CPB to Viewers: This Ombud's for You

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting created a new office of ombudsman Tuesday and announced the hiring of two journalists to share the duties, one formerly from NBC, the other the ex-executive editor of Reader's Digest.

"Congress has asked the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to both protect the production of public broadcasting from undue interference and to ensure that it represents high standards in accuracy, balance and objectivity," said CPB President and CEO Kathleen Cox. "The ombudsman office is a tested and reliable way to support those twin objectives."

Although public broadcasters are criticized by some, particularly some Republican legislators, for promoting liberal views, and by others for moving too much to the right in response to that criticism.

But CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson insists that the ombudsmen will not lead to the operation becoming pressured into airing specific programming. CPB "will not permit concerns over balance to allow CPB to engage in pre-broadcast censorship or post-broadcast penalties of public broadcasters," he said, adding that the presence of ombudsmen "will help ensure the goal of balance and accuracy in public broadcasting."

The ombudsmen will be former NBC newsman Ken Bode and former Reader's Digest executive editor William Schulz. Their hiring was approved by the CPB board Tuesday. Tomlinson's vote was certainly no surprise. The CPB Chairman is former editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest.

That tie between Tomlinson and Schulz did not sit well with the Jeff Chester of  the media activist group Center for Digital Democracy. "Given CPB's right-wing tilt," he told B&C, he had concerns that this move means "more pressure on program makers. CPB is supposed to be a heat shield not ratchet up further pressure on program makers. This is an attempt to appease the powerful right-wing interests on the board including Tomlinson."

Cox says the two ombudsmen will concentrate on public broadcasting's journalism programming, with concerns raised about other entertainment programs--like the flap over lesbian parents in the kids show, Buster--outside their purview.

Bode and Schulz will initiate their own reports about CPB's news-oriented programming and performance, as well as respond to inquiries by the public, government officials and the public broadcasting community.

Bode and Schulz will initiate their own reports about CPB's programming and performance, as well as respond to inquiries by the public, government officials, and the public broadcasting community.

Schulz and Bode will make all decisions to review programming and will be responsible for all reports on broadcasts.

"On some days we receive praise for what we do, and on other days our audiences express concerns," said Cox. "The new Office of the Ombudsmen offers an independent sounding board and a public advocate for those concerns."

Although broadcast organizations rarely hire ombudsmen, newspapers frequently have them on staff . Cox unveiled her plans for an ombudsman's office at a congressional hearing in February.

National Public Radio already has an ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, who as named in 2000.
Dvorkin previously served as NPR's Vice President for News & Information from 1997 to 2000.

Bode currently is a visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University. He has covered politics for The New Republic, served as a national political correspondent for NBC News, and served as a senior correspondent for CNN. For five years, Bode was the moderator of public television's Washington Week in Review.

Schulz recently retired after nearly forty years at Reader's Digest. Tomlinson left in 1996.--John Eggerton contributed to this report.