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PBS Public Editor and the Disease of Contempt

You are the public editor at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Your job – take in complaints and criticism from the public and respond.

One recurring complaint from the public – PBS is heavily funded by corporate America – and as a result, PBS shies away from those who are critical of corporate control in the USA.

A previous public editor, Michael Getler, addressed this issue head on, in a number of columns throughout his twelve year career (2005 to 2017) as the ombudsman at PBS.

In one, titled Keeping Their Heads Down, (June 18, 2010), Getler ran a complaint from a viewer in Oregon.

“I continue to be uncomfortable with your cozy association with oil giants (BP, Chevron) and other notorious corporations like Monsanto who apparently shovel a lot of money your way,” the viewer wrote. “This practice undermines trust of your truth telling capacity when it might affect one of your corporate supporters. How is this practice any different than the other national corporate media entities who also accept money for the same reason you do? We have no trust of the integrity of these corporate media sources and we are losing trust in your operation for the same reason.”

Getler challenged the top brass at PBS with this and other similar complaints about corporate control — “How can PBS NewsHour claim to be unbiased when their main sponsors are Big Banks (Bank of America), Big Oil (Chevron) and Big Farms (Monsanto)?” another viewer asked.

In other columns, Getler wrote about David Koch’s underwriting of PBS – David Koch and PBS: The Odd Couple (May 2013), about BP’s influence over PBS in Underwriters, Corporate Funders & Noncommercial Public Television (October 2006), and about Dow Chemical influence over PBS in – Flunking the Perception Test (April 2012).

Since Getler left PBS in 2017, the PBS public editor has yet to address head on the issue of corporate influence over PBS.

Let’s say that as a PBS viewer, you wanted to ask the public editor about corporate control over PBS and the way PBS filters out critics of the corporate influence over PBS.

Why, for example, is the PBS show America’s Heartland being underwritten by CropLife America, a trade group for the pesticide industry?

You pick up the phone and dial up the current PBS Public Editor – Ricardo Sandoval-Palos.

On the Public Editor’s web site, it says you can call him at 703-739-5290.

Dial it up. And up comes a voice that says “you are free to leave a voicemail message but would be better off writing an email to the public editor ([email protected]).”

But then you hear “you cannot record a message for” – and up comes the voice of Michael Getler, who was public editor at PBS from 2012 to 2017, and who died on March 15, 2018 at the age of 82.

And then you hear – “this mailbox is full.”

And then “please hold to leave a general message.” And then “goodbye” with no chance of leaving a message. (Listen to the PBS Public Editor voicemail here.)

In March 2018, the Washington Post ran an obituary of Getler titled – Michael Getler, Washington Post editor who became incisive in-house media critic, dies at 82.

Before becoming public editor at PBS, Getler was the Washington Post ombudsman from 2000 to 2005.

“Getler became known for sharp observations that became the talk of the newsroom —  and other newsrooms,” Post reporter Bart Barnes wrote in the obituary. “The New York Times reported that work virtually came to a standstill when Mr. Getler’s criticism – ‘lobbed like hand grenades’ – became available internally before it ran in the Sunday paper.”

For too long, PBS has been afflicted by a disease of contempt for its viewers. Corporate sponsors come first. Corporate critics have been systematically filtered out of PBS news programs.

As a tribute to Getler’s life and work, PBS might want to consider a public editor who is responsive to viewers’ concerns.

Step one – answer the phone.

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