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PBS Ombudsman

Frontline on BP: Helping the Viewer or Violating a Fundamental?

Every reporter and editor knows that you should not take the answer to one question and make it appear as though it is the answer to another question. That's just fundamental journalistic ethics.

Yet that's what one of the best and most respected programs on television, PBS's venerable Frontline, did last week in an interview with the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, David J. Hayes. The interview was included in "The Spill," an investigation of oil giant BP that aired on Oct. 26.

Before I go any further, let me say that this bad story has a happy ending, sort of. Just before this column was to be posted today (nobody sees the ombudsman column before it goes online) Frontline Senior Editor Ken Dornstein wrote to Matt Lee-Ashley, director of communications at Interior, who had complained about the editing of the interview the day after it aired.

Dornstein, at first, had strongly defended Frontline in an initial response on Oct. 29 to Lee-Ashley's charges. The Interior official didn't buy that at all. I'll explain all this back and forth as we move along.

Today, Dornstein sent this letter to Interior:

"We wrote you last week in response to your concerns about The Spill. At issue here, we believe, is whether FRONTLINE fairly and accurately represented the views of Deputy Secretary Hayes and the Department of Interior. We maintain that we did. However, in carefully reviewing the editing decisions in this case again, we have now concluded that using the second answer from later in the interview was not consistent with our past practices. So, even if the result was fair to Secretary Hayes, it's not a precedent we want to set. We are going to re-cut this exchange to restore Hayes' original answer to [producer/reporter Martin] Smith's question. We will post this version on our web site, along with an editor's note, and include it in all future broadcasts."

It's Over, But . . .

So, the confrontation is over. Frontline, ultimately, did the right thing. But even though I had prepared my assessment of this episode before it reached what for me was a surprise ending, with Frontline changing its position, I think it still merits reporting because if Frontline can do this than you wonder if it happens in other places. And also because I — and I assume Interior — don't agree that Frontline, in its editing, was "fairly and accurately" representing the views of Hayes and Interior.

The segment with Hayes was quite brief and it came toward the end of a hard-hitting investigation that was reported in conjunction with the new and also highly regarded nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The one-hour program documented the deeply flawed leadership, safety record and management culture of oil giant BP over the years and how that led to this year's long-running disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In today's hot, anti-media environment, lots of people think journalistic ethics is an oxymoron, terms that don't go well together. But serious journalists and news organizations take their craft seriously and Frontline, in my experience, is among the most dedicated. So this, like a lot of such issues, is complicated: open-and-shut in one sense — you just don't intentionally mix questions and answers — yet maybe a close and tough call if you are a producer trying to compress hours and hours worth of interviews with lots of people into a 54-minute slot. Because it involves such a premier program, it struck me as especially important.

Here's How It Started

The day after the broadcast, Lee-Ashley wrote to me about what he believed to be "a breach of journalistic ethics" in the interview with Hayes. I sent this on to Frontline for a response, which resulted in Dornstein's explanation about why they chose to present the Hayes interview as they did on the program.

Lee-Ashley then wrote to Frontline saying this defense was "unsatisfactory. I find the position Frontline has taken to be deeply troubling. The public expects PBS to uphold the highest standards of journalism. In this case, the reporter, the producer and Frontline have failed to meet those standards.

"The answer that Mr. Hayes provided to the question you showed on camera," Lee-Ashley wrote, "is the answer that should have been shown to your viewers. Splicing in a different answer to a different question is misleading and unethical. Your claim that the two questions were equivalent is without merit."

What follows are excerpts from Interior's letter and Frontline's response, along with portions of the transcripts from the interview and from the broadcast. Frontline, to its credit, posts transcripts on its website of the full interview with its subjects, along with a transcript of the actual program.

One quick observation on my part at this point.

Reading a transcript and parsing the substance of the substitution is one thing. Actually watching the broadcast after you've been made aware of the switch is jarring. It is done seamlessly and the only people who knew what was going on were the reporter, producer and Hayes from Interior. So were it not for Interior's complaint, this exchange about an important and controversial process would not be taking place.

Also, the original interview with Hayes conducted by veteran Frontline reporter and producer Martin Smith on Aug. 20 was quite long — eight pages of transcript. Of all that, only two very brief questions and answers were actually included in the broadcast.

Here's How Interior's Matt Lee-Ashley Viewed It:

The version of the Frontline piece that appeared last night does not accurately reflect the transcript of the interview. Specifically, the piece substitutes one of David Hayes's answers for a different answer to a different question. The result of the editing is to make David Hayes appear evasive and as if he is passing the buck. This is an entirely unfair and inaccurate characterization of the Department's position and David Hayes' answer. As you will see from the transcript, David's actual answer to the question that appeared in the show was straightforward and a fair reflection of the Department's position. If the show is going to broadcast the question of the interviewer, it has a responsibility to broadcast the actual answer that David provided.

Below I [Lee-Ashley] have pasted the transcript from the relevant questions, along with the transcript from the edited version of the show.

This is the [original interview] transcript:

FL: They had the Thunder Horse [oil field] rig almost completely destroyed during a storm because of a malfunction. They had the Texas City problem disaster. They had problems on the North Slope of Alaska. Regardless of the fact that things may or may not relate specifically to the technology that you're reviewing, at what point does a company's record or performance start to raise red flags?

DJH: Well, it's a good question. I think the enforcement philosophy that we have, and the permanent philosophy that we have, is we expect every applicant to come in and provide the demonstration required to show that they can do the activities they're being requested to do. And so, from that perspective, we expect our permit reviewers and our enforcers to be tough on everybody.

Then, later in the interview:

FL: We've done it before. We've investigated BP and come to the conclusion through numerous studies, both internal and external to the company, that there was a failed safety culture; that there were problems, that cost cutting resulted in deferred maintenance in facilities. Are we ever going to do that again?

DJH: Sure [actually, he said, Well]. We are absolutely committed to having safe offshore drilling. I'll leave it at that. If there's an issue with a company that is systemic and that is appropriate for special enforcement and that comes out of this incident, I'm sure this will be a trigger for that, but I have to defer to our enforcement experts on that one.

This is what they had on the [actual broadcast] show:

FL: They had the Thunder Horse [oil field] rig almost completely destroyed during a storm because of a malfunction. They had the Texas City problem disaster. They had problems on the North Slope of Alaska. Regardless of the fact that things may or may not relate specifically to the technology that you're reviewing, at what point does a company's record or performance start to raise red flags?

DJH: [Well,] we are absolutely committed to having safe offshore drilling. I'll leave it at that. If there's an issue with a company that is systemic and that is appropriate for special enforcement and that comes out of this incident, I'm sure this will be a trigger for that, but I have to defer to our enforcement experts on that one.

Here's the Initial Response to Interior from Frontline Senior Editor Ken Dornstein:

First, we refer you to the transcript of the Hayes interview which we published on our website — a practice that FRONTLINE pioneered fifteen years ago in the interest of journalistic transparency, and as a resource for viewers seeking further explanation and nuance. What seems clear from the transcript is that, during the course of this interview, Smith asked Hayes several versions of the same basic question — a question that went to the heart of concerns about regulatory oversight of BP during the years before the disaster in the Gulf. Deputy Secretary Hayes responded each time with answers that, in our view, were different in emphasis and tone and clarity, but did not represent fundamentally different views of the Department's regulatory philosophy in the way you claim.

We believe we chose the best iteration of Smith's question and the version of Hayes' answer that would be most clear to our television audience. Initially, we used Martin Smith's opening question and the immediate answer by Hayes. We found it opaque and unsatisfactory, and not necessarily clear to our viewers. Smith then followed a long line of questioning and returned with essentially another version of the same question, and finally received a clearer answer. We could have tried to have both exchanges in the film, but, as in any complicated story collapsed to fit in some 50 minutes of airtime, we edited for time and clarity without sacrificing accuracy and fairness.

We believe that compressing the exchange does not in any way alter the Deputy Secretary's meaning or intent, nor did it inaccurately reflect the Department's position. We did this with great caution and consideration, as with all editing decisions at FRONTLINE, and we vigorously defend this editorial decision against any charge of a breach of journalistic ethics.

My Thoughts

First, a nod to Frontline as a routinely excellent and courageous public affairs series that is at the top of whatever remains of this kind of investigative reporting within American television. And a nod to the difficulties posed by compression to serious and respected producers who do lots of interviewing and then have to squeeze 50 pounds of the stuff into the proverbial 10-pound bag.

Now the proverbial ombudsman's "But." This was a mistake, in my view; a big and serious one in terms of the inherent risk it takes with Frontline's credibility in the interest of what Frontline says was providing more clarity to the viewer on one very brief portion of the program. It was a question and answer switch that was absolutely sure to be caught and questioned — by David Hayes — even though no one else would notice it.

I have no experience as a producer and, as I've said, have appreciation for the challenge of compressing these things. My guess is that other producers have wrestled with this kind of problem and dealt with it in various ways. But the idea of matching one question with the answer to another one just violates a rule so basic that it is hard for me to absorb and impossible to condone. I find it astonishing that Frontline went down this road. There must have been better ways to do this.

The narrator, for example, plays a huge role in this program, carrying the theme of BP culpability throughout the script and the questioning of why BP wasn't challenged more by Interior about its deep water efforts. Had they left Hayes' actual answer to the first question in the program and then had the narrator say something like, "Later in the interview Hayes also said . . ." it seems as though it would have worked. Easy for me to say and not have to figure out what else to cut, but definitely worth it in terms of the stakes here for Frontline.

Or, if Frontline believes, as Dornstein said in his first response, that Smith "asked Hayes several versions of the same question," why not just use the question Smith asked that produced the answer from Hayes that Frontline found most clear?

More from Interior

Aside from the mismatched questions and answers, I asked Lee-Ashley for a further explanation of why the segments on the air made Hayes "appear evasive" and how, exactly, they led to an "inaccurate characterization" of the department's views.

"To understand why the answer shown on air does not fit with the question that was broadcast, I think it's important to look at how the two questions in the transcript [of the original interview] differ.

"The first — about the Thunderhorse rig, the Texas refinery fire, etc — deals with BP's past safety practices and whether those should have been taken into account in offshore leasing decisions made over the last several years. The reporter, Martin Smith, asks, basically: if BP had such a troubled safety record, why would Interior ever allow them to drill offshore? This is a question about decisions that happened in the past and what information Interior takes into account when making leasing decisions. David Hayes rightly describes the enforcement philosophy of the Department as being 'tough on everybody' and that all applicants for offshore drilling permits have had to show they can meet the standards that have been set.

"The second question below is substantially different. Martin Smith is asking whether, in light of the safety troubles at BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we are going to 'do that again.' This is a prospective question that gets at whether BP will be allowed to drill offshore in the future. David Hayes rightly points out that the Department is committed to ensuring that offshore drilling is conducted safely, but that decisions about whether BP will be allowed to continue to operate offshore (in other words, whether the company could be debarred or face sanctions for the Deepwater Horizon spill) is not a question DOI can answer at this time. That is a question that enforcement experts at DOJ [Dept. of Justice] — and relevant investigations — will help answer.

"By splicing the answer to the second question together with the first question, it sounds as if David Hayes is deferring to others on the issue of why BP was granted drilling permits in the past and what type of information is taken into account in leasing decisions. He in fact was doing no such thing — he stated clearly the enforcement philosophy of the Department and that all operators have had to play by the same tough rules. Viewers should have the opportunity to hear David's actual response to the question that was posed."

A Violation of PBS Guidelines?

So, unexplained switching answers to questions, even in the name of what a producer believes is greater clarity for viewers, violates what I consider basic journalistic standards. But does it violate PBS's Editorial Standards and Guidelines?

I've noted in the past that these guidelines say all the right things yet are so deftly written that you can rather easily find things that support both sides in a controversy.

For example, it says: "Not only would it be impractical for PBS to second-guess the producer's decisions at each step of the production process, but respect for that process demands that producers be allowed the freedom required for creativity to flourish . . . Precision in editorial standards is especially difficult because it is impossible to articulate every criterion that might enter into the evaluation of the quality and integrity of particular content. Moreover, a criterion considered mandatory for straight news reporting may not always be appropriate for a documentary or dramatic program."

But it also says: "Producers must neither oversimplify complex situations nor camouflage straightforward facts . . . for a work to be considered objective, it should reach a certain level of transparency. In a broad sense, this spirit of transparency means the audience should be able to understand the basics of how the producers put the material together . . . if producers face particularly difficult editorial decisions that they know will be controversial, they should consider explaining why choices were made so the public can understand."

At another point, the guidelines state: "All producers face the necessity of selection — which material is to be left in, which is to be edited out. Reducing and organizing this information is part of the producer's craft. It is the objective of the editing process to collect and order information in a manner that fairly portrays reality. Producers must assure that edited material remains faithful in tone and substance to that reality . . . When significant interruptions of time or changes of setting occur, they should be unambiguously identified for the viewer."

Finally, the guidelines, under the label of "unacceptable production practices," says "it is impossible to anticipate every situation which a producer of informational content must contend" but it doesn't say anything specifically about switching answers to questions. That certainly would qualify as unacceptable in my opinion.

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