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The PBS Ombudsman

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First, my bias.

I spent ten years inside PBS as a co-anchor of PBS’ Los Angeles affiliate KCET’s nightly news and public affairs program “Life & Times.” I created and hosted a national series for the network “Searching for God in America.” Before that, as general counsel for the National Endowment for the Humanities, I had occasion to clash with a subset of the PBS bureaucracy –D.C. affiliate WETA– over the series “The Africans,” and to plunge into various other public broadcasting content and funding controversies.

PBS is without question an elitist, left-of-center, Beltway establishmentarian media organization, which occasionally produces high quality broadcasts. It is in deep denial about its core bias, and always has been.

Which is why I just had to laugh at this announcement of a new ombudsman at PBS. Here’s a key graph from Michael Gelter’s online bio:

Before joining PBS, Getler was the ombudsman for The Washington Post newspaper for five years. In that capacity, he served as the newspaper’s internal critic and as a liaison with readers. He wrote a column for the editorial page on Sunday as well as a weekly internal critique of the newspaper for the staff. Before taking on this position in November 2000, he served as executive editor of the International Herald Tribune from 1996 until 2000. The IHT, an English-language newspaper based in Paris and distributed globally, was owned jointly until 2003 by The Washington Post Co. and the New York Times.

What’s Gelter’s new job involve?

“[B]asically 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.”

How will it work? If Gelter’s first column is an example of what is to come, the answer is “not very well and no one will care anyway.” The first ombudsmaning includes an extensive review of a PBS documentary, “Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories” which first aired on October 20. Gelter’s column is a very, very long rehash of what the documentary said and didn’t say, and a deep-into-the-tall-grass analysis of what Gelter brands “a powerfully-presented documentary and does reveal what is undeniably a tragic and frustrating domestic and legal nightmare for many mothers and children.” What seems like ten thousand words later Gelter concludes: “My assessment, as a viewer and as a journalist, is that this was a flawed presentation by PBS.”

“I am not claiming here that PBS editorial guidelines were clearly breached,” Gelter is careful to add after another nine paragraphs. Then more blah, blah, blah, and end of column.

What, exactly, is this supposed to accomplish? Other than allowing the PBS Board to deflect criticism to Gelter who can then suffocate it in a mile of dense prose.

Here’s a better question for the ombudsman:

How did this stinker get made in the first place? Gelter gives us a glimpse at the very tiny PBS audience:

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.

How can so much time, effort, money and scarce broadcast time go into a show for which there is simply almost zero audience? Why bother having a PBS if it cannot produce or air programming people want to watch?

I doubt very much if Mr. Gelter will ever summon up the energy to take a hard look at PBS in all its biased glory. But if he does, he should begin by asking why so few viewers deserve so much tax subsidy.


For more on the cult of ombudsmen, see Bruce Kesler’s “Ombudseunuch Award.”


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