Some Things Are Not for Viewers

By Michael Getler

MAY 19, 2014

PBS made some news last week at its annual meeting in San Francisco, but not the kind that the public broadcasting service should welcome.

An online article on May 13 by the independent trade publication for public media, Current, reported on a protester—affiliated with a campaign to oust billionaire David Koch from the board of WGBH, a major PBS member station—who suddenly appeared on stage after the opening session and sought to shout out his message to the gathering.

Protesters happen. But what happened next, according to the account in Current, shouldn't have happened, according to me.

The full but brief Current story is reproduced below but here is the troubling segment: "The microphone was quickly cut off, and [Brant] Olson waved a small sign bearing the groups' logo before leaving the stage. He left the meeting room with a PBS staffer close behind and told Current he was leaving the building. Hotel security stopped him as he approached the doors. PBS staff asked Current to stop photographing as Olson was put against a wall and handcuffed. Security led him out of the hotel."

The emphasis in that paragraph is mine.

The Current reporter who wrote the story is Senior Editor Dru Sefton, and she, as it turned out, was the one also attempting to take the pictures. I asked her, via email, who was the staffer, what the staffer said and did she stop taking pictures?

Here's Sefton's Reply:

"This all happened so quickly, I didn't get a look at her nametag. But I know she wasn't with hotel security, they were wearing black T-shirts and black pants. And she was frantically trying to contact Anne Bentley [PBS vice-president for communications] on her phone. She was basically stating loudly over and over, STOP TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS. STOP TAKING PHOTOS, things of that sort. And she was placing herself between me and the protester and security guard—I'd step to the right, she'd step in front of me. To the left, ditto. She also held up her notebook or clipboard at one point. I also couldn't hear what the guard was saying to the protester because this staffer kept loudly telling me to stop taking pictures. I tried shooting around her but it was basically impossible. I only got off three shots, one of which ran with the item. The other two were very similar."

I also emailed questions to PBS' Anne Bentley asking why the Current photographer was prevented from taking pictures, who was the staffer, who does she work for, under whose orders was the staffer acting and whether she (Bentley) thought it was proper to stop a journalist from photographing the handcuffing.

Here's Bentley's Reply:

"Our procedure is for communications staff to manage interactions with reporters. One of our conference services staff had asked that Current wait until a PR staff member could arrive. Neither PBS or WGBH were involved in the individual's removal, which was handled by the hotel in accordance with their standard policy and procedures."

My Thoughts

I can understand how a sudden, unexpected event involving a protester, security, handcuffing and disruption can cause some staffer to try and stop someone from taking pictures. I don't know the identity of the staffer or how far up or down the line she is and what her orders were. So, in one sense, I don't want to make too big a deal over this.

But in the larger and more fundamental sense, the staffer's actions were clearly wrong, and what troubles me more than that is the possible guidance that may have been behind it, and the response from Bentley, which suggests to me a lack of understanding that this was wrong. The handcuffing of a protester in the lobby of a major hotel is a news story—not a PBS story—and taking pictures of the event is part of that news story. To say that "our procedure is for communications staff to manage interactions with reporters" and to "wait until a PR staff member could arrive" is like telling someone not to take pictures of an airplane crashing until the company PR person arrives.

What is also troubling is that this episode, although relatively minor and attracting very little attention (I've posted below one letter to me), is associated with the Public Broadcasting Service (again, my emphasis) and involves interference with a journalist doing her job. PBS is not like a commercial or cable network. It doesn't produce television programs. It distributes those that are produced by member stations and other independent filmmakers. But among those programs is the PBS NewsHour, Frontline, Washington Week, Charlie Rose and others. So, many people understandably view it as a news and public affairs network, and so PBS needs to continue doing that and not get in the way of reporters or photographers covering news.

Here's the Original Current Story:

Koch protester takes stage at PBS meeting, gets handcuffed and shown out

Published on Current.org, May 13, 2014

By Dru Sefton

SAN FRANCISCO — A protester affiliated with Forecast the Facts, an organization calling for action on climate change, took to the stage immediately after a breakfast session opening the PBS Annual Meeting here, urging pubcasters to support the organization’s campaign to oust billionaire David Koch from the board of Boston’s WGBH.

A panel discussion about the American Experience film “The Last Days in Vietnam” had just concluded when Forecast the Facts Campaign Director Brant Olson stepped to the microphone and yelled to the crowd that he was representing the organization. Forecast the Facts is protesting Koch’s board membership due to the conservative philanthropist’s support of organizations that deny climate change.

The microphone was quickly cut off, and Olson waved a small sign bearing the groups’ logo before leaving the stage.

He left the meeting room with a PBS staffer close behind and told Current he was leaving the building. Hotel security stopped him as he approached the doors. PBS staff asked Current to stop photographing as Olson was put against a wall and handcuffed. Security led him out of the hotel.

In an email to Current, Olson said he was arrested, cited for trespass and released by the San Francisco Police Department.

“WGBH, it appears, would rather have its critics arrested than defend David Koch’s misinformation campaign on climate change,” Olson wrote.

“The incident that took place at this morning’s session was extremely unfortunate,” PBS said in a statement. “It is our understanding that it is being handled by the hotel in accordance with their standard policy and procedures.”

Here's a Letter from a Viewer

I am pretty shocked to hear that PBS staffers prevented a blogger from photographing the arrest of a protestor at the PBS annual meeting.  Do you think freedom of the press applies only to YOUR reporters? I am very disappointed in PBS' cooperation with climate change deniers like the Koch brothers, but I am MUCH MORE disappointed in your treatment of anyone who tries to raise awareness of this issue. I grew up with PBS, and have been a member of a dozen public TV and radio stations over the years as I've moved, but I feel that the PBS I knew and loved is gone, sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits.

Ben Bernard, Portland, ME

Posted by on May 19, 2014 at 3:35 PM

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
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 >

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