While generally supporting current public-television programming practices, a blue-ribbon panel on Wednesday said the Public Broadcasting Service should give its critics air time to respond to controversial shows.
After months of criticism by conservatives that reached its peak last fall with the controversial "The Africans" series, an 11-member Special Committee on Program Policies and Procedures said the Washington-based public-TV network should offer more opportunities "for viewers, critics and others to respond to, express opinions about or present (different) views or information."
The panel's recommendations are contained in a 176-page report that was released in Washington and that will be offered for approval to the public network's 317 member stations at their annual meeting later this month in St. Louis.
The report marks the first revision of PBS program and journalistic guidelines since 1972.
The committee said PBS should undergo periodic guideline reviews and resist "any improper efforts to influence (public-TV) programming process or program content."
The panel, headed by former Federal Communications Commission Chairman E. William Henry, rebuffed some public-TV critics, however, and asserted that PBS is under no legal or journalistic obligation to see that individual programs conform to generally accepted standards of objectivity and balance so long as those standards are "sought over the course of PBS' entire program schedule."
The committee said objectivity is important in news reporting, but "there is also a legitimate place for analysis, opinion and point-of-view programs on public television."
According to panel member William H. Kobin, president of KCET-TV Channel 28 in Los Angeles, the committee met four times after its formation in October of last year. He said the committee was briefed by and its final report was written by PBS staff members "with tremendous effort and input from each of the members of the committee."
He characterized the report as an "attempt to clarify and update (PBS') procedures. It was not a matter of fixing something that was broken."
The group undertook its review of PBS program practices amid criticism from conservatives over the nine-part "Africans" series of commentaries by African-born political scientist Ali A. Mazrui, in particular his generally positive portrayal of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and his argument that some problems of Africa result from American and other Western interference in the continent's affairs. The series was produced by public station WETA-TV in Washington and the British Broadcasting Corp.
The National Endowment for the Humanities removed its name from the list of underwriters of the series and claimed the "anti-Western diatribe" violated conditions of a $600,000 grant to the producers.
Other conservative groups and members of Congress also criticized the program while, at the same time, conservative board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting tried to institute a controversial "content analysis" to examine a supposed liberal bias throughout public-TV programs. (The corporation, the principal conduit of federal funds to public broadcasting, later decided against the proposed study.)
Among suggestions included in the committee report are: new program formats for criticism of programs; means for viewers to share their reactions to specific programs; viewer response segments to regularly scheduled programs, and program formats that identify point-of-view program material in the same way that newspapers identify articles of opinion as separate from other reports.
In addition to Henry and Kobin, the panel included: Elie Able, Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University; noted psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark; Katherine W. Fanning, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and Frederick Taylor, former executive editor of the Wall Street Journal.
Kobin said in a telephone interview that "it would be nice" if the new report brings the wave of charges to an end.
He acknowledged, however, that the committee essentially affirmed existing practices at the network and, with the exception of the recommendations for more air time for opposing points of view, the new guidelines are unlikely to lead to on-air changes.
"I don't think it (the report) represents a change in the function, performance or actual practice of public television," Kobin said. The committee's charge, he said, "wasn't really to change the guidelines."
One frequent and vocal critic of public television applauded the panel's call for more on-air criticism of programs, but said the committee should have undertaken a more thorough examination of PBS program practices.
Reed Irvine, head of the Washington-based watchdog group Accuracy in Media, said, "My fears that the investigation would not be vigorous proved valid. In essence, it (the report) comes out pretty much a whitewash."
Irvine's group produced a 1985 on-air response to a controversial PBS series on the Vietnam War. He said the public-TV network has refused subsequent requests to air programs critical of PBS series.
PBS will have to institute "some really drastic changes if they're going to give critics a chance to respond" to programs, Irvine said.