- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

A panel reviewing PBS’ editorial standards has recommended that the public broadcaster appoint an ombudsman, adding another twist to the simmering debate over charges of liberal bias in its programming.

Ombudsmen are usually found at large newspapers, where they serve as a kind of in-house advocate for readers. They typically investigate complaints about stories and comment on them in columns published on the opinion pages.

Executives at the Public Broadcasting Service have talked about appointing an ombudsman since the fall.

At its final meeting Monday, PBS’ Editorial Standards Review Committee — an 11-person panel of veteran reporters and public television executives that convened last year — endorsed the idea.

The committee will present its final recommendations to PBS’ Board of Directors next week, although the decision to appoint an ombudsman rests with Patricia E. Mitchell, the broadcaster’s chief executive.

The panel’s recommendation comes a few weeks after another public broadcasting official, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, ignited a debate over bias at PBS. If Ms. Mitchell hires an ombudsman, it wouldn’t be in response to Mr. Tomlinson’s charges, PBS officials said.

“The sentiment at PBS toward having an ombudsman has been very positive from the beginning, back in the fall,” said Lea Sloan, a PBS spokeswoman.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the congressionally chartered organization that channels federal funds to public broadcasters, hired two ombudsmen in April: Ken Bode, a visiting journalism professor at DePauw University who previously reported for television, and William Schulz, former executive editor of Reader’s Digest.

The move came amid concerns by Mr. Tomlinson, the CPB’s chairman, that PBS’ programming tilts to the left.

Mr. Bode and Mr. Schulz each have filed one report — on National Public Radio’s (NPR) coverage of fighting in Mosul, Iraq — since their appointment was announced April 5.

Last month, the Organization of News Ombudsmen — which represents about 100 news ombudsmen across the world — rejected an attempt by Mr. Bode and Mr. Schulz to join the group because the CPB does not collect or produce news on its own.

The organization voted instead to change its bylaws to allow the men to become associate members.

Mr. Bode, Mr. Schulz and a CPB spokesman could not be reached yesterday.

An advocate for viewers at PBS would eliminate the need for the ombudsmen at CPB, said Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer rights group that has criticized Mr. Tomlinson’s leadership.

“An ombudsperson could become the heat shield that protects PBS, which is what the CPB is supposed to be, but has failed to do,” Mr. Chester said.

Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, who became the first ombudsman in broadcasting when NPR selected him as an advocate for its listeners in 2000, likes the idea of having a counterpart in television.

Ombudsmen help news organizations deal with concerns about the accuracy and fairness of their journalism, he said.

Mr. Dvorkin also has a selfish reason. “I’m tired of getting their e-mails,” he said, explaining that many PBS viewers mistakenly send their complaints to him.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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