PBS updates editorial standards, to add ombudsman

Moves follow threat to its federal funding

June 15, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Facing charges of political bias and a threat to its funding from Congress, the Public Broadcasting Service yesterday adopted an updated set of editorial standards and announced that it would add an ombudsman who will report directly to PBS President Pat Mitchell.

The action comes in the wake of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's hiring of two ombudsmen in April to give viewers a place to take their "complaints" about public broadcasting, according to CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. CPB is a nonprofit agency that serves as the conduit of funds from Congress to PBS. Tomlinson, who was appointed by President Bush, last month accused PBS of failing to meet the standard of "balance the law requires for public broadcasting."

But the process of updating editorial standards began long before Tomlinson's allegations, Mitchell said yesterday: "More than a year ago, we set out to assemble a committee with the knowledge or experience necessary for this endeavor and equal to the enormity of the task."

The panel includes Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute of Media Studies; Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University; Geneva Overholser of the University of Missouri School of Journalism; John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University; and former CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, served as professional adviser to the committee.

While the search for an ombudsman has not begun, Mitchell said yesterday that the idea of adding one also pre-dates the current controversy: "PBS has been contemplating adding an ombudsman to the PBS staff for quite some time. ... Our goal is to provide a public way for us to listen to our viewers. The ombudsman will have a free hand to determine what he or she examines."

The standards announced yesterday update PBS program policies adopted in 1971 and revised in 1987. The changes were minimal, and the alterations that were made were done mainly with an eye toward PBS material that would appear on the Internet.

In an introduction to the new standards, posted yesterday on the pbs.org Web site, the committee called the 1987 document "well conceived and remarkably contemporary." Overall, it urged PBS to "continue to operate according to the overall principles" articulated in 1987. But it also saw a need for "policies less exclusively concerned with television" and more in touch with such new realities as Web sites, online journals and blogs that might involve PBS material. Whether the material is on-air or online, the new standards urge "that a hallmark for PBS ... should be transparency."

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