This Ombud's for You
"Look, this is NOT Fox News," says Ken Bode, currently the one and only ombudsman at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). "PBS is not politicizing its news and public affairs programming in the way they do at Fox, which obviously makes no effort to be fair. Generally speaking, it is PBS that is truly fair and balanced Ã¢â‚¬Â¦
"Although a lot of people thought that the vice president essentially got a wet kiss on the NewsHour recently," Bode continues. "And I do agree that Jim Lehrer was too easy on Cheney."
In our presently partisan, over-politicized media culture, expressing such sentiments inevitably leads to being labeled a liberal -- a charge Bode refuses to address when asked pointblank: "Are you a liberal?"
"My job is journalism, not politics," he responds, and, when pressed, simply repeats.
Bode, who began as politics editor for The New Republic, has more than 30 years' experience in broadcast journalism at NBC News, CNN and PBS, and also served a stint as dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism -- so maybe he has a point. At the behest of then-CPB chair Kenneth Tomlinson, he was given a two-year contract last April as one of two ombudsmen. (The other, clearly conservative appointee was Tomlinson's crony Bill Schultz, a longtime editor for the Reader's Digest, who resigned recently after Tomlinson left amid charges of impropriety.) Their brief was to respond to viewer concerns and judge programming by the essential standards of accuracy, fairness, balance and objectivity -- but never to review a program or contact a producer before a broadcast.
Bode sees no problem with CPB having multiple ombudsmen. "There's no reason not to have more than one," he says. "This is a part-time job, and there's really too much to do for one person. It's not a right-left balancing act -- it's just the way they set it up, although there are certainly lots of people who do tend to see politics everywhere!"
Bode also sees little competition with NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin or Michael Getler, the newly installed PBS ombudsman. In fact, he credits CPB with pushing PBS finally to act about long-standing issues of balance and fairness, and actually hire Getler.
"They never did anything in 35 years despite their mandate and obligation to do so," says Bode. "The CPB ombudsmen program is not huge -- but it's a start. And frankly, if CPB hadn't appointed ombudsmen first, there would never be a PBS ombudsman. Getler's appointment is a direct result of CPB doing it first."
In any event, for nearly a year Bode has been offering "unfettered mediation and assessments of programming that public broadcasting viewers and listeners are upset about." By and large his assessments have been positive, whether examining an NPR report out of Iraq, a PBS homage to Bob Dylan, or delving delicately into controversial charges of overall imbalance in public broadcasting programming.
His Sept. 1, 2005, report, for example (entitled "The Question Of 'Balance'") considered charges made by Ken Tomlinson that the weekly program "Now with Bill Moyers" was rife with "left-wing bias," as well as Moyers' characterization of Tomlinson as "an ally of Karl Rove and the right-wing monopoly's point man to keep tabs on public broadcasting."
Instead of choosing sides in the slugfest, Bode noted that the "dialogue between Tomlinson and Moyers illustrates" the fact that "for many in America PBS and NPR are a Rorschach test. What you see in the matter of bias or balance depends on the point of view you bring to the table." But after first acknowledging that there are those who "criticize PBS as too liberal," and others who feel "that NPR and PBS are the most important remaining sources of accurate, in-depth news in America today," he did offer a personal conclusion: "Considerations of fair and balanced is not as big a problem here as elsewhere."
Bode plans to write soon about "Frontline," the eminent documentary series that, like "Now," is often attacked by conservatives for its alleged bias. He says he finds the strand to be "excellent" and his report "will be very positive."
That being said, Bode has used a sharp knife from time to time in assessing other PBS programs. In January, after receiving complaints from a congressman, he looked anew at "Now" (with David Brancaccio replacing Moyers as host) and found the Sept. 30, 2005, edition so wanting that he warned Brancaccio directly, saying "Fairness and balance, Mr. Brancaccio, keep it in mind. If you don't, you are playing into the hands of those who argue that there is an inherent bias in PBS's public affairs coverage."
The Sept. 30 "Now" broadcast, Bode pointed out, "ended with a short clip of Rep. Tom DeLay riding in a golf cart driven by President George W. Bush. Just two Texas politicians on the golf course together? Or a video reminder meant to tie the aroma of DeLay to Mr. Bush?"
While leaving it to viewers to decide, Bode still offered his own take: "In my opinion, it was a bit over the top."
Both David Brancaccio and "Now" Executive Producer John Siceloff declined comment. But Bode remains resolute about the program's failings: "That 'Now' program was so clearly unbalanced that I would have written about it anyway -- even [if] a member of Congress had not contacted me."
Most recently, Bode has examined in depth another program he feels was clearly unbalanced -- "Breaking the Silence: The Children's Stories" (broadcast Oct. 20, 2005), which occasioned some 4,000 responses to PBS.
"After close review, including discussions and email exchanges with those involved with the program or closely affected by it," Bode found this documentary on child abuse, custody battles, and Parental Alienation Syndrome "to be so totally unbalanced as to fall outside the boundaries of PBS editorial standards on fairness and balance." Harsh words -- yet with the possibility of litigation still lingering, PBS still will not admit that there was a violation of its standards.
How does a program like "Breaking the Silence" get on the air?
"That's an excellent question for PBS!" Bode exclaims. "They need someone to review programs like that before they air. They have that obligation, and they are not meeting it."
Bode, who says he often looks at programs "four times or more," believes that there is a clear need for more than one ombudsman and hopes Bill Schultz will be replaced soon. "I"m falling behind, frankly. I was hoping to hear something about his replacement, but I haven't yet, although I should start thinking about whom to recommend." One recommendation Bode will make is that the successor to Schultz be "someone with more broadcasting experience than Bill had."
What makes for a good ombudsman? "There's no clear career path to being an ombudsman," he laughs. "I"ve read and searched the literature, but there's not a lot of guidance out there."
Moreover, being an ombudsman for CPB "is quite different in that this is not a newsgathering agency, so it's a lot different from the New York Times, for example, or the Washington Post. There's no office for me to report to, and I have no contact with reporters, producers or editors. So I'm really more independent and have more distance than, say, Dan Okrent or Byron Calame at the Times."
Finally, Bode says he has yet to have "much exposure to partisanship" at CPB (he must be the only person on the payroll who can still say that!) but allows that he does "get letters complaining about Cheryl Halpern," Tomlinson's successor as CPB chair.
"Look, I try to stay absolutely clear of that stuff -- but that being said, let's recognize the fact that I am always hearing from Republicans on the Hill that PBS is left-wing and anti-Bush, so why are we giving it tax dollars? So yes, there is at least a perception that PBS is part of the "liberal media." And we have to admit that and face up to it.
"I don't hear much from the left or people complaining about the "corporate media," he concludes. "But I hear and see lots from the right wing.
"Remember the 1995 hearings, after the Republicans took back control of Congress in the '94 election?" he asks. "Their No. 1 issue was defunding public broadcasting. CPB, PBS and NPR should never rest about fears that the right wants to stop public funding of public broadcasting. We should never forget that's their aim."