PBS should have disclosed that a "conservative commentator" on a political talk show was a senior appointee in the Bush administration, according to three prominent media ethics experts.
Gary Hill, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that if the facts of the situation are as we've reported them, then "disclosure would have been the proper course." Hill is also director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minnesota, an ABC affiliate.
Karen Czarnecki, the woman at the center of the controversy, has been a senior appointee at the Labor Department since 2001. She has repeatedly appeared
on the PBS show "To the Contrary" as a "conservative commentator." Her federal appointment has never been mentioned on the show -- even when she was discussing labor issues, including Bush administration policy.
Czarnecki's appointed post at Labor "was an important credential that should have been shared with the viewers. . . especially in light of the fact that the discussion sometimes covered labor issues," Hill told me.
PBS and the show's host have defended their practice of using Czarnecki without disclosing her day job. According to show host Bonnie Erbe, the administration required
that Czarnecki's position not be disclosed as a condition of her appearing on the show.
"There's no grey area in terms of disclosure," said Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at Univ. of Minnesota. "There's nothing wrong with having someone who's working for the government on as a commentator," she said. "You just have to disclose that."
"You've got to figure out a way to preserve the interest of the audience," said Kelly McBride, head of the ethics division of the Fla.-based Poynter Institute for Journalism. "When she's discussing issues she's working on, it's very hard to figure out which role she's playing," McBride explained. "It's unlikely she'd say something that is counter to the Labor Department's position. As a member of the audience, you've got to question her independence."
"You can kind of see how the Labor Department comes out ahead on this," noted McBride.
Hill and Kirtley both commented that in the wake of the Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher flaps, news organizations should handle issues involving commentators' government ties with care. "Given the earlier controversies about whether or not certain columnists were being paid to advance their opinions. . . It raises all these same questions again," Hill said. "PBS has the most to lose in terms of credibility here."