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Sunday, December 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

What follows is a sampling of the mail that accumulated while I was away for two weeks in August and during my first week back. For the most part, the letters are variations on themes that arise fairly steadily in viewer commentaries. But as is always the case, there is interest and insight in the details and, as is also fairly common, it often is a single letter that puts a worthy point to a larger audience. We'll get to that farther down in the column.

First come viewer suspicions about the subject that generated the most mail this week: the broadcasting of the first of a three-part series titled "Becoming Human" on NOVA, the popular and award-winning PBS science program. I get very few complaints about NOVA programs — and this series initially aired in 2009. No complaints, at least that I can recall, at that time. But timing is everything, and the re-broadcast this week of Part One came in the immediate aftermath of a now widely quoted article in The New Yorker magazine by writer Jane Mayer about David and Charles Koch, "the billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama," as the article's sub-title claims, and a follow-up assessment by New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

So what does this have to do with NOVA? One thing is that David H. Koch, as an individual rather than the Koch Foundation, is among the funders of NOVA. Another is that among his many interests, according to Rich's summary of the Mayer piece, "Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial — a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries' vast fossil fuel business."

So, once again, we have the issue of whether sponsors or underwriters can be seen by some viewers to be undermining credibility or influencing programs. The most recent surfacing of this came a few weeks ago in a documentary about former Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I was watching the NOVA program "Becoming Human" tonight (8/31/10) on KVIE and I noticed two things: the program 1) implied that we humans have adapted to past climate changes and that we need not worry that we might not survive future climatic changes; and 2) was sponsored by David H. Koch. I have read Jane Mayer's article on the Koch family in the August 30th New Yorker magazine, and I am concerned about someone like Koch — who has a stake in the status quo in terms of energy policy — funding a program that gives us the message that we don't really need to be concerned about climate change. This is a conflict of interest for NOVA that renders the program less than academically sound. I expect better from PBS.

Arden Collier, Vallejo, CA

~ ~ ~

After reading recent articles in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine regarding the activities of Charles and David Koch's foundations to fund stories that debunk Global Warming, and then this evening to find that my favorite of all PBS programs, Nova, presents a story stating Global Warming is but a myth. Guess whose foundation sponsored the program? This is supposed to be a Democracy, but more and more I see the richest among us strive to promote their myopic point of view, campaigns designed by MBA's to sell average Americans politics that have led this country to ideological gridlock. All this happens at a time when true journalism is under assault with the collapse of local papers, and we are being perceptions in the hope they become our realities. Maybe when the Koch Foundation destroys PBS' integrity, and the Tea Party becomes the new dominant force in American politics, journalists will wake up. But guess what, it will be too late . . .

Woodruff, WI

~ ~ ~

I watched NOVA last night, "Becoming Human", and I was shocked and dismayed that PBS would air a show that is funded by David Koch and clearly supports his perspective: climate change is good for humans. In fact the thesis of the program was that climate change is what made us what we are today, as opposed to the other human like species that died off. This is a bizarre and incorrect thesis that leaves out crucial information about today that is different from other times in earth's history (ie C02 levels). I would normally trust a PBS program and the information conveyed there, but now, knowing the show was funded by Koch and understanding his agenda (see recent New Yorker article) I was unable to trust anything I saw on that program. Most importantly it made me feel that I could not trust PBS anymore, a station which I have supported and watched my whole life. What are you going to do about this situation?

Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

RE: Nova: Becoming Human, Part 1 as aired Aug. 31, 2010 on Colorado PBS. I thought it odd that the program concluded with the thought that human evolution was mostly a response to natural climate change, with the implication that we can do so again. Certainly climate may have been a factor, but I have never seen it singled out as the prime motivator before. Shortly after, I learned that the program series was underwritten by the David H. Koch Foundation. This is the same David Koch, oil man, who has spent millions of dollars to undermine human-caused climate change theory and any political action that might come from it. What a shame that Nova sold itself to this pernicious bidder.

Dave Lucia, Denver, CO

~ ~ ~

I am disturbed to see that the Koch Foundation funds Nova. It is well established that the foundation has a very conservative political bias and mode of operation that makes one assume that their money influences the facts and information that Nova presents. In particular, the Foundation is vehemently opposed to any suggestion that evidence for global warming exists. They will spend any amount of money necessary to attack the science behind global warming. Money that the Koch Foundation donates carries the implication that they have exercised control over the contents of the program. PBS should not allow such a conflict of interest to exist. The integrity of all your programs will be questioned if the integrity of even one seems challenged by the source of funding.

Philadelphia, PA


A Response from NOVA Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell:

WGBH is committed to the editorial integrity of all our programs, adhering to the strictest journalistic standards. To maintain that integrity, and the trust of our audiences, funders are prohibited from any involvement in the editorial process. NOVA, like all WGBH programs, maintains complete, independent editorial control of its content.

The idea that variations in climate played a key role in human evolution is a widely accepted and influential idea in the scientific community. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History played a leading role in developing the theory. He first published the theory in the journal Science in 1996 ("Evolution and Climate," Science 273:922-923) and in the same year wrote a popular book about it ("Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Environmental Instability," William Morrow: 1996). Far from playing down the impact of climate change, the whole point of the conclusion to NOVA's first episode of Becoming Human is to emphasize how profoundly episodes of global cooling and warming have shaped the human past.

For further information on Potts' theory, see the interview with Potts on NOVA's web site. See also an article in the National Museum of Natural History's "Anthronotes" magazine.

(Ombudsman's Note: One rarely knows when or how, if at all, influence works its way. If it is a factor, it can come from outside or from within. As a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust NOVA.)


Next, It's Beck

Several viewers, not surprisingly, reacted to a PBS NewsHour segment on Aug. 30 about the "Restoring Honor" rally held at the Lincoln Memorial by Fox News host Glenn Beck. The rally was held on Saturday, Aug. 28, but since PBS does not have a nightly news broadcast during the weekend, its first shot at this event came more than 48 hours later. I thought the segment worked fine for what it set out to do. But some viewers, not surprisingly, didn't see it that way. Here's the video so you can judge for yourself, and some of the letters follow.



Your piece on Glenn Beck and his latest stunt was about as 'fair and balanced' as Fox News! In fact I thought I was watching Fox News when I watched it. You really have sunk in the credibility dept but I've been seeing that happen slowly through the years. You've hit a new low however. Both your guests were obviously hard-core fans of his and his ilk. You COULD have had Alexander Zaitchik, author of best-selling "Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance" an informative book on Beck. Thank God for C-Span's Book Reviews since they gave him 90 min. in front of an audience.

Pat Morrison Midland, TX

~ ~ ~

I watch the news-hour for its having guests to discuss various sides of issues. I was surprised that Judy Woodruff's piece about Glenn Beck and the Rally had two guests that took turns attacking Beck so I didn't get the benefit of hearing the opposite view!

Jake Farsh, Alamo, CA

~ ~ ~

I just send in my membership for $250 and was unexpectedly disappointed in Judy's coverage of the Beck rally in DC. If she or the commentators had given his show some time they would be aware that the rally is a continuation of what he is spelling out about history and various mistaken theologies on his ridiculed "chalkboards". He is a born teacher. "Restoring honor" is clear if you know what he has said about our direction as a country. I am not a "tea partier" or a Beck "whatever." I am a concerned citizen.

Manasquan, NJ

~ ~ ~

My husband & I enjoy the News Hour and usually find the reporting fair. We did not feel that way about last night's story on the Glenn Beck rally. First, there was no mention of Dr. King's niece speaking — which would have been an obvious balance to Rev. Sharpton's comments. Next, the two commentators (from NYT and Time) stated similar views — where was the balancing view? For the record, I am a moderate Republican who has, on occasion, voted Democratic. I have a big problem with the extreme ends of both Parties and feel that when you don't balance your stories it feeds the lack of tolerance each group has for the other.

San Antonio, TX


The Bad and the Good

First, The Bad. The following letters refer to an earlier segment on the NewsHour on Aug. 16 about the controversy surrounding possible construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City. They are all critical.

The Good: One of the things I like about the NewsHour is its executive producer, Linda Winslow. In my experience, she is a candid news executive, willing to take on viewers when she feels criticism is unfair or inaccurate, and to acknowledge when things go wrong in her operation. Here is a small sampling of the letters about the segment, and Winslow's response:

I think Gwen [Ifill] is an excellent journalist but in watching today's news [Aug. 16] I believe she should have shut off both interviews and reprimanded them to comment only on her questions. This turned out to be a mess not unlike something one would see on Fox News or other commercial newscasts, hardly what I expect on PBS. She should have stopped the discussion and reprimanded both respondents on their decorum and comments.

Tom Morris, Billings, MT

~ ~ ~

Please, please, please do not let News Hour interviews degrade into the kind of displays as appeared tonight when Gwen Ifill interviewed an NJ mayor and gubernatorial candidate about the mosque site in Manhattan. As a long time viewer and supporter I rely on the News Hour for its sane and respectful presentation of news. I have actually stopped watching the broadcast to immediately send out this email. Please hold true to your values. PBS has had my respect and attention over many years.

Joan Brant-Love, Lincoln, CA


NewsHour Executive Producer Linda Winslow Responds:

We all agree it was a failed segment. We may not agree with their analysis of why it failed (sometimes live discussions just don't work out the way we intended them to) but we definitely agree it was not worthy of the airtime we gave it, a waste of our viewers' time, totally uninformative and not up to NewsHour standards. We're planning to air a more thoughtful discussion tonight [Aug. 18] — and here's a link to the excellent discussion Jeff Brown did on the same subject last week.


Management or Censorship?

Two other episodes of interest also surfaced late last month, both of them as brief stories in the pages of the alert trade newspaper of public broadcasting, Current.

The factors in these episodes are quite different but both events involve situations in which viewers of PBS-member stations were denied seeing something that was widely available elsewhere.

In one case, Current took note of a story in The Brownsville Herald that the Harlingen, Texas, PBS affiliate, KMBH, had failed to broadcast a major and widely promoted PBS Frontline program, "Law & Disorder," about questionable police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and that an inquiring viewer, and the newspaper, could not get an explanation from the station manager. The program eventually was broadcast at 1 a.m. rather than in its usual prime-time evening slot.

As has been pointed out in this column dozens of times, all 350-plus member stations of PBS are independent and can run what they want, when they want. What makes this particular episode of somewhat more interest is that in January 2007, the same station, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, initially did not broadcast another Frontline documentary called "Hand of God," causing a similar but much larger stir. It, too, eventually was aired at 1 a.m. on a subsidiary channel of the station.

The other item reported by Current was also the subject of a letter to me, posted below:

Our local PBS station (KIXE) just cancelled the "Democracy Now!" program. The new GM (Phil Smith) used the reasoning that the program was "too biased" to be a news program. Redding, CA, is very conservative but his reasoning appears biased in itself. How can the other 850 stations that air the program not also see it as "too biased"? Something smells fishy. Thanks for your attention.

Gary Rossman, Redding, CA

This also illustrates the independence of individual PBS member stations and their managers, but in this case, PBS has nothing to do with "Democracy Now!". PBS does not help produce it or distribute it. The program, however, does have a large audience and devoted following. The stations referred to in the letter above are probably mostly radio stations and other college, public access and satellite television stations.

The program began in 1996 and grew into the flagship news and public affairs offering of Pacifica Radio. It describes itself as an independent, non-profit program. The program focuses especially on issues of "war and peace," is appealing to listeners often described as "progressive" and is quite hard-hitting, often presenting voices, especially from the left, liberal or unconventional and often unrepresented viewpoints, that are rarely heard elsewhere on radio and television.

Current quoted station general manager Philip Smith as saying, "If it were properly couched as a progressive informational or opinion show . . . that would be OK. Then I'd probably line it up with something with an opposing viewpoint. (But) they present it as a newscast. It's clearly not a newscast."

I'm not a student of "Democracy Now!" but certainly some could take issue with the preponderance of its selection of stories and guests that are clearly left of center. But part of its presentation, in addition to interviews, is a newscast that seems to me to be fact-based, even though it may be uncomfortable news to some. It also seems clear to me that many voices with interesting things to say never do make their way to more conventional outlets and that there are sizeable segments of communities that can absorb hearing what these people have to say and also deal with uncomfortable news.

So, in both these cases, managers are within their rights, but I'm with the viewers and listeners who feel short-changed.


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