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In June 2005, a team of ten well-known and respected journalists and public television leaders that convened as the PBS Editorial Standards Review Committee issued a report that updated those standards and program policies. The objective was "to further clarify the governing principles of PBS, to keep pace with changes in journalism and technology, and to better reflect the roles and responsibilities of producers, PBS, local public television stations, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the development and distribution of public television content."
Among the committee's recommendations was one 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 insure the ombudsman's independence and credibility. Even before the committee began its work early in 2005, PBS had been considering bringing an ombudsman into its midst, and in mid-November, 2005, the first ombudsman in the history of American public television set up shop at PBS headquarters in Virginia.
That first ombudsman is Michael Getler, a veteran journalist with 45 years of experience as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor, mostly with the Washington Post, then as the Executive Editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune for four years, and, most recently, as the Post's independent ombudsman and internal critic for five years.
The PBS ombudsman will serve essentially as the public's editor at the broadcasting service, providing a new, additional contact point for the PBS viewing public, and for pbs.org audiences, to have their observations, comments, complaints or compliments heard by an independent arbiter. The idea is not to replace the many existing, direct and long-standing relationships between viewers and their local PBS stations, nor for the ombudsman to respond on each and every issue, as PBS' Viewer Services does. Rather, it is to add an autonomous voice when it comes to questions about editorial content and whether PBS is living up to its stated standards. The intention is to sort out those viewer comments and criticisms that go to the journalistic standards and mission of PBS, to make sure those questions are put in front of PBS producers, to gather explanations in response to viewers, and to make independent assessments when necessary of disputed issues. The ombudsman will approach PBS coverage as the public does, meaning as a viewer or online visitor. There will be no ombudsman involvement in on-the-air or online content before it is aired or posted.
The ombudsman serves under a two-year contract that is renewable on a one or two-year basis by mutual agreement. The contract is ironclad with respect to the position's independence. The contract says, in part, that the ombudsman "shall work without interference or oversight from PBS management…and free from the threat of censure, retaliation or termination for performing his duties in the manner in which such duties are customarily performed." It also says the ombudsman is free, "without limitation," to "investigate and respond to inquiries, comments and complaints from the general public and others related to the editorial integrity of PBS content." And, it calls on him to present his views through a regular column on pbs.org - and occasionally provide on-air commentary -- that "details his thoughts and findings regarding the journalistic ethics and editorial ethics practiced by parties that shape and create PBS programming content, as well as fairness, balance and accuracy in PBS programming."
As he took office, Mr. Getler added a personal note:
"Based on my five years of ombudsmanship at the Post, I'd say there are no easy rules or boundaries that an ombudsman can lay out ahead of time. Most of what awaits me will depend on things that viewers see on PBS that raise questions about such matters as fairness, journalistic ethics, sourcing and transparency. I hope to sort out those challenges that come to me and that address the mission of PBS and its standards, put them in front of managers, producers and reporters so that they know what some critical viewers are saying, and get answers or explanations for those viewers. I also intended to stick my two cents in to say when I think PBS has fallen short, and to defend it when the criticism has been answered satisfactorily. This is essentially how I worked at the Post. As I start with PBS, it is with the same feeling that I had at the outset of my tenure at The Post; a sense of deep respect for serious organizations that are vital to the independent dissemination of news, analysis, insight, commentary, history and culture to our citizenry. To the extent that an ombudsman can provide another channel of reader or viewer challenge that may help keep these institutions at the top of their game, I think it is a good thing. The difference between the Post and PBS for me is going to be one of scale--with tens of millions of viewers and one ombudsman. Obviously, I can't deal with or respond to everything. The challenge will be to pick out the most timely and important issues that I can deal with and, of course, to deal with them fairly."
To learn more about the PBS ombudsman’s role and duties, watch the video or read the transcript of Michael Getler’s December 23, 2005 appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/july-dec05/pbsombuds_12-23.html).