Will there be a new ombudsman at PBS? Just days ago, the New York Times eliminated its ombudsman role and essentially fired current public editor Liz Spayd with a year left on her contract.
After more than 11 years as its ombudsman, or “independent internal critic,” Michael Getler announced in late April he was stepping down. “I’m leaving this job because it’s time and I’m getting old, not because I fear that I would be unable to write about what President Trump does or says fairly or impartially,” he wrote.
iMediaEthics asked PBS this week if it still plans to replace Getler and continue its ombudsman role.
“The search to replace Michael Getler, who retired in late April after more than a decade of service to PBS and a 60-year career in journalism, is ongoing,” PBS Senior Director of Corporate Communications, Aparna Kumar, told iMediaEthics by e-mail. “The job for Ombudsman/Public Editor is posted on our website: http://www.pbs.org/
She added, “PBS is grateful for Mr. Getler’s loyal service as an independent advocate for PBS viewers. In the interim, PBS still has an office of the Ombudsman, which flags viewer concerns for appropriate follow up by PBS and member stations.”
iMediaEthics asked PBS who is running the ombudsman office in the interim. Kumar said Jeremy Barr “is working with the team at PBS to ensure that audience questions and issues are addressed in a timely fashion.”
After the Times axed its public editor, Barr tweeted, “I’ve been working with the PBS ombudsman for a few months & have seen how much people value having an independent rep.”
The ombudsman job listing explains: “The Ombudsman/Public Editor will examine matters of editorial integrity, journalism, and production practice. (S)he will offer an objective perspective when responding to complaints or questions. The position is independent from PBS, and reports directly to the organization’s President & CEO.”
In Getler’s final column in late April, he looked back at his time as an ombudsman for PBS, noting, “Aside from the rants and frequently useless stuff that anyone in my position is on the receiving end of in today’s email environment, there is also a steady, substantial amount of smart, incisive criticism, challenging observations and questioning that can, if absorbed by newsrooms and producers, help these organizations adhere to the high standards they vow to uphold in their own internal guidelines, and to stay on top of their game.”
Getler presciently flagged that ombudsmen in the U.S. are “an endangered species, maybe actually extinct volcanoes,” whereas thirty years ago there were “more than 40” ombudsmen in the U.S. His column was written April 24; The New York Times announced the elimination of its public editor position May 31. iMediaEthics has written to Getler to ask his opinion on the Times‘ action.
Regardless, Getler advocated for the role, explaining that even when “outside critics” make valid points, “I continue to believe that an independent ombudsman within important specific news organizations is the purest and absolutely best service for readers and viewers and for news organizations to be held accountable to their own high standards.”
Getler explained, “People who are critical of news and public affairs publications and programming like to have their concerns addressed by those organizations, and by an independent person within those organizations. That is where they look for some response to their observations, not to some freelance gun-slinger whose work may or may not be seen by them. Reporters and editors who work for major news organizations read what their own ombudsman has to say because they know that their readers and viewers see it. They may not pay as much attention to outside criticism.”