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The Ombudsman Column

Flunking the Perception Test

One of the most important editorial standards that PBS has, as I see it, is not actually included in their "Editorial Standards and Policies" document. Those editorial standards and policies are meant to "serve as the foundation for editorial decision-making with respect to PBS-distributed content."

PBS, as you may know, does not actually produce television programs. It distributes programs produced by some of its member stations and by independent film producers. And so it has additional sets of rules, one of which is called "Funding Standards and Practices," that seek to protect PBS and program integrity with respect to how programs are funded. Within those rules is one called "The Perception Test."

This column is about the application of that test to a new four-part series now running on PBS stations called "America Revealed." Its sole corporate sponsor is the Dow Chemical Company.

Watch Food Machine on PBS. See more from America Revealed.

Here's the Heart of the "Perception Test":

"PBS must guard against the public perception that editorial control might have been exercised by program funders. One of public television's objectives is to be accepted by the public as a free and independent broadcast enterprise . . . Only if so regarded can public television maintain the confidence of its viewers . . . Therefore, even if the public television professionals know that programs have not been inappropriately influenced by program funders and therefore would be acceptable under the editorial control principles . . . steps must also be taken to avoid the public perception that program funders have influenced professional judgments.

"Should a significant number of reasonable viewers conclude that PBS has sold its professionalism and independence to its program funders, whether or not their conclusions are justified, then the entire program service of public television will be suspect and the goal of serving the public will be unachievable."

The guidelines point out that "as PBS has matured and established a reputation for independence and integrity, it has been able to exercise increased latitude with respect to the perception test. However, there will still be cases where a clear and direct connection between the products, services or other interests of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program would be likely to lead a significant portion of the public to conclude that the program has been influenced by that funder."

An Occasional but Contentious Issue

I've written about challenges to PBS adherence to this test on three or four other occasions over the years.

This latest one arises from the "America Revealed" series. It is produced by Lion Television Inc., which operates in Britain and the U.S., and its four hour-long segments take an enterprising, entertaining and imaginative look, often from above, at the huge and complicated systems that keep this country's food, transportation, energy and manufacturing networks functioning.

The choice of the host is also imaginative. He is Yul Kwon, the guy who won the TV reality show "Survivor: Cook Islands" in 2006, who also graduated from Stanford and then Yale Law School. He has a talent for literally jumping into stories and for making complex systems accessible and technology understandable.

The choice of the sole corporate sponsor is less imaginative: Dow Chemical, the huge global conglomerate whose business interests run from food to transportation to energy to manufacturing and other things. And that brings the perception test into the equation.

As you can tell from the headline on this column, I think PBS flunked this test. PBS disagrees and lays out its case farther down in this column.

The Critics

The season premiere on April 11 was titled "Food Machine" and it dealt with the extraordinary complexities involved in feeding 300 million Americans at least three times a day. Of all the segments, it was the one that people might most closely associate with a chemical company because it dealt, in part, with pesticides and controversial processes such as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that have become "game changers" for much of the farming and food industry by vastly increasing productivity.

In the immediate aftermath of that program, I began receiving letters and phone calls from individual viewers sharply critical of the program and, specifically, the Dow sponsorship. Then another 500 or so emails landed in the aftermath of a critique by the media-watch organization known as FAIR, which stands for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. FAIR has frequently been critical of PBS programs and in this case claimed that "Dow's interests are all over the Dow-funded public TV series" and that it seemed clear that the programs had problems meeting stated PBS guidelines such as the perception and commercialism tests. They asked their subscribers to write to me about this.

As is the case with many write-in campaigns that result from media-watch group assessments, it was clear that at least some of those who wrote or called had not actually seen the first couple parts of the series. Yet the points raised by FAIR were fair ones, in my view, and many of the letters were quite comprehensive in their criticisms.

Ironically, on April 25, The New York Times published a story about how a new Dow-produced and genetically engineered weed killer was running into opposition.

My Thoughts

First, my problem is with the choice of the sponsor for this particular program because of the perception standard. I do not have a problem with the program or with Dow separately. The company clearly has a right to engage in sponsoring PBS programs from time to time, which it has done in several cases, as PBS points out in its response.

The "America Revealed" series was not your typical grandfather's PBS offering, which may or may not be a good thing. It had what seemed like an intentional reality show feel to it right from the start, with Kwon jumping from airplanes and broadcasting atop huge energy pylons, and also some sense of corporate public relations, not relating to any one company but to the extraordinary scope and ingenuity of these networks in America's public life. It is not a program devoted to critical assessments of what the viewer is observing.

On the other hand, the objective of the two programs I've seen so far seems really to be a non-judgmental effort to depict how these systems work rather than a detailed look at whether they are good or bad. And the programs use things such as GPS tracking and satellite and airborne photography to dazzling and educational effect. They also show some things that industry is probably not too interested in displaying, such as the cattle fattening and slaughter process, and a specially-bred, hand-grenade-sized onion soaked in batter and deep-fried that is probably just as lethal as the explosive and is sold in a popular restaurant chain. And Kwon does state toward the end of the food segment that "the question we now face is how we can feed ourselves in a way that is healthy for us and sustainable for the environment."

I haven't noted many major reviews of this series but a number of those I have seen don't even mention Dow's sponsorship, and the organization called Common Sense Media that rates trustworthy programs for children and families said this was a "terrific" series.

So, What's the Problem

The problem is that big chemical companies are red flags for lots of PBS viewers, in particular; at least that's what my experience tells me. Whatever gains they may make in expanding yields and productivity, there is a hangover from Vietnam for some people and more strong and contemporary resistance to GMOs and certain pesticides from many others. And, although Dow products were never mentioned or shown in the series so far, it would indeed be surprising if "a significant portion" of viewers, whether they write to me or not, or subscribe to FAIR or not, would not make some connection with Dow, its full range of operations, and the plus-side of this series. It took about 30 seconds for that to pop into my head as a viewer.

Indeed, as one viewer, David Evans, put it to me: "Your program, America Revealed, is sponsored by Dow Chemical. The content of this program seems to very closely match the interests of the sponsor. In fact, the subject matter of the four episodes are almost exactly matched to the Solutions section of their website. This gives the impression that Dow created the format of the series as it does not seem credible that the subject matter of the episodes coincidentally coincided with the content areas of their website. This leads me to wonder what other content related decisions they were allowed to make. I count on PBS as an independent news source, and I find this very troubling."

So, with appreciation for how hard it probably is for PBS to raise money these days, I would have voted for finding a different sponsor for this one and not gamble on testing the audience and the perception test.

A Letter from a Viewer

The following is an abbreviated version of a letter from David Gregory, a viewer in Marion, Ark.:

A series currently running on PBS appears to be in violation of longstanding underwriting guidelines and I would like to express my concern.

As PBS was established to, among other things, be a refuge from the kind of influence advertisers sometimes wield over news & public affairs programming, editorial independence is paramount — real and perceived. I fully realize that PBS is operating under tighter budgets and faces unfriendly politicians in the halls of Congress, but it has to operate within a space where no bias exists and no apparent conflict of interest exists. This is an ongoing problem at PBS — notice climate change denier and radial Republican David Koch's underwriting of NOVA. This former treasure of a program has withered and lost its voice for science and in the process become essentially worthless. Mr. Koch should have been told no thanks, but feel free to underwrite an arts program like Great Performances, but you are far too politically involved in a partisan way to sponsor a program dealing with science and public affairs.

Now for the subject of my writing — Dow and America Revealed — which seems to cross the line. The very subject matter of the series includes businesses that Dow Chemical is actively in and advocating for in the public and political spaces — not once but in every episode. For example, the positive presentation of the use of GMOs in agriculture (episode 1) is highly controversial, widely opposed by a wide variety of consumer groups and interests and has serious ongoing legal and scientific challenges to its very use. Monsanto and Dow are two huge pushers of GMOs and heavily chemical poisoning of the food supply. Today a wide variety of food in the grocery store is clearly labeled that no GMOs are used in the production of this product as the public does not want 'Frankenfood' in our bodies or our food supply system . . .

Meanwhile the Dow underwritten PBS series presents frankenfoods as a solution to a problem that is actually caused by the heavy use of the kind of chemicals Dow manufactures and sells to farmers. Where is the editorial balance that might eliminate fears of editorial bias and present a fuller story?

I expect better of PBS and those who it contracts to produce content and the laws and rules governing public broadcasting demand it. Public TV is given a huge pass and public subsidy in return for operating in an editorially honest way without the taint of the undue influence of corporate money. This program seems to be exactly the kind of programming the underwriting guidelines are supposed to prevent. The ongoing effect of the Bush Administration's and Republican Congress' full frontal attack on public media in the last decade seems to have left PBS heavily scarred and fearful — exactly the opposite of its mandate. Instead of embracing the viewers and telling corporate America to take a hike they seem to have cozied up to the Fortune 500 and sold their soul for continued underwriting money. I would rather see PBS go away than see it prostituted like this by monied interests and politically fearful management.

PBS Responses to My Questions:

Q-How was Dow selected as the sole sponsor for this series and by whom, PBS, Lion, WGBH?

WGBH, which manages corporate underwriting for a number of PBS programs, approached Dow on behalf of AMERICA REVEALED. A number of potential funders were approached. In recent years, Dow has funded a variety of PBS programs, including:

  • NOVA

Q-Was Dow aware of the subject matter of the series before they signed on?

Dow was given information about the general scope and topics of AMERICA REVEALED. Dow did not become an underwriter of AMERICA REVEALED until after the series was completed and had no editorial involvement in the production.

Q-How is the Dow sponsorship of such a program not a violation of the perception test and commercialism test of the underwriting guidelines?

Knowing the subject matter of AMERICA REVEALED and the range of issues being covered, we did not consider that Dow's business interests were so close to the actual content of the program as to make it an unacceptable funder. Its name is never explicitly mentioned in the program nor any of its products, and further, the program explores the negatives as well as the positives around monoculture and other large industrial farming techniques and other modern developments.

The four-part series is enormous in scope and we felt it was fair in its coverage without concluding that any particular corporate products or practices were "the answer." Each had its problems identified. We certainly did not view the program or the Dow funding as fostering any particular agenda to further Dow's pending applications.

Q-Is there additional background or explanatory information beyond these initial questions?

AMERICA REVEALED is a journey into some of the complicated networks and systems that keep America running, especially in the areas of food production, transportation, energy and domestic manufacturing. The goal of the series is to offer a view into these systems and demonstrate to Americans what it takes to make our modern lives possible.

Throughout the series, the producers have taken care to present multiple perspectives about the topics that are examined in each episode. While FAIR quotes the program accurately regarding the mention of genetically modified organisms, their action alert does not mention that the portion they highlight is followed by a profile of an organic farmer in inner city Detroit, a visit to Eastern Market in downtown Detroit where organic locally sourced produce is sold, and an interview with Ashley Atkinson from Greening of Detroit, which series host Yul Kwon describes on-screen as "a non-profit that promotes urban farming — not so much as a lifestyle, but as a way for both farmers and customers to thrive." In addition, the episode ends with Mr. Kwon stating, "In 21st century America, our food machine gives us more food than most of us will ever need. But it's not just about producing more calories. The question we now face is how can we feed ourselves in a way that is healthy for us and sustainable for the environment?"

An important part of the PBS mission is to serve as a place where ideas can be explored, discussed and debated through informative programming. We encourage viewers of AMERICA REVEALED to share their opinions about the important and complex subjects raised by this series.