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First Ombudsmen Named to Critique Public TV, Radio

CPB, a nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 to distribute federal funds to public broadcasters, appointed former NBC newsman Ken Bode and former Reader’s Digest editor William Schulz to the new positions of CPB ombudsmen.

The two ombudsmen will choose which programs to review after they air. Bode and Schultz will initiate their own reports about the journalistic impartiality, balance and accuracy in such programming, and respond to issues raised by the public and government officials, according to CPB’s ombudsman charter.

The appointments come amid long-running criticism that public broadcasting programs regularly present a liberal bias. In February, PBS found itself the latest target of criticism, including from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, over its plans to air a children’s show, Postcards from Buster, in which Buster the Bunny visits a lesbian couple living on a farm in Vermont.

CPB did not say whether that particular controversy, or other specific complaints, had influenced its decision to create the ombudsmen positions.

“On some days we receive praise for what we do, and on other days our audiences express concerns,” CPB President and Chief Executive Kathleen Cox said in a press statement.

“Congress has asked the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to both protect the production of public broadcasting from undue interference and to ensure that it represents high standards in accuracy, balance and objectivity,” Cox said.

The new ombudsman office will “support those twin objectives,” she added.

The ombudsmen will report directly to CPB’s president and its board of directors. The term lasts for two years, but may be renewed with CPB’s approval.

Jeannie Bunton, CPB’s director of press and public relations, said the decision to create the ombudsman office arose from CPB’s goals to ensure the highest standards of programming and to encourage the public’s input about what they hear and see on public broadcasting.

Responding to concerns that CPB’s action reflected its effort to control programming content, Bunton emphasized that the ombudsmen are not be permitted to comment on anything that has not aired and that any negative review would not be used to penalize a public broadcaster or producer.

Meanwhile, PBS is actively considering hiring its own in-house ombudsman, pending the recommendations of an independent committee examining PBS’ content and editorial standards. The panel’s recommendations — which are likely to include the appointment of an ombudsman — will be released in June, PBS spokesperson Lea Sloan told the Online NewsHour.

NPR already has its own ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, and whether his work will conflict with that of CPB’s ombudsmen is unclear at this point.

But Bunton pointed out that the ombudsmen’s purview extends beyond NPR and PBS to include all independent programs, even those not produced or created by NPR, PBS or funded by CPB, that are aired by local public stations.

In a separate development, The New York Times announced Tuesday it had selected Byron Calame, who retired last year as a top editor at The Wall Street Journal, to succeed Daniel Okrent as the paper’s second public editor in its history.

“Barney will bring a lifelong, in-his-bones sense of how a daily newspaper operates, and a deep, demonstrated commitment to the highest standards of our craft,” said executive editor Bill Keller. “He will have a hard act to follow. Dan Okrent has been a fearless and creative pioneer, a witty explorer of our strange culture, a perceptive surrogate for our readers.”

The Times decided to create the ombudsman position as an experiment shortly after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. The public editor post, which functions as an ombudsman, initially had a fixed tenure of 18 months, but Calame’s term will last two years.

Calame officially takes over for Okrent on May 9.

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