Fisking the NYT on PBS


The Media Establishment is closing ranks in defence of PBS. Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times writes about the decision of the Organization of News Ombudsmen to reject the newly appointed ombudsmen from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who will oversee PBS. Ed Lasky fisks the article.

An association of news ombudsmen has rejected an attempt by two ombudsmen from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to join their organization as full—fledged members, questioning their independence.

In the rest of the article is commentary regarding the stresses of being an ombudsmen, which includes dealing with reporters and leaders of the company they work for. Does this not question their independence? Are they likely to go head—to—head with editors or part—owners like Sulzberger at the New York Times?

The Organization of News Ombudsmen, which represents nearly a hundred print and broadcast ombudsmen from around the world, more than half of them in the United States, voted at its annual conference here last week to change its bylaws to allow full membership only to those who work for news organizations. The corporation, a quasi—governmental organization, provides some federal funds for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System; it does not itself gather or produce news.

A legalism: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  provides funds to local stations (and NPR and PBS) which feed the money back to  to NPR and PBS, that then gather and report the news—or at least their version of the "news." Money is fungible. This seems like a change in rules solely geared to exlude the American Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If such a law were passed by Congress against an individual person it would be unconstitutional. Another slap in the face to America and the American taxpayers who support the CPB.

The change allows for the corporation's ombudsmen — and others in allied fields but who are not part of a news organization — to become associate members. As such, they are denied voting privileges and the stamp of legitimacy as independent ombudsmen that full membership would suggest.

Just another way to deligitimize ombudmen who do not reflect a liberal bias.

"We want members who are responsive to readers, not to governments or lobby groups," said Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, who was president of the ombudsmen's organization until last week when his term ended and is the ombudsman for NPR. "I was worried about the political nature of the appointment and I was worried about the precedent."

Why was this change not done under Clinton, then? Did Dvorkin himslef undergo such scrutiny?

The move is a rebuff to Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the corporation, who decided that the corporation should have two ombudsmen as a way to bring balance to what he sees as a liberal bias in public programming and an anti—Israeli bias in NPR's Middle East coverage. (A survey by the corporation itself has shown that viewers and listeners do not share those perceptions.)

Absurd on its face: the right or wrong behind allegations of bias should not depend on listeners; it should depend on, well, the facts behind the controversy. Current readers or listeners are a self—selected sample who like what they see or hear. Obviously they may not have concerns of bias — they may not care enough about certain issues to do further research that may show bias. Furthermore, how many listeners and viewers (such as me) stopped patronizing these media outlets (or refuse to start ) precisely because of their bias? We are not captured in such surveys. 

German listeners to Goebbels' s propaganda broadcasts in the 1930s and 40s probably thought he was being fair and accurate. Does that mean he was?

The move could also heighten tensions between Mr. Tomlinson and NPR because of Mr. Dvorkin's role in opposing the corporation's appointees. Mr. Dvorkin abstained from voting on the matter and from presiding over discussions of it, ceding to complaints within his organization that he had a conflict of interest. But he was instrumental in setting the policy.

In an e—mail, Ken Bode, one of the corporation's two ombudsmen, wrote that the organization's change in its by—laws "makes sense, and I will be happy with associate membership," which, he said, "will give us what we most wanted."

William Schulz, the other ombudsman, did not respond to requests for comment. Eben Peck, a spokesman for the corporation, said it had no comment.

The dispute reflects the growing pains of ombudsmen and their relatively obscure group at a time when more news organizations are turning to ombudsmen to foster transparency of the reporting process and build trust with the public.

"The nature of ONO could be changed by a flood of inappropriate members," said Ian Mayes, the readers' editor at The Guardian in London and incoming president of the ombudsmen's group. (The organization goes by its acronym, which corresponds to the cry of "oh, no" that ombudsmen say they imagine reporters and editors uttering as the ombudsman approaches.) Adjusting the rules for membership, Mr. Mayes said, "is what all organizations do to maintain their integrity."

So the new president of the Ombudmen group is the reader's editor at The Guardian — a British paper known for its leftism and anti—Amrican bias. Adjusting the rules for membership is precisely the opposite of what organizations do to maintain their integrity. Maybe we should  change the rules for UN membership, then, to allows only democracies to be members. Would that be approved by Mr. Mayes? This rules change targets one party; it does not maintain any integrity but corrupts integrity.

Mr. Mayes said the organization was in a "transitional state" as it was growing internationally — even Izvestia in Russia is considering hiring an ombudsman. As the organization expands into parts of the world with repressive governments and fragile democracies, he said, it has to be careful not to confer legitimacy on anyone who did not share its standards and independence.

So the Coroporation of Public Broadcasting, in the eyes of the reporter, is comparbale to Izvestia —the house media organ for the Putin dictatorship?

The organization is also in transition because journalism is rapidly changing, as are its members' roles.

Mr. Bode said in his e—mail that he had wanted to join and attend the conference to find out as much as he could about being an ombudsman. "Every ombudsman has a first day on the job, and I thought that listening and learning from the ONO members would be helpful," he wrote.

If he and Mr. Schulz had attended, they would have heard an earful about what they were getting into. As Mike Needs, public editor of The Akron Beacon Journal, said, "The newspaper industry is under siege right now, and this is one area we can do something about," referring to an ombudsman's job as a bridge between the public and the press.

Michael Getler, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, attributed that state of siege to several factors: "the polarization of the country, the intensity of political feelings on the left and the right, combined with the technology to express it easily and quickly, combined with a sort of rash of journalistic missteps and in some cases scandals and misjudgments that become immediately known and widespread and have conveyed the sense that journalism is less trustworthy than it used to be."

Mr. Getler, who is leaving the job in September after five years, said five years was too long because the job was stressful and had come to "totally dominate" his life.

"In evenings and weekends, if I don't keep up with e—mail, I'm drowning," he said. "E—mail has exacerbated everything. The dimensions of it are overwhelming, and a lot of it is nasty and crude."

Mr. Dvorkin said that as NPR's ombudsman he had received two death threats for which the F.B.I. was called in. In response to complaints of stress, the ombudsmen have set up a system of telephone conference calls in which they serve as a support group for each other.

Paul Moore, public editor of The Baltimore Sun, said most readers complain about what they perceived as bias, which was a difficult allegation to disprove and could require confrontations with reporters. Many ombudsmen said that one of the biggest hurdles they faced was newsroom defensiveness, particularly as news organizations became more rigorous about making corrections, even on what appeared to be minor matters.

It is too soon to tell whether the two ombudsmen from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will have similar experiences. While most ombudsmen publish a column once a week, sometimes in addition to weekly internal memos, Mr. Bode and Mr. Schulz have posted just one item on the corporation's Web site ( since their appointment nearly two months ago.

Gratutious insult of the new Ombudsmen at CPB. Maybe they are getting their feet on the ground and trying to deal with the immense politicking that their appointment has lead to?

They both wrote about an April 21 NPR report on the security situation in Mosul, but it was not clear why. There was no suggestion that their interest had been prompted by any listener complaints. Both praised the broadcast. Their output, at least so far, has been much less controversial than their hiring.

In April, the corporation board, which is dominated by Republicans appointed by President Bush, named Mr. Schulz, a former executive editor of Reader's Digest, and Mr. Bode, a former reporter for NBC News and CNN, to monitor broadcasts on PBS and NPR, although NPR had an ombudsman and PBS has been considering one.

The New York Times reported earlier that Mr. Tomlinson told the president of NPR in February that he wanted a liberal ombudsmen and a conservative, a notion that injected ideology into what has traditionally been a one—person, apolitical job in which credibility derives from the degree of perceived independence.

The nature of truth often requires differing viewpoints to be aired and conflicts to be resolved by discussion. This is the nature of democracy, remember? A good reason to actually value Fox news and other outlets that have the integrity to broadcast different takes on the news.

Mr. Schulz, a conservative ally of Mr. Tomlinson's from their days together at Reader's Digest, has written for Human Events Online, a conservative Web site. Mr. Bode's political orientation is less clear, but Media Matters for America, a liberal Web site (, disputes that he is a liberal, noting that he is an adjunct fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.

Was Mr. Dvorkin's political past ever brought up when he was announced as the Ombudman for NPR? Was he ever subject to the NY Times treatment?

Mr. Bode said in his e—mail that "there was no mention of politics at any time when I was interviewed for the job." He added: "We talked about two journalists, each with long experience but from different venues. I understood very clearly that what recommended me for the position was 25 years experience as a broadcast journalist and my academic credentials."

When the two applied for membership in the organization in advance of the group's conference, its 25th, here last week, Mr. Dvorkin contacted Mr. Bode and met him in Washington. He told Mr. Bode that the applications raised several issues.

"I told him that I wanted to consult the ONO board and possibly the full conference, as well before taking any decision about CPB membership," Mr. Dvorkin said.

"I also told him that I did not want to set a precedent for ONO by agreeing to admit CPB under controversial circumstances or for myself as NPR ombudsman by agreeing to work together until further discussion had taken place between NPR and CPB," Mr. Dvorkin said. "NPR to my knowledge was not consulted about the creation of the CPB ombudsmen."

Mr. Dvorkin's meeting with Mr. Bode drew criticism itself from at least two other members of the ombudsmen organization, who saw his involvement as a conflict of interest. The corporation not only oversees funding for NPR, but their ombudsmen are in a position to review Mr. Dvorkin's adjudications.

One of the critics of Mr. Dvorkin's handling of the matter was Jamie Gold, the readers' representative at The Los Angeles Times, who protested by quitting her post as the organization's treasurer, resigning from its board and declining to attend the conference.

"It was the ONO president's attempt to manipulate the CPB ombudsmen's application process from the beginning that I objected to," Ms. Gold wrote in an e—mail. "ONO values transparency. Jeffrey Dvorkin could have taken steps early on to make the entire process — their membership application, their request to attend the conference — transparent by recusing himself and handing it over to the ONO board. He didn't."

The matter set the stage for intense discussions at the conference. In the past, members have devoted their conferences to sharing strategies for responding to complaints from readers, viewers and listeners and offering each other emotional support in what is often an isolating and overwhelming line of work.

Why couldn't the current leadership of this organization admit these new ombudmen of CPB since they will face the same pressures? Why couldn't they see themselves as a neutral body of people trying to help others in the same predicament of stress and threats? Do they have enough confidence in their own organization to look at any opportunities to teach new members how to excell at the craft of being an ombudsman?

But as they gathered here last week for panels on topics like what constitutes plagiarism, what makes a photograph unacceptable and how to recognize signs of trauma among news workers, they also met behind the scenes to discuss the corporation's ombudsmen.

Mr. Dvorkin said he came to realize that he had a conflict of interest.

"As president of ONO, my job is to expand and nurture the organization," he said. "But as the ombudsman for NPR, the CPB ombudsmen may have an impact on what I do." He said that the corporation ombudsmen had at least one complaint before them regarding his work, in this case a broadcast on "intelligent design," which he had pronounced fair.'

Had to bring up the evolution issue, didn't he?