A Farewell to Viewers, and Readers, Like You

Posted by Michael Getler on

This will probably be my last column as the ombudsman for PBS. I say probably because the news has been unfolding so fast in the past 18 months or so that one never knows if you will actually have time to pack up and move out, in my case, by the end of the week.

In any event, I wanted to say a proper goodbye, and thank you, to the tens of thousands of people who have emailed, called, written or even faxed me over these past 11 and a half years with their observations about what they see on their local PBS station. Thanks also to the readers of this column since it began in November 2005, and to the producers, station managers, journalists, corporate officials and lots of other people within the broad network of public broadcasting who have responded to inquiries about editorial issues from viewers and from me.

The nightly PBS NewsHour gets a special campaign battle ribbon from the ombudsman since the show has borne the overwhelming burden of the incoming email from agitated (who can blame them) viewers during this long and extraordinary time in American politics.

I’d also like to offer a special thanks to three people who played a special role in the evolution of this job.

One is Pat Mitchell, the former president and CEO of PBS, who hired me after a committee reviewing PBS editorial standards in 2005 recommended, among other things, that PBS create a position for an ombudsman as a new and "effective mechanism for implementing the transparency, responsiveness, and accountability required of a modern media organization" and that the position be structured to ensure the ombudsman's independence and credibility.

So in November 2005 I became PBS’s first ombudsman and, just a few months later, Mitchell left. No, it wasn’t, I hope, because she had appointed some new and annoying in-house critic. She had already had a long and illustrious career in television and news and went on to become the president of The Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

The Next Generation

Mitchell was succeeded by Paula Kerger, who is still the boss here and is now the longest-serving president and CEO in PBS history. So she gets the second individual thank you. In the 11 years of her tenure that I have worked here, she has demonstrated a clear understanding that an ombudsman (or ombudswoman) must indeed always remain independent, and she never once interfered with or attempted to influence my work or findings or assessments no matter how controversial the issue. In fact, nobody sees my columns before they are posted.

Well, almost nobody because the third special thanks goes to Marcia Apperson, who started with me as my trusted assistant, editor, researcher, soother of angry viewers and all-around stabilizer for 11 years and three months until she and her husband had their second child in February.

Wearing Out the Mat

I have stayed here much longer than either I or PBS anticipated. Before coming here, I had spent 35 years at The Washington Post, the last five as its ombudsman. So that’s a lot of ombudsmanship, a whole second, unexpected journalistic life for me; more than 200 columns printed on the editorial page every Sunday at the newspaper and close to 500 columns posted online at http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/home/.

I’m not recommending that you go back and read them but they do represent a very long catalog of sorts of the disconnects that readers and viewers sometimes feel between what they absorb from the material they see and read and what journalists probably expected them to take away from the reporting and presentation. On the other hand, in today’s frequently poisonous and ideological online environment, ombudsmen or public editors also, not infrequently, need to defend news organizations from unfair, self-interested, or inaccurate criticism.

A Long Road

I have had a long, and fortunate, 60-year career in journalism, starting in the 1950s with a weekly in New York City while still a student at CCNY. Then four years as a Navy officer, ten years covering the space program, the early war in Vietnam and the arms race with the Soviet Union for magazines. Then 35 years with the Post as reporter, foreign correspondent and editor—including four years as editor of the International Herald Tribune, then owned jointly by the Post and New York Times—and then on to PBS.

The Post was then, and is now, a wondrous place. I was blessed to be there during the years of journalistic royalty at the top—Publisher Katherine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee—in a huge newsroom surrounded by what I felt then and still feel was the most extraordinary, talented, intelligent, dedicated and frequently funny collection of reporters, writers, editors, photographers, cartoonists and artists that has ever been collected in one place. The Post was a crucial read in the last half of the 20th century and, if anything, it is as good, maybe even better and more important in some ways, today in our current environment.

Having spent a professional lifetime in newsrooms and news bureaus, it is no surprise that I love reporters. There are, like anything else, always a few bad apples. But in my long experience, they are an amazing yet at times endangered and often unappreciated species: a diverse crowd of men and women, generally adventurous, frequently courageous, not set on accumulating great wealth, educated in history and civil society with an instinct to seek the truth, to hold people and institutions accountable, to serve the public and the public interest. That may sound corny but I believe it is largely an accurate picture.

A Difference

PBS is a lot different, in many ways, from a big metropolitan newspaper. It distributes rather than produces television programs. It does more than that, but it is television that most identifies PBS. There is no newsroom here at PBS headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.; no reporters and editors anywhere to be found, just VPs, officials, programmers and worker bees.

The programs you see are produced by some of the 350 or so member stations that make up the public broadcasting service, and by independent producers such as Ken Burns and many other talented filmmakers who work with PBS. So there is a real newsroom at the PBS NewsHour headquarters at WETA in nearby Shirlington, Va. And there are a ton of programs—Frontline, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, Masterpiece, Nova—that come out of WGBH in Boston, or WNET in New York, where Great Performances, American Masters, Live from Lincoln Center originate, or from WTTW in Chicago or Oregon Public Broadcasting and many others.

But The Washington Post and PBS do have some things in common and that’s one reason I feel that serving as an ombudsman in both places was and has been worthwhile and an honor. They are both important conveyors of lots of different kinds of trusted news, information, features, analysis and entertainment, and both have smart, engaged audiences. So aside from the rants and frequently useless stuff that anyone in my position is on the receiving end of in today’s email environment, there is also a steady, substantial amount of smart, incisive criticism, challenging observations and questioning that can, if absorbed by newsrooms and producers, help these organizations adhere to the high standards they vow to uphold in their own internal guidelines, and to stay on top of their game. There is also, I should add, a fair amount of complimentary comment about PBS offerings that lands in my inbox.

The (Declining) Role of the Ombudsman

PBS, to its credit in my view, is committed to retaining the ombudsman’s position and is engaged in a search for a replacement. But we ombudsmen and women are also an endangered species, maybe actually extinct volcanos. Only PBS, NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the umbrella group for public broadcasting), the New York Times, ESPN, Stars & Stripes and perhaps one or two other smaller organizations still have ombudsman. 

At one point back in the 1980s more than 40 American newspapers had ombudsmen and they were at the heart of an international organization that is now many times larger abroad than its dwindling American contingent. The deep U.S. economic recession beginning in 2007, combined with rapid technological change, hit newspapers especially hard and dozens of those newspapers that had ombudsmen cut that position. In some ways it was an easy cut—you save a slot and salary and get rid of a frequent pain in the neck. Even The Washington Post, the first really big metropolitan daily—the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal established one in 1967—with a truly independent ombudsman, gave it up in 2013 after 43 years.

There is no shortage of press critics these days, especially on the web and within self-proclaimed media-watch organizations. But these are often self-interest or single-interest or partisan operations that tell their subscribers where to complain about what. And even media writers within many mainstream organizations don’t often, or ever in some cases, write critically about their own organizations. That doesn’t mean that outside critics don’t sometimes, even often, make good points. But I continue to believe that an independent ombudsman within important specific news organizations is the purest and absolutely best service for readers and viewers and for news organizations to be held accountable to their own high standards.

People who are critical of news and public affairs publications and programming like to have their concerns addressed by those organizations, and by an independent person within those organizations. That is where they look for some response to their observations, not to some freelance gun-slinger whose work may or may not be seen by them. Reporters and editors who work for major news organizations read what their own ombudsman has to say because they know that their readers and viewers see it. They may not pay as much attention to outside criticism.

I don’t have any special, perceptive, experienced advice for PBS going forward after all these years. That’s not my business. Whatever I’ve been able to contribute in terms of specific assessments of specific issues is contained within those almost 500 postings. By the way, those postings are a mixture of what I label as ombudsman’s columns, which are the majority and usually deal with one or two timely main issues, and ombudsman mailbags, in which I try to include many more letters from viewers on more subjects so that readers of the column who are viewers, and those who work within PBS, get to see the full range of substantive commentary on many issues that viewers write to me about.

And By the Way 

In closing, I depart from the traditional ombudsman’s material to comment, personally, on two timely issues that are upon us.

The first is the budgetary challenge PBS faces from Congress. I have no advice on how to deal with this and no dog in the fight. PBS has dealt with this before, successfully, and they will have to figure out if they can continue that. I can say that when this has come up in the past, my mail has been interesting, and seemingly bipartisan. First, there are still millions of Americans—some 25% or so—who do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV and who still rely on free broadcast television, and so PBS is generally still very important to them whether Democrat or Republican. Others, like me, appreciate the world of difference in watching Frontline or Downton Abbey or Live from Lincoln Center without frequent commercial interruption for an hour.

On the other hand, one could argue that if an effective and different financial model could be worked out, however difficult and maybe unlikely that may be, PBS could be even better and more independent without even the small amount of government funding it gets. That 15% is responsible mostly for aid to many smaller stations but it also, conversely, provides the extra symbolic knife that some viewers, usually partisans, put into PBS, such as when they start off their emails with—"How dare you use my tax-payer dollars to put on such (expletive).” The BBC has a long-established system—funded by an annual household TV license fee—that has worked in the past but is almost certainly not workable here and maybe even not much longer in the UK. But maybe some smart people can figure things out.

And Then There Is Our President

I was born in 1935 during the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was revered in our Bronx apartment. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a registered Independent but I have voted for Republicans (plural) and Democrats (plural) for president over these many years. President Trump, however, is different from anyone who has come before in my long lifetime. He won the Electoral College and was duly elected as our president. A new president is entitled to try and put his own policies into effect. That’s the way it works. Americans, even if they didn’t vote for him, have to hope that their president succeeds in the sense of doing the best he can in the interest of all our citizens and in reflecting the values we have always said we stood for.

But President Trump, as is well known by now, is very controversial and presents a continuing challenge, especially to the American press, on many levels. As the ombudsman, I have tried hard, and I hope successfully, to write honestly yet fairly about Trump in these columns during the campaign, election and the early phase of his presidency as questions arose among viewers, pro and con, about coverage. His policies, as I said, are his and he has won the right to pursue them.

But aside from legitimate debate over policies and personnel, it is much of what Trump has said, in person or in tweets, through these past 18 months that viewers have commented on and that sticks with me personally, and that I will never, even if he is successful in other ways, forget, forgive or accept.

For whatever it is worth, I feel it is important for me to say this in a farewell column because it is the most important impression left with me from watching the news and views of these past many months unfold.

We have had other presidents who have not told us the truth, big time. We had a powerful Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, and a largely supine Congress take us into a vastly expanded war in Vietnam on the basis of a murky, essentially non-event in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and an administration that continued to lie to us about what was happening on the ground there afterward. We had a Republican President George W. Bush, with an also pathetic Congress, take us into a historically disastrous and still-lingering war in Iraq in 2003 under what turned out to be false premises.

But those benchmarks of falsity in our modern history were at least surrounded by real debates at the outset. Was the Domino Theory about Southeast Asia collapsing real? Did Saddam really have weapons of mass destruction?

Something Different

Whatever you want to label it—falsehoods, untruths, lying—we now have a president who, as documented by numerous fact-checkers, historians, journalists and other informed and open sources of information, does not tell the truth so often about so many things, even trivial ones, that it is hard for many people, including me, to believe almost anything he says about anything. That strikes me as a terribly dangerous thing for our country, for our allies and also for those who do not wish us well.

Observing his public personality, we have also seen a future and now actual President of the United States publicly mock a reporter with a disability, call journalists “enemies of the American people” and “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” mock the appearance of some women, including a rival candidate, denigrate the service and courage of former Navy flier and POW John McCain (Trump received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War), encourage violence at campaign rallies, insult judges and their heritage, demean Mexicans and other minorities, question a Gold Star mother and, without any evidence, accuse President Obama of a felony and, for good measure, call the former president a “bad (or sick) guy!” There is more of what, to me, adds up to a truly mind-boggling portrait of mean-spiritedness and divisiveness—one that shatters much of what I have believed, and wanted to believe, for a lifetime about our country and the people we choose to lead us.

I’m leaving this job because it’s time and I’m getting old, not because I fear that I would be unable to write about what President Trump does or says fairly or impartially. I’m quite capable of judging specific issues and episodes on the merits of all sides. But the personality and character traits that have been on display strike me as ones that diminish confidence in our leaders doing the right thing.  

So I am encouraged by the role of the press in relentlessly and carefully doing its job without being intimidated, and by the courts and the citizenry. Perhaps the system of checks and balances combined with an evolving presidency will lead to a tenure that is ultimately successful for President Trump and for the American people.

Meanwhile, the Post, especially, remains—and I feel will always be—a national resource. Other newspapers—especially the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other serious news organizations—are doing the same kind of good work. Network television is becoming more challenging in real time, which is really important. PBS, to its credit, especially the NewsHour, has devoted considerable airtime, maybe more than any other broadcast outlet, to in-depth segments exploring the new administration’s policies, and has provided opportunities for top officials of the Trump administration to make their case to the public and to be challenged. That’s all to the good. So I hope, as I go out the door, PBS continues to also maintain its rank as a trusted resource during these difficult times. 

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
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