Ethical Quote Of The Month: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler


“One would have to lean way over backwards to give her the benefit of the doubt that she was simply shedding light on the administration’s view of portions of Netanyahu’s arguments. But to personalize it by saying, “Take that, Bibi” is, in my book, inexcusable for an experienced journalist who is the co-anchor of a nightly news program watched by millions of people over the course of any week.”

—PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, giving no quarter and making no rationalizations to slam PBS news host Gwen Ifill for her” “Take that, Bibi” taunt via Twitter.


Note that he also is saying that Ifill’s defense is a lie. As indeed it was. Later, as you can read, he makes it clear that he believes that Ifill is too experienced to make the mistake she claims she made. She made a different mistake: letting her bias rule her judgment and professionalism.

What do you know, a real, honest ombudsman who doesn’t view his job as spinning for his bosses!

I wonder why the New York Times can’t find one.

20 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Month: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler

  1. Unfortunately, you skip Mr. Getler’s opening admission of incompetence, which I’ll quote:

    “I am something of a technological dinosaur. I still read printed newspapers and I don’t have a Twitter account or Facebook page. But the reason I don’t engage in social media is only in part because I’m a little challenged technologically. The real reason is that I’m the ombudsman at PBS and I don’t want to be glib or dash off something on Twitter that I would quickly regret, or that could easily be misunderstood, or could be used to either discredit me and my work or PBS.”

    That sounds high-minded, until you stop to think that maybe it would be useful to actually KNOW SOMETHING about the media on which you’re commenting.

    Maybe the Pope can get away with pretending to lecture people on sex while practicing celibacy, but in journalism, ignorance should be a cause for condemnation – not a defense!

    At issue here is the convention of the particular medium. All social media, but particularly Twitter, are extremely contextual. To pull a tweet out of context is, as this case indicates, severely misleading.

    I’ll spare readers the long version I’ve written elsewhere, but the short version is that what you and Mr Getler call a “taunt” is in context obviously a description of a hyperlinked piece of someone else’s text. It’s the difference between a commentary and a headline; between person A’s opinion and a description of Person B’s opinion.

    This is obvious to anyone who reads the tweet stream of Ms Ifill’s twitter feed. And to single out as “ethical” someone who evidently doesn’t even know how to access a twitter feed is a mistake.

    Mr Getler may or may not be ethical, but all you can’t tell from this episode is that he’s not media-competent – and not even competent enough to self-assess his own incompetence.

    • Twitter isn’t brain surgery, Charles. He understands it well enough, and as most good ombudsmen do, almost certainly consulted with others. The paragraph I quoted stands alone. His intro was superfluous.

      • I don’t know that Getler “knows Twitter well enough,” how do you know that he does?
        I don’t know that he “almost certainly consulted with others,” how do you know that he did? (Though you may well know more ombudsmen than I do, to be sure).
        All I know is his admission that he does not have a Twitter account – and I know from personal experience that you don’t know social media well at all unless you’re in there mucking with it. Especially twitter, which is the quirkiest of them all.

        If he DOES in fact know how to read a Twitter feed, and did his homework, he would have picked up Ifill’s very first response to a critique of her original tweet, which went like this.

        (from @JoeEllenZacks) @GwenIfill this is not about Bibl.
        (reply from @GwenIfill) @JoeEllenZacks But this graphic, created by administration deal supporters and tweeted out by the @StateDept …is.

        She is very clearly stating the source of the material she linked to, and accurately stating its thrust, which is to poke fun at Bibi Netanyahu. She’s reporting out on that material – not “taunting” her own opinions.

        • Come on, Charles. She knew she screwed up, and was covering. It’s very obvious, and as I said, she’s blown her credibility. What’s “quirky” about twitter, other than it encourages gaffes?

        • See, it’s things like this that cue me in to thinking you’re a shameless hack Charles. This is so blatantly obvious to anyone who actually stops and thinks about it that I can only assume that you didn’t, or did and found the conclusion uncomfortable. If I can’t trust you to think rationally on simple issues, why the heck should I believe you think rationally on more complicated ones? Shit like this fundamentally undermines your credibility. Do better.

        • I took that intro as a way for him to soften the blow. It is like when someone comes to criticize you and they first say “I just want to tell you how much I appreciate the great things you do here and that you are a real asset to this company, but there is one little thing…” . He works for PBS, so he probably isn’t some hard-heated conservative who can just come out and say “This is unacceptable”. He has to be a weasel about it.

  2. Communications ethics are pretty well ubiquitous in all forms:

    “It’s the difference between a commentary and a headline; between person A’s opinion and a description of Person B’s opinion.”

    The *ethical* indication of difference between A’s opinion and a description of B’s opinion, if you INDICATE that you are describing B’s opinion. Otherwise it is YOURS.

    I see you are also still hammering away at “Everybody Does It” as though, through repetition, it will suddenly stop becoming an unethical rationalization…

    • Texagg, you can stop with the “Everybody does it” defense claim.

      This is not that. This is a case of rules of the road, of grammar, of social convention. There is a such thing as spelling errors, and the claim that “everyone does it” is in fact a perfectly valid defense in such cases, just as “everyone drives on the right side of the road” or “everyone spells ‘tomato’ with two ‘t’s. Sometimes a description of how things work is just a description of how things work, not an ethical defense.

      • Yep, but when we are discussing communication and “speaking your mind”, “Repeating someone else’s speech” and “paraphrasing someone else’s speech” and we fail to indicate which we are doing, we are being unethical.

        If a convention has developed around that unethical conduct, then citing the convention is “Everybody Does It”.

        So no, I won’t lay off on calling out your unethical rationalizations.

  3. “…a nightly news program watched by millions of people over the course of any week.”

    This was the most interesting part of the quote to me. It looks like PBS has gone underground with Newshour ratings, but from previous data and trends it could be that they’re actually under a million viewers per program.

    • That wouldn’t surprise me at all. There is no longer any reason for PBS’s existence at taxpayer expense. Zero. Not Sesame Street (which just inked a rich deal with HBO), not Downton Abbey, and certainly not, as Prof. Reynolds calls them, “Democratic operatives with by-lines” giving the Chablis Liberal version of the news.

      (There was a justification for PBS when there were only 3 TV networks and no cable…50 years ago.)

      • And not classical crossover musicians, who make most of their money from touring, not broadcasts. One of the sweetest deals PBS has is control of the best seats in the house (usually first 2 rows) and the holding of 50 or so passes to a photo-op with the artists. They sell just as well and cheaper when the venue sells them.

  4. Now, what will PBS do about Ifill? My guess is nothing. The real test is to see if Michael Getler is still the ombudsman in 6 months. My guess is that he won’t be, he will be fired with no announcement or an announcement that he has moved on to another job opportunity.

    • Well, NPR fired Juan Williams for occasionally breaching company ideology on Fox, and that was not even a real offense. But their sister TV outlet can’t possibly fire one of its most prominent blacks for being too blatant about displaying the company ideology.

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