Print This Page

The Ombudsman Column

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Welcome to another collection of mail from viewers about PBS programs. Actually, this isn't much of a collection since most of the mail I received was about one program, a two-hour documentary called "Heat" from Frontline that aired on Oct. 21. The investigative effort by correspondent Martin Smith to measure the scale of the problems caused by global warming and the choices that individuals, industries and governments face as a result pulled no punches. Yet all but one or two of the e-mails that came to me — as opposed to Frontline directly or its host station, WGBH in Boston — were critical. I've included a representative sampling of those messages in the letters below, along with responses, at my request, from Frontline. Much of the viewer commentary on the producer's Web site is positive. I would count myself among those viewers who were grateful for this program.

There was another Frontline report the following Tuesday, Oct. 28 — a one-hour program titled "The War Briefing." This is a gloomy but well-reported, in-depth assessment of the war in Afghanistan. More accurately, it is the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, cementing both of these neighboring countries, as they should be, in the mind of viewers attempting to assess the challenges presented to Americans by a war that is now seven years old and that includes a sanctuary for one side.

"The War Briefing" is the best televised "briefing" I have seen put in front of the public on where we are in that war; a hard-nosed assessment of a battleground that has proved hard to tame for outsiders throughout its history and which is almost certain to grow even larger as a challenge for this country and our next president. My only criticism is that it does not include any real explanation from those who support sending additional U.S. brigades to that combat zone about why they feel this might be successful. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, and some top military commanders, have called for this increase but the case for how and why this might change things is not spelled out in the program.

I didn't get any mail about this program. Perhaps there was nothing to take issue with. Or perhaps it was just one of those reports that just leaves you numb because the challenges seem so daunting and the answers so elusive that they overwhelm controversy, at least until the debate starts about new troop deployments.

I mention both of these programs, even though only one of them drew a lot of mail, because they address issues — potentially catastrophic climate change and a seemingly endless war — that make you want to pull the covers up over your head and hope that somehow things will be better when you wake up. But that, of course, is not going to happen and what these programs do is present viewers with timely, hard-hitting portrayals of two extraordinary and difficult realities that the next president and the citizenry are going to have to face. So I would say that PBS is doing its job here; not backing-away or soft-pedaling problems that are not going away.

McCain and Obama understand and agree that the challenges that climate change and the war in Afghanistan represent are serious and have outlined their approaches to dealing with them.

Last week's column dealt with another recent documentary titled "Torturing Democracy" about a third issue that the two candidates agree has become a problem confronting our country here and abroad — the current administration's policies of coercive detention, interrogation and "torture" of detainees in the "war on terror." This is an independently produced 90-minute film that, as it turns out, is being shown on some PBS-affiliated stations — if you can figure out when it is being shown — but is not being distributed by PBS, which may well have damaged or diminished the film's ultimate impact. In this case, PBS ducked.

Here Are the Letters on 'Heat'

I just viewed the Frontline program "Heat" and found it to be one of the most one-sided propaganda pieces I've watched on PBS. The first part of the program was a hit piece on energy companies using the theory that these same companies should be responsible for saving the world by spending their entire profits on renewable sources of energy. Last time I checked, Exxon-Mobil is a corporation only responsible to their stockholders who are a broad spectrum of people from wealthy investors down to educational employees who count upon E-M to generate profits paying dividends and adding to their retirement.

Next it's time to go after the US car companies. Unlike Europe or Japan which are tightly compacted, the US layout is significantly different. Therefore our vehicle needs are different. The US gov't forbids the import of European small fuel efficient diesel cars and small pickups because of higher emission standards here. Funny how that doesn't apply to the rest of the world. The solution is to buy hybrid cars, according to Frontline. Maybe someone from Frontline should have gone into the Toyota dealer and enquired how much the replacement batteries for the Prius run. Try $9-10K. Wow, what a deal.

Harold Oberg, Runaway Bay, TX

As an engineer, I am offended when the emissions from cooling towers are shown while the script talks of greenhouse emissions. Those emissions are simply water vapor, a bi-product of the process of condensing the power generation steam back to water. Whether coal or nuclear or other, the cooling tower emissions are not the issue. They just make 'great' — and easy — footage.

And I object to blaming Exxon-Mobil and others for their profits, and their lack of significant investment in alternative energy sources. Companies are under a fiduciary responsibility to return the best profit to their shareholders, and to do so making the best use of their expertise. Until a MAJORITY of their shareholders says otherwise, or until Congress changes the laws, that is what they must do.

The same goes for GM and their decisions: They must justify their direction on vehicle development in terms of return to shareholders. And why is it rare that anyone bothers to quote profits in percentage terms related to the company's total business? Is it honest to keep referring to the Exxon-Mobil profit as simply "$40 billion", without reference to the company's revenues and costs? From what I have researched, their margins are approximately 8 to 10 percent, entirely reasonable.

I watch programs like FRONTLINE because I want an objective analysis. While I can accept the large majority of what is reported, these biases show a tendency to paint everything with the same broad brush, and to blame 'Big Business' for everything. We need to remind ourselves that business is the ONLY engine that creates GDP, and makes everything else possible. If you want another system you need another Constitution. From a personal point of view, the one we have is the best I know.

Tony Skipper, Canton, OH

I have just watched a Frontline program about the so-called "climate crisis"!! It is fine for PBS to present this side of the argument even though it is erroneous!! Please have a program about the other, more scientifically accurate, side of the story. Most scientists disagree with the theory of the anthropogenic cause of global warming!

This site shows that OVER 31,000 scientists have signed this petition, "We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth."

When a non-politically correct analysis is made of global warming, it is found that the warming is NOT caused by an increase in CO2! Historically, CO2 has increased an average of 800 YEARS AFTER a temperature increase! This shows that temperature increase CAUSES CO2 increase rather than the opposite politically correct position. More recent facts show that CO2 increase does NOT cause temperature increase! Look at the temperature change from 1940 to 1980. A "coming ice age" was the crisis du jour! This was during the time of the greatest increase in man-made CO2 increase! This flies in the face of today's politically correct theory!!

Ed Kertz, Ballwin, MO

Watched your show on 10/21 concerning global warming. For starters I don't accept your premise that global warming is caused by human activity.

Fact 1: The polar ice caps on Mars have decreased significantly as well as Earth's polar ice caps. How did human activity affect the Martian climate? Fact 2: Water vapor is considered a greenhouse gas and it is vastly more abundant in our atmosphere than CO2. Since 2/3's of the surface of the earth is covered with water how do you propose to reduce water vapor? Even if we could, would it be a good idea? Fact 3: The Earth's orbit is not constant. This year has been cooler than normal and Earth is 2 million miles farther from the sun than normal because of planet alignment and the pull of gravity.

Why weren't these facts examined? I'll tell you why, it is because these facts don't support your agenda. This man-made "global warming disaster" is nothing more than a leftist power grab (national/international) and lots of money flowing to research that supports the premise.

Jim Whitener, Marietta, GA

I watched tonight's episode of Frontline and I was deeply disappointed. Your reporter called the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute "climate denier groups." Is it the policy of PBS to slander groups with whom you do not agree? What does it mean to be a "climate denier group?" The Frontline reporter did not explain. The most obvious definition is that these groups deny climate change occurs. But neither the Heartland Institute nor the Competitive Enterprise Institute deny that climate change happens.

PBS's editorial standards state, "To avoid misleading the public, producers also should adhere to the principles of transparency and honesty by providing appropriate labels . . ." Is calling someone a "climate denier" and appropriate label for PBS? At best the term "climate denier" is ambiguous and inaccurate. At worst, it is offensive.

Daniel Simmons, Arlington, VA

I just want to commend Frontline on last night's "Heat". It was the most valuable, important look at carbon emissions and MISTAKES politicians made and continue to make that I have ever seen. Extremely eye-opening and should be "must view" for every person in Congress or in the 50 state legislatures. Our very lives depend on it. It also made me despise my own senator Jim Inhofe even more! Throw that kook out, Oklahoma.

Fran Britton, Yukon, OK

I found the Frontline "Heat" to be very informative. I'm bothered by the commercials you are running by Exxon promoting their "green" ways, talking of batteries and showing a small electric car in the background. Who believes them? Don't take their $ or charge them 10 x's the amount you would charge an honest commercial.

Wes Roberts, Salt Lake City, UT

Frontline Responds

Here are Frontline's responses to various questions posed by the letter-writers above. The responses were provided by Catherine Wright, story editor, at FRONTLINE-WGBH in Boston.

On 'attacking business':

"FRONTLINE understands that publicly traded companies have a responsibility to their shareholders and that they are in the business of making money. At the same time, many of these big energy companies have presented a public image of being innovators with respect to developing alternatives, and have launched multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to tout their 'green' efforts, while continuing to put nearly all of their resources behind finding, exploiting, and selling fossil fuels. We thought it was fair to ask them if they were as truly committed to developing alternatives as their public campaigns suggest.

"With respect to the auto industry, in the last 10 years American car companies have spent a lot of time and money — including more than a billion dollars from the federal government — to develop hybrid, alternative vehicles. To date, none of those concept vehicles have come to market. Again, we thought it important to ask these companies why they haven't done more to develop alternative vehicles and get them to market, despite public pledges to do so."

On those cooling towers:

"On the shots of steam at power plants, you (Mr. Skipper) are correct that what viewers are seeing is mostly water vapor. There's an inherent challenge in showing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants on television, as the gas is, as you know, invisible to the naked eye. FRONTLINE therefore decided to convey CO2 emissions from power plants by using, for the most part, images of smoke and steam from smokestacks, not cooling towers, and by using stacks at power plants owned and operated by American Electric Power, the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in the United States. There are millions of tons of CO2 flowing out of these stacks every year. It was not our intention to mislead any viewers; we regret if it did.

"As for Exxon Mobil, we reported both the company's profits and its revenues, putting the scale of their profits clearly into perspective. But there is a broader reason we reported the absolute size of Exxon's profits. Companies, such as Exxon, harbor immense resources in terms of money and expertise. Exxon has more scientists in its employment than any corporation on the planet. The question we were raising in 'Heat' is about the amount of skill and dollars deployed to drill more oil versus investing in alternatives. Are they energy companies or oil companies? And for many of their largest shareholders, it is not evident that maximizing shareholder value means focusing exclusively on oil at the expense of renewable technologies, given the climate risks, the business risks and the risks of ignoring the warning of the majority of the world's scientists on global warming. We addressed these issues of corporate responsibility not only with Exxon, but also with the CEO of Shenhua Energy in China.

"Finally, we talked to executives in the world's biggest companies — not to blame 'big business,' as you suggest — but because they are the ones that will be looked at to do the bulk of the heavy lifting when Congress regulates carbon dioxide — and because they have the resources to make a difference."

On global warming and science:

"The focus of FRONTLINE's two-hour documentary 'Heat' was an investigation of how the world's largest corporations and governments are responding to global warming. The focus of the film was not the science of global warming (we reported on the science in our two-hour joint investigation with NOVA, 'What's Up With the Weather?'). While it is true that there is some disagreement in the scientific community about how long it will take, our reporting indicates that the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly on the side of the view that the world is warming, that the warming is due to the presence of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that the amount of warming observed cannot be explained solely by natural causes. Given what arguably seems an international consensus by scientists that mankind is influencing global warming and the debate has shifted from a scientific one to a political/economic one, our program examined the governmental and business forces that have prevented the U.S. from addressing this threat, what alternatives to fossil fuels are being considered and pushed, and what hard choices lay ahead."

On the Heartland Institute and Competitive Enterprise Institute:

"In our report, we reported on the financial support companies like Exxon have given to 'so-called climate change denier groups' like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We thought the 'so-called' would signal that their position on global warming is slightly more nuanced than denying that it occurs. However, both groups have, at various points, denied that global warming is a largely man-made problem and that it is fundamentally bad for the planet."