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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Once Again, PBS Is the Wrong Address, Sort of

* This mailbag was updated on June 29 to include a response to a viewer from the producer of "Under Our Skin."

This week's mail was filled with observations, complaints, and even some compliments, about lots of different things; too much, actually, for one column. So I'll record some of the correspondence in a follow-up posting in a few days. But for now, it's back to an old problem, one that I have written about many, many times but seems unresolvable in the peculiar system that is public broadcasting.

In a nutshell: Large numbers of viewers tend to think, quite naturally, that when they see something on their local PBS station, that it is a PBS program. And if they don't feel it is up to PBS standards, they complain. But all 350 or so PBS member stations are independent. As long as they don't violate FCC regulations, they can broadcast what they choose. And, there are many other non-PBS suppliers of programs — such as documentaries or pledge-drive specials — to public broadcasting stations. It is each station that holds and maintains its broadcast license, not PBS. Programs approved and distributed by PBS show that little logo in the corner of the screen, and if you miss that, too bad.

The reason I come back to this situation once again is that a couple of events took place this month that further illustrate the complexities and confusion posed by this system.

A Guide to What Follows

The first three letters posted below focus on a controversial 90-minute film titled "Under Our Skin: A Health Care Nightmare" that, according to its promotional material, "exposes the hidden story of Lyme disease." I have no position on the content or science portrayed in the film, which has stirred controversy and has also been honored by several film festivals.

But here's what's interesting: PBS had nothing to do with this film; it didn't fund it or distribute it. Rather, it was produced by Open Eye Pictures and distributed free-of-charge by the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), a South Carolina-based organization that also provides programming to many licensed public stations around the country. But this film is either being shown, or scheduled to be shown, by about 67 percent of all PBS member stations, according to PBS officials.

Furthermore, the company's website promoting the film uses the PBS logo, and a PBS official says the company "will be told to remove that."

And last Sunday, Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks posted a sharply critical article attacking Maryland Public Television for scheduling what he described as "a polemical film about Lyme disease that is built on fear-provoking speculations and assertions while advancing a central message that has been discredited by experts in infectious diseases." Rodricks also reported that one of the leading PBS stations, WGBH in Boston, decided to drop the program from its schedule based on what a station vice-president said was "our own, internal editorial concerns that surfaced on closer review of the film."

At KBDI in Denver, 'Food Matters'

Just below the letters about "Under Our Skin" is a lengthy letter from Linda Rosa, the director of an institute in Colorado, complaining very critically about an Australian film called "Food Matters" that is being aired as part of a fundraising drive on PBS member station KBDI in Denver. Again, PBS has nothing to do with this film and KBDI appears to be the only station running it. I have previously written, critically, about a "9/11 Truthers" series of programs used for fundraising in 2009 by KBDI, which has a reputation as something of a maverick.

Rosa raised serious challenges to the program content and also, separately, asked about the "conditions whereby PBS member stations risk losing their affiliation with PBS." She asked, "Where can we find a particular affiliate's contract with PBS to determine if it has violated its agreement with PBS?"

Thomas Crockett, PBS vice president for station services, says:

"PBS member stations are bound by several PBS member policies, including the Terms and Conditions for Use of PBS Programs, which governs how stations broadcast programming they receive from PBS, and PBS Membership Eligibility. Under this policy, stations must maintain a noncommercial, nonsectarian, nonpolitical service (as required by the FCC) and pay their PBS dues. Violations of either policy could result in a station losing its affiliation with PBS, although it's never happened to my knowledge. As you can see, PBS treads very lightly on station content choices beyond PBS, as the station, not PBS, holds and maintains the broadcast license in accordance with FCC rules. There is no affiliate contract, only an annual certification that the station agrees to abide by PBS membership policies. And it's not public."

WETA Does It Right

The final pair of letters posted below refers to another film, "Out in America." It was written and produced by Emmy award-winning director Andrew Goldberg and seeks to tell "transformative stories and inspiring personal narratives through the lens" of lesbian, gay and transgender Americans in their own words and in their everyday lives. This film debuted earlier this month as a pledge-drive program and, contrary to the other two films mentioned above, this one was financially supported and distributed by PBS and produced in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Even though this film was distributed specifically as a pledge program, stations were under no obligation to schedule it. As of mid-June, PBS officials say that the film was carried on 72 percent of PBS stations and was almost evenly split between prime time and what is called "late fringe." The late showings, they explained, "tended to be in southern and smaller markets where there is greater sensitivity to this issue." While the film was seen in 85 percent of the top 25 markets for PBS, it was shown in only 32 percent of the smaller ones. These officials said despite the lesser showing in some areas, the overall U.S. coverage so far for "Out in America" was about 65 percent of households where PBS is available, slightly above average for fundraising programs, and they were pleased with the pledge results.

Still, these figures show that the film was not shown in about 30 percent of the country. Clearly some viewers and some station managers will not be enthusiastic about this subject. But I thought that the main local station here in the Washington, D.C., area, WETA — home of the PBS NewsHour and Washington Week — handled this very well.

The two on-camera presenters for the pledge portion of this broadcast — John Bell and Helen Raptis — went at this issue directly several times.

"We think this is an important documentary and something that many people would appreciate seeing, but it isn't the sort of television show that most broadcasters would even consider airing . . . there are many folks who would prefer we didn't air programs like this. But we feel differently. We believe that television can be a very powerful medium. We think it can serve as a source of education and enlightenment . . . This is a subject that many people struggle with, and we're happy to provide this documentary as a way to promote more understanding and acceptance . . . This is what public television does so well."

Here Are the Letters, 'Under Our Skin' First

I was disappointed to see "Under Our Skin" air on PBS. It was nowhere near the standards set by PBS on shows such as NOVA which uphold high science standards. Under Our Skin was pathetically one-sided. What's next, an anti-vax rant by Jenny McCarthy? An expose on Obama's Kenyan birth?

Connie Keeling, Henderson, KY

~ ~ ~

I have contacted you previously on behalf of the American Lyme Disease Foundation in opposition to showing the false and misleading film "Under Our Skin" on PBS stations. I call your attention to this news article that describes how this film is being used by those who profit from the use of unproven approaches to treat Lyme disease that they mistakenly feel is all pervasive. I truly hope PBS will not embarrass itself by showing this film on its stations.

Phillip J. Baker, Lyme, CT
Executive Director ALDF

~ ~ ~

I am a Lyme disease patient that moved from Virginia to Fort Mill, SC, two years ago. My Lyme disease doctor of several years had opened his practice in Fort Mill and I was excited to be moving closer to him. Three months after I arrived, he moved to Washington, DC. He apologized to me and said, "He could read the writing on the wall." Washington had offered him permanent protection from medical boards. Some of his Lyme patients had moved from Australia to Fort Mill just to be closer to this same doctor. My son Jordan also has Lyme disease. His doctor had agreed to treat him via phone and prescribe antibiotics as needed. Jordan's Lyme specialist was located on the Eastern Shore in Virginia. Several months after our move, we lost my son's Lyme specialist. He was being harassed by local medical boards and rather than fight, he retired. After speaking with his staff, I found out that almost everyone in his office had Lyme disease. They were all in tears because they no longer had a specialist to go to. I have cashed out my entire retirement for treatments that insurance companies will not cover. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for agreeing to air: UNDER OUR SKIN. I will be telling everyone I know to tune into PBS next month.

Elaine Clements Finn, Fort Mill, SC

* A Response from the Producer of 'Under Our Skin'

The following is in response to earlier claims by Philip Baker of the American Lyme Disease Foundation (ALDF). It is from Andy Abrahams Wilson of Open Eye Pictures, the producer of "Under Our Skin":

"We reject his [Baker's] claims and stand by our research. Mr. Baker is the Executive Director of the ALDF which has no credence among Lyme patients groups or Lyme-literate physicians. It is a front organization for the authors of the IDSA Lyme Treatment Guidelines and the small group of Lyme researchers who have controlled Lyme research for 30 years. Half of the ALDF Board members are past authors of the IDSA Lyme Guidelines, a group which has come under scrutiny by former CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who investigated antitrust violations including significant conflicts of interest among the original IDSA guidelines panelists, suppression of scientific evidence by panelists, and exclusion of panel members with opposing viewpoints (see http://www.ct.gov/AG/cwp/view.asp?a=2795&q=414284 ). The ALDF is a political organization which supports the status quo of Lyme research and protects the reputations of its members . . . Open Eye Pictures researchers spent four years researching the Lyme disease controversy with no a priori bias. UNDER OUR SKIN is the result of this rigorous research. In an open society information should not be seen as a threat. Our society's public health is at stake. The public has a right to know and public television is the appropriate venue."

Onwards, to 'Food Matters'

Many have complained to you in the past, without effect, about the promotion of pseudoscience and quackery during local PBS stations' fundraising. Allow me to try again.

KBDI in Denver is currently promoting potentially lethal practices with an Australian film called "Food Matters" (available on Netflix). This film is an infomercial for people who market "orthomolecular medicine" through books, lectures, expensive products such as special juicers ($2400), unregulated nutritional supplements, mega vitamin "therapy," and even a Tijuana cancer clinic. The message of "Food Matters" is: "For every drug there is a nutrient that will do the same job." In massive doses, of course. Also cooked food is toxic, and the medical professions are evil.

This is a revival of the old Gerson cancer quackery of the 1950s, which is now promoted in "Food Matters" by Max Gerson's daughter, Charlotte. Another "expert" showing up in the film is an HIV denialist, and so on. The film unambiguously asserts that mega doses of IV vitamin C is the cure for cancer.

KBDI was informed before first airing "Food Matters" that the spokesman for the film appearing in their studios would be in violation of Colorado law for claiming to have a Ph.D. from an unaccredited school (i.e. Greenwich University, a peripatetic diploma mill currently located in Pakistan). To do so while promoting his materials and denigrating his competition, i.e. science-based medicine, appears to be regarded as deceptive trade practice in our state (CRS 6-1-105). Regardless, KBDI abetted this deception by repeatedly referring to Andrew W. Saul as "doctor" during pledge-drive intermissions.

We hope you can understand our concern about such information going out unchallenged to the public when the lives of children, cancer patients, and other vulnerable citizens are at stake. KBDI admits that it is the only PBS station in the country to air "Food Matters." We can well believe that. Airing this film seems the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Still there is plenty of fundraising nonsense to go around in other PBS affiliates, no?

We live in hope that the PBS ombudsman might one day realize the need to do something about this dreadful, ongoing situation where pseudoscientific claptrap in fundraising works to undo all the lovely science in your regular programming. We just wonder how bad the situation will get. Will you and PBS do more than raise an eyebrow to the KBDI situation?

Linda Rosa, Loveland, CO
Executive Director, Institute for Science in Medicine

About 'Out in America'

"Out in America" as you know was aired nationally on PBS June 8, 2011 except in a few markets. I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my local PBS affiliate is WUNC-TV. I was not allowed to see Out in America because I had no other local PBS affiliate other than WUNC-TV and they have so far refused to view it. I want to know what I can do as a viewer to make sure the residents and loyal PBS viewers have a chance to see this film. Please advise me as to how I can see Out in America and how I can inform the more than 4,000 readers of the email newsletter I publish weekly can view it here in Raleigh.

Willie Pilkington, Raleigh, NC

A Response from UNC-TV

Out in America was offered to PBS member stations in the form of a pledge program, meaning it had built in break periods in order to allow stations to interrupt the program to appeal to local viewers for contributions. While we do believe that the content of this program has merit and we have broadcast many programs with comparable content in the past, it was not our view that presenting it in the form of a pledge program in the midst of a pledge drive was the best way to present this film.

Furthermore, while this program may have been shown on June 8 by some public television stations, there was nothing "official" about the June 8 date, and indeed, the program is available for stations to show at any time at their discretion.

That said, there is certainly a possibility that UNC-TV will broadcast this program at some point, although no specific air date has been determined as of yet. Knowing that there is a strong desire to see the film by some of our viewers is, of course, an important consideration for us in making future programming decisions. If we do put it in our broadcast schedule, though, our current thinking is that we would show it in full without interruption rather than as part of a pledge drive.

Steve Volstad, Director of Communications and Marketing, UNC-TV