me somehow as more sad than innovative. I'm no businessman and this all may be none of my business as ombudsman, either. But it is hard to see this generating enough revenue to really matter and meanwhile it may make it look, to still more people, as though PBS is sort of desperate to find money anywhere it can. The purist view, which I can afford to take and PBS perhaps can't, is that the piling up of these commercial linkages might slowly add-up to a weakening of this vital network's standing with enough viewers that will really matter.

PBS Explains the Upside

PBS's Vice President for Communications, Lea Sloan, laid out the positive view of this new enterprise in the following question-and-answer exchange with me.

Q-Why is PBS doing this? How, within PBS, was this idea born?

A-PBS is exploring innovative ways to generate additional income. One area of opportunity that we are looking into is product partnerships. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters will promote PBS and support local station membership in their marketing and promotion. PBS chose to collaborate with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters because of the company's commitment to corporate philanthropy and its values: its Fair Trade agreement, it is an organic product and is grown with environmentally sensitive farming practices. Green Mountain's other Coffee For a Cause partners include the National Wildlife Federation and Heifer International.

Q-How much of a departure is this from the current business model? Did you weigh the forecast of additional revenue against the possibility that this might undermine PBS's stature as a non-commercial system? Assuming you did weigh the pros and cons, can you provide some insight into the reasoning?

A-PBS has long sold consumer and educational videos to generate revenue. More recently, PBS has created a Foundation to provide another way to raise revenue. The limited revenue that PBS receives from federal appropriations (13% of total revenue) was never intended to fully fund our programming and services. PBS has always had to be creative about leveraging those dollars. Other non-profits have increasingly turned to additional, innovative methods to raise revenues through licensing deals and partnerships, including World Wildlife Fund, Save the Children, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and National Geographic, a media company.

Q-How will the new revenues be used, and how will they be appropriated within or between PBS and stations?

A-Revenues will be used to support the funding of programming and services.

Q-Can you provide any forecast on generated revenue for PBS, or perhaps an estimated percentage of non-government funding that this can be expected to provide?

A-We are not disclosing details of the projected revenues.

Q-Your spokesperson says that lawmakers have encouraged PBS to find creative ways to raise funds; what is she referring to, specifically?

A-In our ongoing conversations on the Hill we are continually encouraged to find entrepreneurial ways to leverage federal appropriations to better support programming and services.

Q-Is this the first of planned new commercial associations and, if so, can you provide any information of other product/partnership lines?

A-First let us clarify that we don't believe it is accurate to characterize this as a commercial association — at least not any more so than have for-profit companies support PBS as underwriters on air and online. Social entrepreneurship is a growing trend among companies — as a way for them to give back by supporting causes that they believe in. GMCR views this partnership as a way to support PBS. We are considering additional partnerships and licensing agreements that will be announced as they are finalized.

More on Jimmy and Judy

Last week's column about the interview of former President Jimmy Carter by special correspondent Judy Woodruff on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" continued to draw a lot of mail. Here's a representative sampling:

Today is the first time that I have read your column. I was prompted by the transcript of Woodruff's interview with President Carter. I don't agree with your analysis of Judy's tact in this interview, if only because she was voicing the prevailing view of the establishment press. Although I like interviewers to ask challenging questions, in this case I thought that Woodruff was either showing her ignorance or working hard to preserve the ignorance of our public on the Palestinian issue. In any case, I appreciate your posting of a balanced representation of comments that you received on this interview.

John Daugherty, Seattle, WA

Judy Woodruff displayed an incredible ignorance of the subject matter in her interview of former President Carter. His book is trying to provoke thought; her interview seemed geared to stifling it. Either she didn't do her homework or she is biased against an honest assessment of what is going on in the Middle East by a former President with first-hand knowledge and impeccable credibility.

James Nolan, Towson, MD

I'm delighted that PBS allowed the long-held misinformation about the Palestine-Israeli Conflict to be refuted, and by such a well-informed, articulate and respected figure as President Carter. In my view, Woodruff's questioning was appropriate — taking the perspective of the uninformed American rather than a knowledgeable interviewer.

Malcolm Fleming, Bloomington, IN

I just wish Judy or any journalist of note had been as tough on our current President in 2003. To its credit, I'm certain the NewsHour has had guests who covered the points that Carter raised; in fact the NewsHour is one of the few places where you can get the Palestinian side. That said, even the NewsHour needs to devote more time to the topic, because Ms. Woodruff probably got it right, most Americans are unaware of what's really going on in the Israeli — Palestinian conflict.

Greg Fuller, Bloomfield, MI

I just read the comments about Judy Woodruff's interview with Jimmy Carter, then read the interview (which I did not see when it aired on the NewsHour). Based on what I gather from these comments, and from reading the interview, it sounds like a contrived — even coached — attempt on Judy's part to make sure that nothing so "honest" as Carter's assessment of the Palestinian situation be given full legitimacy on the NewsHour. I have written to you before about the situation in Palestine — and the complete lack of accurate reporting of it in the news media in this country. What Israel has been doing is shameful — and Carter should be commended for bringing these facts to light. It's about TIME somebody did.

Kathleen Parker, Pittsburgh, PA

I know that the Repubs took control of PBS at the beginning of the Bush administration and now you tend to be a right-leaning organization. So though I was surprised at the poor treatment that Judy Woodruff gave to Prez Carter, probably our most moral prez, and as such goes about his life working to among other things gain some peace in the Middle East, Ms. Woodruff was very disrespectful to Mr. Carter. Carter has chosen to very courageously put his head in the noose. He is tackling a controversial and taboo topic in the media and in the U.S. The Neocons, both Jewish and non-Jewish (Cheney and Rumsfeld) have exerted enormous power over American policy both foreign and domestic, just as my religion, the Catholic Church does for a different issue. I feel strongly that both the Neocons and the Theocons are very wrong and responsible for hate, aggression, hostility and intolerance. There are, at least in my estimation, many Jews in Israel and in America who, along with the Palestinians, strongly desire a fair and long lasting peace in the ME. After all war is expensive while commerce is rewarding to all. So let's have NO WAR and LOTS of COMMERCE.

B. D., Cleveland, OH

Interesting comments. I saw Judy's bias so know, should say Judy's attitude, so know what many were saying. Thought it went well though so can agree with your comments. Will say I just love it when the propaganda outlets let a true exchange happen between a liberal and a conservative. Carter can hold his own and in spite of Judy's attempts to throw him off, she obviously failed. To her credit she acknowledged that. Also credit to the NewsHour and PBS for doing the interview. Oh. Also credit to Judy. I am for all sides presenting their views, including bias and attitude, so long as the other side is also fairly presented.

As for the pro Israeli rants it's obvious they don't know the facts, but as several viewers said, how could they? As Carter said, it's a taboo subject in America with the propaganda outlets of corporate America. That you even covered this topic was a shock to me. Instead of jumping out of my chair with joy as one viewer did, I swooned.

Anyway, I hope you do more interviews like this and as far as I'm concerned put Judy on it. That way conservatives can't complain like I do that the interview was fixed and slanted. All I want is the truth to come out. It did in that interview. And who knows, if Judy can honestly make her case I may even agree with her.

Tom Felt, Tucson, AZ

I thought all the whackos watched FOX. What I saw and felt was a reporter who has a long relationship with a former president and a president who obviously enjoyed the intellectual exchange. Carter is a man who can think on his feet, and is not afraid of being challenged. Maybe the absence of that kind of leadership for the past six years causes these people to think that Dubya Dunce is the norm!

Jerry W. Reeves, Lincoln, TX

"Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." I just read your column about the Carter interview. I just wanted to let you know that the title is not a "catchy, and provocative, title." It reflects the true conditions of Palestine and the choice that Israel must make. It is sad for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Sad for the Palestinians since at this rate they will not gain their state and sad for the Israelis since they will end up without a Jewish state. It appears that the NewsHour personnel and yourself are not aware of the present situation as Judy proved many times with her questions.

Keir Campbell, Los Gatos, CA

Re Jimmy Carter's latest book and interview on the Lehrer NewsHour. To balance Carter's comments, fairness dictates that an interview of someone with a different take on that subject matter be aired.

Mission Hills, KS

If you did not think that Judy Woodruff was biased and uninformed in her interview of Jimmy Carter, then I think that it is time for you to resign! When are the Palestine Citizens going to be allowed on the NewsHour and Charlie Rose to tell their side of the story and show pictures of how the Palestine People are being treated under Israeli and USA domination?

Anton Grambihler, Richland, WA

Two things struck me about the Woodruff/Carter interview: The first was that a former president had the courage to criticize Israel on American TV; the second was the interviewer's combative tone and her obvious distress at what she was hearing. Woodruff was more interested in defending Israel than she was in hearing Carter's reasons for being critical. Your assertion that her challenges resulted in a better interview is an indefensible opinion. It can't be proved or disproved. I would have liked to have seen Carter interviewed by a reporter capable of keeping her bias to herself, one whose questions were aimed at exploring his views instead of challenging his answers.

S. Murphy, Alexandria, VA

Re President Jimmy Carter Interview: It's hard to set aside personal bias about the Mid-East turmoil. Do it, though, and you really have to appreciate the ability of Judy Woodruff to get so much out of that interview. In the limited time available, President Carter was able to express his views very well. He suggested there is much that most of us in the U.S. are a bit ignorant about, and he is obviously reaching for a more balanced view among all of us.

The one thing I would've liked more of from President Carter (and for Judy W. to question) concerns the huge hurdle that stands in the way of a balanced view for millions of Americans. In part it's because apparently too many terrorists think it's perfectly OK to lob random rockets or go on suicide missions to blow up people at wedding parties or day-care centers, and to proclaim that Israel has no right to exist. But it's more than that. Is there nothing but support for those tactics and attitudes? Is there no voice of reason and moderation? Or are we in the U.S. victims of one-sided news. President Carter thinks we are. How are we to know?

In any case, Judy gets an A for her role. Don't shoot messengers or moderators for helping to get the message out — unless it's your intent to divert attention from the message.

Carlos Higgins, Austin, TX

I just read your comments about the Woodruff interview of Jimmy Carter. I did not watch it because I think he damages the United States every time he opens his mouth. I think you would be amazed at the revelations about his veracity printed today (7 December) in "Best of the Web" on opinionjournal.com.

Frank Harris, Gold Hill, OR