Ombudsmen Appointed for Public Radio, TV

By Paul Farhi and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Two major media organizations that never saw the need for in-house critics in the past named ombudsmen yesterday.

The government-funded nonprofit group that oversees public broadcasting appointed two veteran journalists to critique the work of public radio and TV programming, following recent criticism over what is seen and heard on the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created by Congress to pass federal funds to public broadcasters, appointed former NBC newsman Ken Bode and former Reader's Digest editor William Schulz to the new positions of CPB ombudsmen. Bode and Schultz periodically will review public radio and TV shows after the programs have aired and report on their journalistic balance and accuracy.

The appointments come after a long history of conservative complaints about alleged bias on PBS and NPR. Last year, conservative dismay over the jointly produced NPR-PBS documentary news program "Now With Bill Moyers" prompted PBS to create a program called "Unfiltered," hosted by the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson ("Unfiltered" will end shortly with Carlson's departure to MSNBC).

The New York Times, picking the second ombudsman in its history, tapped Barney Calame, former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. The appointment is unusual in that Calame is so closely identified with the Journal, where he worked from 1965 to 2004. Calame succeeds Daniel Okrent on May 9.

"Barney will bring a lifelong, in-his-bones sense of how a daily newspaper operates, and a deep, demonstrated commitment to the highest standards of our craft," said Executive Editor Bill Keller. "He will have a hard act to follow. Dan Okrent has been a fearless and creative pioneer, a witty explorer of our strange culture, a perceptive surrogate for our readers."

The Times agreed to hire an ombudsman, initially as an experiment, after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal.

Earlier this year, PBS drew conservative ire, including criticism from Education Secretary Margaret Spelling, over its plans to air a children's show featuring the character Buster the Bunny in which Buster visits a real-life lesbian couple in Vermont.

CBP president and chief executive Kathleen Cox said in an interview yesterday that the ombudsman appointments were part of an effort "to raise public broadcasting's ability to address [public] concerns about issues of journalism." She declined to say what, if any, journalistic issues have arisen recently.

But a public broadcasting official, who asked not to be named because CPB provides funding to his organization, remarked, "Even a casual read on this is that this is the [fallout] from 'Buster.' By disputing our content, [CPB] can get more involved in what we do. This is another step forward in the politicization of [public] broadcast content."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group, said the moves were part of a pattern of conservative appointments at CPB aimed at "neutering public broadcasting editorially."

NPR already has its own ombudsman; PBS was in the process of hiring one before yesterday's announcement.

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