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The Ombudsman Column

A Little About Me, A Lot About "Breaking the Silence"

Greetings, and welcome to my maiden voyage as the first ombudsman in the 36-year history of the Public Broadcasting Service. To find out more about me and my mission you can click on two links: biography, and mission & approach. But basically I'm here to serve viewers, online visitors, and PBS by listening to comments, complaints and compliments from viewers, sorting out those that go to the journalistic mission of PBS, getting reactions and explanations from PBS producers and officials, and providing independent assessments, when necessary, about whether PBS programs measured up to their own editorial guidelines and standards.

I joined PBS on Nov. 15. Before I got here, the plan was that my first column, and the Ombudsman's full Web site, would be launched on Dec. 20. But some controversy got here before I did and the main subject of this column is a PBS program, "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories," that aired on Oct. 20. Rather than wait until two months after the program was presented, I'm posting this column early while the events are still reasonably fresh.

Allow me also, at the outset, to explain that I am not one of the two ombudsmen hired last April by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I work only for PBS, have a contract that assures total independence and non-interference in carrying out my duties, and have no connection to the CPB.

I mention this because it has been confusing for people who know that I have been hired by PBS, but who have read a great deal in the newspapers or watched on TV in recent weeks about the CPB and its former chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who resigned in November. That coverage focused mostly on a CPB Inspector General's report that was highly critical of Tomlinson and the board's own corporate governance. The report, which Tomlinson has challenged, found evidence that he had "violated statutory provisions and the Director's Code of ethics" in one case, that "political tests" were used in recruiting a new Chief Executive Officer," and that "established procurement and contracting procedures were bypassed" in other actions. News coverage of the report also often included references to the two CPB ombudsmen who were selected by Tomlinson.

The CPB was created by Congress in 1967 as a private nonprofit corporation with a nine-member board, each appointed by the President to six-year terms subject to Senate confirmation. No more than five may be members of the same political party. One of its roles is to distribute federally-appropriated funds to public broadcasting nationwide. PBS gets about 24% of its funding via the CPB and Federal grants.

The IG report also pointed out, however, that the CPB plays a "sometimes contradictory role" in that it is mandated to act as a "heat shield" protecting public broadcasting from political interference, yet also has authority to address "objectivity and balance issues." Tomlinson invoked that provision when deciding to hire ombudsmen for the CPB.

The IG report, which you can read on the CPB Web site, said: "We could not determine whether any 'political test' was used to select the ombudsmen. While the former Chairman (Tomlinson) initially considered having the ombudsman represent different political perspectives, he stated that he came to realize that it was more important to have two respected journalists just expressing their views and opinions." That latter role sounds a lot better to me than the first idea.

The two CPB ombudsmen are: Ken Bode, who worked for NBC and CNN, was the moderator of the PBS "Washington Week in Review" show from 1994 to 1999, and is now a journalism professor at DePauw University in Indiana; and William Schulz, a former Executive Editor at Reader's Digest, where he worked for 35 years. Tomlinson also worked at that magazine. You can also read their work on the CPB Web site, including a recent review of "Breaking the Silence" by Bode.

"Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories"

Waiting for me on my first day at PBS was a stack of e-mails, the great majority of them critical, and commentaries about a PBS documentary titled, "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." That program first aired on Oct. 20. It was co-produced by veteran documentary-makers Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur, and Connecticut Public Television (CPTV). Funding was provided by the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.

According to PBS statistics, the program has been aired by 235 stations, about 69% of all PBS stations, some 387 times between its Oct. 20 debut and Nov. 20. That group of stations is available to 77% of all U.S. TV households, but the number of people having viewed that actual program would be only a tiny fraction of those households, perhaps less than 1%, according to fragmentary data.

The film was described this way by CPTV in the press release before the premier: "This powerful new PBS documentary chronicles the impact of domestic violence on children and the recurring failings of family courts across the country to protect them from their abusers. In stark and often poignant interviews, children and battered mothers tell their stories of abuse at home and continued trauma within the courts. The one-hour special also features interviews with domestic violence experts, attorneys and judges who reveal the disturbing frequency in which abusers are winning custody of their children and why these miscarriages of justice continue to occur."

The abusers are not seen or heard from in this film, but they are all fathers. The abused are all children and/or their mothers, who have also lost custody of the children in court. There are also two high-profile men who appear on the program who, as children, were victims of abusive fathers — New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre, and Walter Anderson, the chairman and CEO of Parade Magazine.

This is, indeed, a powerfully-presented documentary and does reveal what is undeniably a tragic and frustrating domestic and legal nightmare for many mothers and children. The stories told by the children, in particular, leave no doubt about the length and depth of sadness and loss accompanying these cases.

Reviewing the program in the Albany, NY, Times Union newspaper, Bob Port writes that producer Lasseur "deserves a Nobel Prize for honesty. This exquisite documentary, like no other production I have seen, makes comprehensible the subtlety of a scandal that recurs in custody proceedings in New York and other states. It is an almost impossible story to tell, one from which journalists flee, and it boils down to this: A judge, often misled by self-interested lawyers and court-appointed professionals, ignores a protective mother, ignores the wishes of children and awards custody to a man who is an abuser, emotionally or physically, of his wife or their children."

Other reviews I saw, including Bode's, tended to be generally critical.

Boston Globe reviewer Cathy Young, for example, wrote on Nov. 21 that: "There is no question that our legal system fails children all too often. But the PBS documentary presents a skewed and sensationalist picture." She also questions the accuracy of statistics cited in the film and used as back-up on the producer's Web site.

Writing in the Fresno Bee in California on Oct. 20, Rick Bentley interviewed the director of a local facility for victims of domestic violence who said she thought the program lacked balance, that it focused on extreme cases, that those cases seem to date back several years, and that they "portrayed the court systems and attorneys as being very biased toward men and unconcerned for the safety of children. This may be the case in some areas of the country, but not ours," she said.

The mail arriving at PBS has been overwhelmingly critical. This is not surprising since much of it — aside from perhaps several dozen e-mails and letters — seemed to have been generated by various fathers' rights groups, including Fathers & Families, the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Father Rights activist Glenn Sacks, and from a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Violence Reporting). PBS reports receiving almost 4,000 e-mails, with more than 3,500 of them negative. More than 90 of 105 phone calls were also negative as were virtually all of the few dozen letters.

The critics challenged the program on many counts, including a lack of balance and objectivity that they claimed violates PBS editorial standards, a lack of evidence to back up assertions on the program, the complete absence of fathers and their perspective in the documentary, failure to cite statistics that critics say contradict the thrust of the program, the promotion of negative stereotypes that work against fathers in custody disputes, and some very specific challenges about one case, in particular, that was discussed in the film.

There were also strong objections to the portrayal of what is called "Parental Alienation Syndrome" as "junk science" on the program. The original press release about the program said that: "Despite being discredited by the American Psychological Association and similar organizations, PAS continues to be used in family courts as a defense for why a child is rejecting the father." This prompted the Association to issue a statement that it "does not have an official position on parental alienation syndrome-pro or con. The Connecticut Public Television press release is incorrect."

One viewer, John Dennis, summed up his criticism this way. The documentary, he said, was "filled with misinformation and emotional baiting, the characteristics of propaganda not journalism . . . designed only to persuade the viewer of the producers distorted view. Where was the opposing viewpoint? Where were your fact checkers? Where was the balance? Where was the father's perspective? I am not dismissing that elements of the program were valid or that genuine issues of abuse are present and need addressing. However, I am complaining the program took only one side of a complex issue and gave it the veneer of truth because it emanated from a respected journalistic source when in fact there were gross inaccuracies presented. Shame on you for perpetuating popular myths to a wide audience instead of crafting a program that courageously tackles the pressing social issue of custody in a factual and informed manner."

PBS, to its credit, is taking these challenges seriously and is reviewing the research that went in to the program and the conclusions drawn, and has promised a response to these challenges early in December.

Producer Lasseur, who has also prepared an extensive point-by-point rebuttal to the critics, says that "having reviewed the PBS editorial guidelines, we stand by 'Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories' and how we went about producing it.

"As the guidelines recognize," he says, "'the producer of informational content neither deals in absolute truth nor in absolute objectivity.' Domestic violence is notoriously difficult to report on because of the emotional nature of the issues involved. The stories we focused on are true and verified stories and were reported on with honesty, integrity and sound judgment. The 'common sense' and 'open mindednesses' cited in the PBS guidelines are what directed us in our reporting.

"It is common sense to be outraged by the fact that courts are using phony science to take children from protective mothers and giving them to men who have abused them physically, psychologically and/or sexually.

"Our open mindedness did not include the opportunity for fathers who had a destructive political agenda to be represented in the piece. We spoke with members of fathers' rights organizations and did extensive research on their views. We made the decision not to interview them on camera because they would not have provided any balance and fairness to the piece.

"Our story is about children becoming bargaining chips for abusive fathers in custody battles. The program was clearly set in the context of contested custody cases in which there was a history of domestic violence and/or abuse. We regret if some individuals and groups believed we were stating facts about the universe of custody issues in general. As many will acknowledge, we've provided a 'courageous and responsible treatment' of the issue and agree with PBS that 'the surest road to intellectual stagnation and social isolation is to stifle the expression of uncommon ideas.' "

Here's What I Think

My assessment, as a viewer and as a journalist, is that this was a flawed presentation by PBS. I have no doubt that this subject merited serious exposure and that these problems exist and are hard to get at journalistically. But it seemed to me that PBS and CPTV were their own worst enemy and diminished the impact and usefulness of the examination of a real issue by what did, indeed, come across as a one-sided, advocacy program.

I'm not saying that there is necessarily another side to tragic cases where a child is abused and handed over to the abuser. But this is a broad issue, often complex, hotly debated and contested, with dueling statistics pouring out of both sides. Yet, there was no recognition of opposing views on this program. There was a complete absence of some of the fundamental journalistic conventions that, in fact, make a story more powerful and convincing because they, at a minimum, acknowledge that there is another side.

This presentation made no concession to the viewer and to the legitimate questions one would have or expect. Not only were no fathers heard from to state their side of the individual stories presented, there was no explanation (with one exception) as to whether the producers even tried to get their views, or if the fathers were asked but declined, or, as we now know from Lasseur's statement, that there was a decision not to give air time to critics or groups holding opposing views.

The one exception was a disclaimer printed on the screen, but with no voice attached, after the filmed portion of the program ended, that a father of one young woman, who continues to seek custody of his daughter in the court, declined to be interviewed.

The studies that one presumes back up the statistics stated on the program are not cited. Research that Lasseur uses to back up the program in his response to critics is not cited in the film; nor are the statistics cited by critics.

It is not clear when several of the interviews with mothers and children took place, nor how old the cases are. In a few interviews, references are made to the mid-1990s. Some of the talking heads that make lengthy and numerous appearances as explainers on the program are scantily identified with a sub-title. Lundy Bancroft, who plays a major and informative role as explainer, is only identified as an "Abuse Intervention Specialist." Richard Ducote, also a major explainer, is identified only once in a sub-title as an "attorney," and if you blink you'll miss it.

It seemed to me that what was badly missing in this presentation was a reporter, or skilled presenter, who could provide at least some of the context and controversy surrounding this issue, explain the cast of characters, and deal with the basic questions of fairness and balance that come quickly to mind. Even in Port's very positive review, he writes: "Some facts are in order here. We're talking about a big but very narrow problem. Custody is not disputed in court in the overwhelming majority of divorces, as many as nine in 10 cases settle amicably, according to studies. In uncontested custody, mothers win out over fathers, taking custody about 2-1, although this is partly because some fathers see trying to win custody as futile."

The question of "balance" is not one that I rate at the top of the list of yardsticks for measuring good journalism. Some stories don't have a real balance to them and it becomes distorting to give equal time and space to every viewpoint. It can create a false sense of equivalence among readers or viewers in cases where that is not justified. But I thought this particular program had almost no balance, and went too far, turning it, at least in my mind, into more of an advocacy, or point-of-view, presentation.

PBS editorial standards and guidelines are quite thorough and cover lots of situations. In fact, you can find rationales for most approaches to programs in one section or another. They state, for example, in discussing editorial standards, that "a criterion considered mandatory for straight news reporting may not be appropriate for a documentary or dramatic program."

On the other hand, it could be argued that the program certainly bumped up against, and maybe breached, editorial standards set out in the section on "Fairness," which says that "individuals or organizations that are the subject of attack or criticism (should be given) an opportunity to respond." But defenders might say that no organizations were attacked and no fathers were mentioned by name. The "Objectivity" section presents a clearer case, saying that producers involved with controversial subjects should explain to the audience "why choices were made so the public can understand," and "why certain questions could not be answered." The defense here may be that they were never asked.

So, I am not claiming here that PBS editorial guidelines were clearly breached, although many critics argue precisely that point, some citing references to the Public Broadcasting Act and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which calls for "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." Rather, my assessment is that the totality of the presentation came across as quite tilted to me, as a viewer who understands that the vast majority of fathers do not behave badly and that women are also capable of being abusers, and who is quite open to the idea that there are miscarriages of justice in this field that need to be exposed and corrected. The way this topic was presented actually distracted from the message it was sending because it was so noticeably devoid of any balance. It would have been easy to fix, in my opinion.

Here are some other reasons why I feel this way.

The program opens with an unidentified male voice declaring that, "All over America, battered mothers are losing custody of their children when they file for divorce." That's probably true but the viewer has no idea if it is really true or of the scale.

Then the unseen and unidentified narrator says, "Even with a proven record, abusers are winning joint and sole custody." That's also probably true at least in some cases, but, again, how common is it and is it as true today as it was some years ago?

Then an unidentified woman comes on camera and says, "To win custody of the kids over and against the mother's will is the ultimate victory short of killing the kids." Wow! That's pretty powerful stuff.

Then the unseen narrator comes on again to say, "A third of the women in the U.S. will be victims of domestic violence. It will have a devastating effect on their children. The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation is proud to underwrite this program." I guess that first statement is true but are all those women who are victims of domestic violence mothers? And I guess the Foundation supports the thrust of what we've heard so far, a beginning that sets the tone for the whole program and makes a fairly sweeping indictment of what is going on with no alternative views presented.

Yankees' manager Torre and CEO Anderson then make very early appearances with very compelling stories of their youth. But I got the feeling they were there to try and quickly introduce some credibility for the program for male viewers. Maybe I'm wrong about that aspect, but that's how, in hindsight, their featured presence right at the beginning struck me.

The unseen narrator doesn't appear again until the credits at the end when the underwriters, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, are recognized and when the narrator repeats the opening claims about battered mothers losing custody of their children and says the Foundation is "proud to underwrite this program."

The rest of the program consists only of talking heads — many of them very convincing, revealing, dramatic and articulate — but uninterrupted by anyone providing some context or answers to questions that a fair-minded viewer might be expected to raise.