By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005
PBS said yesterday it has hired the first ombudsman in its history, tapping Michael Getler, who holds the same job at The Washington Post, to serve as an independent in-house critic.
Getler, 69, who is at the end of his five-year tenure as The Post's ombudsman, said he would post his critiques on PBS's Web site and perhaps appear on the air occasionally.
"I'm an unknown quantity to them," he said. "My career has been in newspapers. A lot of people probably don't know me or haven't heard about me and are not used to having this additional channel for challenge. I guess it's just a matter of them absorbing my intrusions into their world."
PBS President Pat Mitchell said she hoped the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," while an independent program, would occasionally invite Getler to discuss controversial matters. Getler, who will be the first ombudsman at a national television network, will report directly to Mitchell.
"It's going to take some getting used to," Mitchell said of Getler's role. "He can choose to review whatever he wants. . . . The challenge for Mike is he has to chart a completely new course."
Getler signed a two-year contract, with an option for a two-year renewal.
Mitchell said she began thinking about hiring an ombudsman before Kenneth Tomlinson, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, began criticizing PBS for liberal bias. She said she discussed the idea with executives at National Public Radio, which hired its first ombudsman five years ago, and that a panel of journalists reviewing PBS's editorial standards endorsed the concept earlier this year.
Getler began his career at The Post in 1970, rising to London correspondent, assistant managing editor for foreign news and deputy managing editor. In 1996 he went to Paris as editor of the International Herald Tribune, returning in 2000 to assume the ombudsman's role.
As he has done at The Post, Getler said, "I will try to sort through reader observations" -- he later corrected this to "viewer" -- "that go to the journalistic mission of PBS and challenge its own standards." Getler said he would probably concentrate on news shows but noted the recent controversy over the children's program featuring Buster the bunny that drew conservative criticism, including from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, when Buster visited a real-life lesbian couple.
Mitchell said some PBS supporters and donors found Tomlinson's accusations of bias "deeply disturbing" but that the criticism also "raised awareness" of PBS's need for independence. "It's obviously been a concern to me that any move we make now is interpreted as a response to his criticism," she said.
While Mitchell said PBS station executives and producers are receptive to the idea, the impact of an ombudsman remains to be seen. Unlike newspapers, PBS has no newsroom for Getler to critique. Mitchell's only power over her network's independent programs is to provide or withhold funding and distribution.