A CAMERA With the Wrong Focus

Posted by Michael Getler on

The headline above does not refer to a camera that takes pictures. Rather, it is an acronym that stands for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It is a 33-year-old, Boston-based, self-established media watch organization devoted to countering what it deems to be bias against Israel in press coverage of the Middle East.

My guess is that there is scarcely a reporter or editor alive who has worked for a major U.S. news organization that covers the Middle East who has not, at one time or another, been the recipient of critical mail from some of CAMERA’s many thousands of subscribers based on CAMERA’s assessment of their work.

In my previous life as a reporter, foreign editor and ombudsman at The Washington Post, I had a lot of experience with CAMERA, and I’ve also written about the organization a number of times as PBS ombudsman because public broadcasting is also often in its crosshairs. Over the years, I’ve disagreed, and agreed, with its reports. So CAMERA keeps you busy. But it is a serious organization that does work that needs to be taken seriously.

This column, however, is not about a CAMERA assessment about a PBS program. It is about a broadcast that was not a PBS program, that was not distributed by PBS, but which was the subject of a lengthy “CAMERA Alert” headlined: “PBS Airs Rick Steves Travel Piece Replete with Bias.” Any quick web search will show that program—indeed all of Steves’ travel programs—is distributed nationwide by American Public Television (APT). APT is one of several organizations—such as the National Educational Telecommunications Association, Executive Program Services and others—that distribute films to public broadcasters.

Not Very ‘Alert’

The “alert,” sent out on June 16, was about a one-hour special called “The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today” that first aired a year ago. The CAMERA message to subscribers said, in part, that: “His [Steves] program represents yet another example in a long line of documentaries aired by PBS that infuse an insidious anti-Israel bias into American culture.” It urged its members to “reconsider any contributions to PBS and its affiliates” and to “protest the use of tax dollars to underwrite this unbalanced, incomplete and misleading series.” It told them to write to PBS CEO Paula Kerger, to me, to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and others.

A couple of dozen people wrote to or telephoned me echoing the CAMERA assessment. When I checked with one or two of them by phone to find out how they heard about this, they acknowledged they had not actually seen the program. All of the emails and messages to me have been forwarded to APT.

This column is not about the actual substance of the CAMERA assessment. Steves, for the past 20 years or so, has been the author and star of an extensive and popular series of TV travel shows, predominantly about Europe and all distributed by APT. The program about “The Holy Land”—which I watched after receiving all the email—was a little different, and much more touchy. And right at the beginning, Steves says to the real camera: “I know this is complicated and it’s contentious, and I imagine some people on both sides are already upset with me. But I’m a travel writer and the beauty for me is to come here with an open mind and learn.” You can read this interesting piece in Current, the print and online news organization covering public broadcasting, from last year on the pre-broadcast approach to this program.

Rather, my interest is the linkage of PBS to the film by CAMERA and the fact that its assessment is sent to perhaps tens of thousands of its subscribers, many of whom probably will not have seen the program but who may become prejudiced against PBS on the basis of it.

CAMERA says of itself that it “fosters rigorous reporting” in its work so it surprises me that in its lengthy and very detailed critique it never mentions that the film is distributed by American Public Television and instead attributes it to PBS, which is an easy, tempting and well-known target.

OPB’s Role

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) is what is called “the presenting station” for The “Rick Steves’ Europe” series and the Holy Land special. OPB is also a member-station of PBS but, like all 350-plus PBS member stations, it is independent of PBS and can broadcast or sponsor whatever it chooses. Many member stations air programs that are not distributed nationally by PBS. Member station WTTW in Chicago, for example, is the longtime distributor for another popular—but non-PBS—program, The McLaughlin Group, a Sunday talk show.

Dave Davis, vice-president for television production at OPB, told me in an email that “PBS has had nothing to do with this show. Even though OPB is a PBS affiliate, we often air and distribute programs through APT or NETA, as we have in this case. It would not be accurate to reference PBS in association with this program other than to say OPB was the presenting station and it was distributed nationwide by APT.” The station’s CEO, Steve Bass, added that “PBS isn’t involved” and that “our work with APT is in no way being predicated on being a PBS member.”

Because the Steves programs are so popular, many member stations use his programs. Research shows that since August of 2014, about 65% of all member stations ran the Holy Land program. But, again, PBS did not send it to them. This is not Antiques Roadshow or the PBS NewsHour, or Frontline, or Masterpiece, or American Experience—all shows, along with scores of others, that PBS distributes nationally.

On Monday morning, I sent emails to CAMERA officials asking: “Why did CAMERA direct its critique to PBS, which had nothing to do with producing or distributing this film, rather than to American Public Television (APT)?” A CAMERA official said it was being looked into.

Posted on June 24, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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