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The Ombudsman Column

Caution: That Program May Not Be From PBS

Note: This column contains a correction posted on May 20.

Each year, for the past several years, PBS puts out a press release that proclaims proudly that a new national poll by the respected Roper organization "shows that Americans consider PBS the nation's most trusted institution among nationally known organizations." It has always bothered me a bit that the annual random survey of some 1,000 adults by Roper is commissioned and paid for by PBS. But my sense, based on anecdotal experience over many years as a viewer and two-plus years as ombudsman here, is that lots of people do, indeed, trust PBS. That's what makes PBS, and what it puts on the air, important.

On the other hand, what you sometimes see on your local PBS station may not have much, or anything, to do with PBS and doesn't have the PBS stamp of approval. And it seems to me, also based on anecdotal evidence from my ombudsman's perch, that: 1) a fair number of people don't understand that, and 2) that you can hardly blame them for not understanding.

For example, I get a steady, and at times very heavy, flow of e-mail from viewers who hear something on The McLaughlin Group talk show that they don't like. This is probably one of the most well-known programs on television. It's been around for 25 years and its culture is that of a raucous, free-swinging, weekly opinion program. It is produced by Oliver Productions of Washington, D.C., and now airs on CBS affiliates in Washington, New York and elsewhere, having recently ended a quarter-century production relationship with the NBC affiliate in Washington.

PBS has nothing to do with the production or content of this program. But, aside from CBS, McLaughlin also airs on 315 PBS affiliates around the country through a long-standing distribution agreement with the Chicago PBS-affiliate, WTTW. That is all legal and laid out in long-standing public television regulations that spell out the proper usage of the Public Television Satellite Interconnection System by PBS affiliates, all of which are independent stations. But you can hardly blame PBS viewers for thinking The McLaughlin Group is a PBS program because that's where they watch it.

Officially, the cognoscenti among PBS viewers will know that the real PBS programs — the ones distributed by PBS through its National Program Service (NPS), such as Antiques Roadshow, NOVA, Frontline, American Experience, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Great Performances and dozens of other — all have that little PBS logo in the lower corner of the screen and at the end of the program. But it seems clear that a lot of people don't quite get this, which seems very understandable to me. This has come up before and has been the subject of earlier ombudsman columns.

Which brings me to the point of this column. PBS and its 355 affiliates ought to figure out some way to flag viewers on the screen about programs that are not developed, produced and approved within the PBS system. The absence of that little logo doesn't seem to be enough, especially when PBS will not take editorial responsibility for those programs in which the ownership is not clear to the viewer.

Not Your Father's Network

The Public Broadcasting Service, by the way, is a strange organization. It is, indeed, a service rather than a system. Although it has millions of faithful viewers, it actually doesn't produce anything for television (it does produce some original online content). All those programs I just mentioned are produced by a handful of the big, affiliated stations — such as WGBH in Boston or WNET in New York, among others — as well as independent documentary film producers such as Ken Burns, and are distributed by PBS through the NPS. And all those 355 stations are affiliated but independent. They all show many of the NPS programs but they can also show whatever else they want to.

Obviously, there are lots of local programs on PBS affiliates that people understand are produced by the local stations, and there are broadcasts of programs and news from the BBC, for example, which can be easily understood as being distributed by one of the PBS affiliates for wider viewing in this country.

But there have also been cases in which a controversial documentary produced outside of the PBS system but appearing on PBS affiliates provoked criticism and surprise from viewers who didn't understand that PBS had nothing to do with the content. And last week, several viewers, and a columnist for the widely-viewed Salon Web site, took sharp issue with a program being used for a pledge drive by PBS-affiliated stations during March and April. In response to questions, PBS officials, using statistics just for March, said the program had apparently been used by 206 stations (including digital transmitters) and had been aired 1,115 times.

The program is called "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" and it features Dr. Daniel G. Amen, who is described in promotion material as a "best-selling author, psychiatrist and brain-imaging specialist." The promotion goes on to say, "included in the program is Dr. Amen's prescription to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's Disease!"

Special programs associated with PBS pledge drives have come in for viewer criticism before, especially those dealing with financial and spiritual advice, and have also been the subject of earlier ombudsman columns. But the criticism aimed at Dr. Amen's presentation elevates what usually is controversy over matters of appropriateness in pledge shows into a specific medical and scientific debate about an extremely difficult and emotional subject for thousands of families. This program was distributed to PBS stations by Executive Program Services, which describes itself as "a major supplier of quality programming to Public Television Stations across the nation." The uplink to the Public Television Satellite Interconnection System in this case was provided by the National Educational Telecommunications Association, based in South Carolina.*

PBS had nothing to do with the "Brain" program's content and did not vet the program in any way. Again, local PBS-affiliated stations are independent, locally owned and operated, get material from sources other than PBS and make their own editorial decisions based on their own guidelines about what to air. But, despite all those things that viewers may or may not be aware of, when that pledge special is broadcast on what viewers do know as their local PBS station, it can cause confusion and challenge.

Another Doc Weighs In

Dr. Robert Burton is the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and, for the past year, has been writing a feature column for Salon called "Mind Reader." Here's some of what he wrote in a May 12 posting:

"It's 10 on a Saturday night and on my local PBS station a diminutive middle-aged doctor with a toothy smile and televangelical delivery is facing a rapt studio audience. 'I will show you how to make your brain great, including how to prevent Alzheimer's disease,' he declares. 'And I'm not kidding.'

"Before the neurologist in me can voice an objection, the doctor, Daniel Amen, is being interviewed by on-air station (KQED) host Greg Sherwood. Sherwood is wildly enthusiastic. After reading Amen's book, 'Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,' Sherwood says, 'The first thing I wanted to do was to get a brain scan.' He turns to Amen. 'You could start taking care 10 years in advance of ever having a symptom and prevent Alzheimer's disease,' he says. 'Yes, prevent Alzheimer's disease,' Amen chimes in.

"Wait a minute. Prevent Alzheimer's disease? Is he kidding? But Sherwood is already holding up Amen's package of DVDs on learning your risk factors for A.D., as well as his book with a section titled 'Preventing Alzheimer's.' Then, as though offering a landmark insight into a tragic disease — and encouraging viewers to pledge money to the station — Sherwood beams and says, 'This is the kind of program that you've come to expect from PBS.'

"If so, that's a shame. One of the messages of Amen's PBS special and his book on Alzheimer's is that early detection of A.D. can lead to methods that both slow the progression of the disease and prevent it. But this opinion isn't shared by the vast majority of the medical community. Despite decades of studies, there are at present no definitive long-term treatments for A.D. or its prevention, as Amen would have viewers and readers believe."

And, as for PBS . . .

Burton does not spare PBS in his critique. He writes that: "The same criticism surely applies to those PBS stations that aired 'Change Your Brain, Change Your Life' without internal review or audience notification that no program review had been performed. At the least, the stations should simultaneously display a disclaimer indicating that the program's contents haven't been specifically vetted by PBS. Without such a disclaimer, anyone watching a PBS-aired program must assume a caveat emptor default position."

Amen immediately responded on Salon's Web site to Burton's article, including pointing out that "preventing Alzheimer's was only 10 minutes of the 60-minute show."

Amen wrote that: "The science behind preventing Alzheimer's disease is described in detail in 'Preventing Alzheimer's,' which was published by Putnam in 2004, and co-authored by neurologist William R. Shankle. Dr. Shankle is one of the recognized world's experts on Alzheimer's disease, who developed one of the commonly used screening tools for Alzheimer's disease. Preventing Alzheimer's contains an extensive reference list (86 citations)."

Viewers of the program, and readers of the exchange in Salon between the two doctors (which I recommend), can form their own view of the science and medicine involved. But the point Burton raises about PBS is, in my view, an important one. Nothing illegal or improper was done here. PBS affiliates did what they are clearly allowed to do. Yet the end result may well have been misleading in that the level of trust that people put in PBS may — and I stress may because I'm not a brain specialist — have been misplaced for some viewers who did not understand that this was not a PBS-vetted program and who didn't happen to notice that the little logo didn't appear.

In PBS's "Editorial Standards and Policies," under a section dealing with local station responsibilities, it states that, "PBS, however, makes no judgment as to the suitability for broadcast of programs distributed by parties other than PBS."

But under the section on "Fairness," there is a paragraph that starts out this way: "To avoid misleading the public, producers also should adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels, disclaimers, updates or other information so that the public plainly understands what it is seeing."

That section is aimed at PBS-distributed programs, not pledge specials or material from suppliers other than PBS. But its logic seems clearly relevant to what is at issue here for viewers for whom a PBS station is PBS and who are not always aware of material that is provided from other sources. It doesn't mean the material is suspect but it keeps you alert about the context of what you are watching and hearing, something you deserve to be made specifically aware of.

Some Letters and a Response

Here are some of the letters about the program:

I am a long-time enthusiastic supporter of Seattle's KCTS and PBS programming in general. I want to register a strong protest against shows like Daniel Amen's 'Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.' Religious messages in themselves are fine. Shrouding the religion with pseudo-science and then using it to sell products and services is reprehensible. I urge PBS to get this show off the air as soon as possible. I also hope and expect that PBS will institute a formal vetting process for any show which makes scientific claims. We cannot afford to lose PBS as one of the few clear voices of reason on television today.

David Thomley, Seattle, WA

Dr. Amen's unscientific program regarding the prevention of Alzheimer's disease has no place on PBS. I believe that you are doing a disservice to America in general by allowing such flim-flam to air under the recently respectable auspices of PBS. Additionally, I believe that you are doing a disservice to millions of people who may latch on to the false claims of Amen in the hope of preventing Alzheimer's. If I were you I would be ashamed that your policies permit the dissemination of such unsubstantiated drivel.

Daniel Morris, Ph.D., Dept. of Physics, University of Texas
Austin, TX

Why is PBS airing Dr. Daniel Amen's "commercial" for his claimed prevention of Alzheimer's disease?

Fort Collins, CO

When will PBS stop airing tawdry infomercials by the likes of Orman, Dyer, and now worst of all, Dr. Daniel Amen? My husband and I are dedicated PBS watchers and PBS supporters, but as soon as we see them coming, we abjure PBS for the week. Do you really get more contributions when you air such trash?

Nancy Powell, Bethesda, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: The following letter is from a retired family physician, Dr. Harriet Hall, who has been critical of Dr. Amen's work in the past. Her letter, reprinted here in part, was among the first received and it was answered by Joe Campbell, PBS's Vice President for Fundraising Programming. His response follows Dr. Hall's letter.)

I was distressed to see that you are showing Daniel Amen's program and even using him for your fund drive. Viewers come away with the impression that he is providing state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment for various disorders, that he can "cure" ADHD, that he can "balance" the brain, and that he knows how to prevent Alzheimer's. None of this is true. His ideas are not backed up by any credible published peer-reviewed controlled studies.

He claims to see things on SPECT scans that have not been validated by other researchers; in essence, he has invented a "new phrenology." These scans are still considered experimental for most of the conditions he treats, and have been discouraged by professional groups and insurance companies. They require injection of a radioactive material and may be dangerous, especially for children . . .

Amen's program is based on his opinions, speculations, and personal experience, not on good science. If he admitted that, I would have no objections; but he misrepresents it as scientific truth.

Harriet A. Hall, MD

One of the more confusing parts of public television is that individual stations get their programs from a variety of sources, not just from PBS. While we provide the bulk of the programs you see on your local station, many of those programs come from places like the BBC, alternative public television distributors, like American Public Television, and independent distributors. An easy way to tell if a program is from PBS is by looking for the "PBS Logo" that appears at the end of every program we distribute.

"Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" was distributed by one of those independent distributors, not by PBS. They offered the program to public television stations across the country, and the individual stations decided whether or not to use it according to their own local standards. I hope you will forward your concerns to the station(s) in your viewing area. They may not be aware of the issues you raise about the program. Thank you again for letting us know about your concerns.

Joe Campbell, Vice President, Fundraising Programming

*Correction: PBS officials said that, due to a misunderstanding, the original reference in this column to Connecticut Public Television as having a role in the distribution of the program was in error.