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Thursday, October 2, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Is PBS Too Conservative?

OK. You don't have to write to me about the headline. I can imagine all the e-mails already that will ask, 'Are you kidding?' Well, actually, I am kidding but not as much as you might think.

I don't like labels — left-right, liberal-conservative. Sometimes they are necessary and useful when circumstances demand and they are needed to understand a point or issue. But generally, I try to stay away from them, especially when it comes to journalism.

I have been a journalist — reporter, editor and most recently ombudsman — for more than 50 years. During that time I have met thousands of journalists, worked with and gotten to know hundreds of them. I'm talking here about what one would describe these days as "mainstream" journalists — reporters and editors who work for newspapers, wire services, some news magazines, the major broadcast TV networks, including PBS, and the web versions of those organizations.

How About Those 'Centrists'

I can't say that I know, for sure, the electoral politics of any of them. But if I had to pin a label on the vast majority of them, it would be "centrist," people who are drawn to news and reporting, who have wanted to do nothing else since they were young, who want to uncover wrong-doing or right-doing, who believe in the importance of informing people, of getting to the bottom of things, of finding out what is really going on and will pursue a story wherever it leads. They see, and even like, complexity, and understand that there are multiple sides to stories.

They are not, in my experience, ideologues who are driven to pursue a political agenda or point of view. Many probably are privately "liberal," which is a good word, not a bad one, when it comes to civil rights and human rights. Many of that same cohort may, personally, hold more conservative — also not a bad word — views when it comes to finance or economics or foreign policy.

They put their name on their work so they don't like to make mistakes. They are drawn to news organizations that have a clear firewall between the news sections and the editorial page, and to news staffs that were just as tough on Bill Clinton as they were on George W. Bush, just as tough on Ronald Reagan as they were on Jimmy Carter.

In today's over-heated and polarized political environment, and in the lightning-fast change of information technology that engulfs us, press distinctions also get blurred. Journalists are reporters, the ones who go out and dig up the stories and material that still forms the basis for the overwhelming amount of news that we know about.

But our world today is filled with ever more commentators, columnists, bloggers, talking heads, political strategists and activists. They cost less to fill air time than do staff news reporters. Much of what they say can be interesting and provocative — or wrong. Some of it can be based on their own reporting. But this is not journalism done by reporters for major news institutions, or for the new news outlets that adhere to tested journalistic standards of accountability and verification.

Where's PBS?

So where does PBS fit into this? The ombudsman's office is, on one hand, a pretty good catbird seat. I get a fair amount of mail from which to judge viewer reaction. On the other hand, as I've said many times before, people tend to write to me to complain, so I'm always aware that there may be many people out there who disagree with the complainers. Also, lots of people write to me who like to vent, who have strong ideological or political views and are not apt to be satisfied unless their view is supported, or who will not see any virtue in what I may describe as a "centrist" reporting effort.

The conventional tag that I often see applied to PBS is "liberal." I get a fair amount of mail from critics who say they are viewers and who say they see public broadcasting that way. But I also get probably an equal amount from viewers, or from people who claim to be viewers, that think PBS has moved to the right, that the service has increasingly sold out to the right-wing and corporate interests. I'm not trying to invoke, here, the idea that when one is criticized by both sides it must mean it is doing something right and in the broader public's interest.

Rather, it is to say that PBS, from where I sit, is not label-worthy, and there are some odd reasons for that.

For one thing, Bill Moyers, who used to generate a lot of mail with his weekly "Journal," especially from conservative critics, is gone, as is the weekly current affairs program "NOW on PBS," which also generated some occasional criticism.

Both programs, I should add, also had very large bands of devoted supporters who appreciated their work. I'm among those who miss those programs as vital contributions to the broader collection of public affairs programming that is available to television viewers across the spectrum. The analysis and editorial segment of Bill Moyers Journal often generated controversy, which is absolutely fair. But, as a viewer, the interview and reporting content of both these programs seemed to me to be solid, valuable, thought-provoking, focused on timely and controversial issues, and easily absorbed by citizens seeking to be broadly informed.

The single new current affairs program that has filled part of the former Moyers-NOW time slot since last May, "Need to Know," has gotten better in my view, does many worthwhile and important segments, but doesn't seem to generate much mail either way. The parent organization, WNET.org in New York, has said NTK's future is uncertain and that no decision has been made yet to renew it.

So PBS actually does not have much of a national public affairs presence that goes beyond the NewsHour, which is the only hour-long news program on broadcast TV five nights a week and is about as straight down-the-middle as you can get, the venerable and also straight-forward "Washington Week" program on Friday nights, and "Frontline," which is probably the best, most important and most hard-hitting investigative show on television, along with CBS's "60 Minutes." Indeed, along with the departure of Moyers and NOW last year went the "Worldfocus" international newscast and, in 2009, the journalistic investigative series "Expose."

The Outliers

But why I really put that slightly facetious headline on the top of this column is this: With the exception of the NewsHour, the single continuing program that I probably get most mail about, almost all of it from enraged viewers, is "The McLaughlin Group," a famously raucous, weekly, half-hour talk show free-for-all that has gone on for almost 30 years. Although this program has one or two of what may be described as liberal or centrist panelists, it has an unmistakably conservative tone, dominated by the host and other conservative regulars, which may account for the heavy mail I get.

The point, and irony, here, however, as I have explained in many columns, is that this is NOT a PBS program and that PBS has nothing — or almost nothing — to do with this program. It is produced by Oliver Productions, McLaughlin's own production company, in a CBS-affiliate in Washington, DC. Some CBS affiliates carry the broadcast.

But it is broadcast by an average, according to the most recent PBS statistics, of 251 out of 350-plus PBS-member stations around the country. Some weeks it is more than 300 PBS-affiliated stations. So it is seen every week by a large number of people on their local PBS station and those people most probably think, and who can blame them, that they are watching a PBS program. The reason PBS has at least something to do with this is because of a long-standing agreement between McLaughlin and the PBS-member station in Chicago, WTTW, to put the program on the public television interconnection system satellite for distribution, which is all on the up-and-up, so to say.

All of these member stations are independent and can show whatever they please. A similar, but not quite as widespread, situation exists with another popular weekly public affairs commentary program, "Inside Washington," which is produced by an ABC affiliate in Washington. PBS also has nothing to do with the production and content of this show but it is distributed to public broadcasting stations nationwide by American Public Television and, by most recent count, about 100 PBS-member stations carry it.

"Inside Washington" is hosted by veteran TV newsman Gordon Peterson. It has a calmer tone and more politically-balanced collection of panelists than does McLaughlin's Group. But I mention it because syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer is one of the "Inside Washington" panelists and, to me, he seems by far the most dominant; a smart, conservative analyst and commentator who speaks in logical paragraphs to make his points and finds a way, often led by Peterson's questions, to articulate the most important conservative analysis of news events found on mainstream television outside of Fox.

So, is PBS too conservative? No. But all things considered, as they might say on NPR, it is not an easy place to characterize broadly or pin a label on.


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