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PBS Ombudsman

Wayne Dyer: a 'Religious Point of View'?

The name Dr. Wayne Dyer has appeared many times in ombudsman's columns and mailbags since this position was launched late in 2005.

The first time was in a column six years ago and the most recent was in a mailbag three weeks ago. These appearances almost always coincide with PBS on-air pledge drives, those one or two-week periods that come four times a year when PBS member stations put on special programs aimed at increasing memberships and contributions from viewers like you.

Dyer is a mainstay of PBS's collection of pledge-drive super-stars. Virtually every PBS station carries his programs, officials say. "Since 2004," reports Joseph A. Campbell, vice president for fundraising programming, "PBS has distributed five programs featuring Dr. Wayne Dyer. Over the years, Dr. Dyer has amassed a loyal following. They have consistently and generously supported their local public stations. His programs are among the most successful fundraising programs of all times."

Descriptions Vary

Dyer holds a doctorate in educational counseling from Wayne State University, is the author of dozens of books and videos, many of which you can buy or receive as a gift with, for example, a $275 contribution during these pledge periods. He describes himself as a specialist in self-development.

Scores of viewers who have written to me over the years use different terms to describe him. They view him as "overtly religious" in his presentation, as one viewer put it, and find it not in keeping with public television's mission or standards. On the other hand, as I've said many times before, people tend to write to an ombudsman to complain, and Dyer probably has many more fans than critics.

Nevertheless, I come back to him as the ombudsman once again. To be clear, I have no personal or religious feelings one way or another about Dr. Dyer or what he does. He is clearly a very good speaker and motivator, and I agree with PBS's Joseph Campbell who says: "The mission of PBS is to serve all Americans. It is inevitable that there will be times when we present programs that only appeal to a portion of our audience. Our goal is to present a schedule that, overall, meets that goal."

So, What's the Problem?

The problem for me is only whether Dyer's presentations violate PBS's Editorial Standards and Policies. My sense is that they do. PBS feels strongly that they do not, and they have their say further down in this column. I say it is my "sense," because that's all it is, a personal feeling that I come away with after watching more than two hours of his latest pledge program, "Dr. Wayne Dyer: Wishes Fulfilled." This is not a factual dispute, and I'm not sure that I'm right. So I hesitate to call it a violation because it is an issue that is sort of impossible to pin down. It is in the ear of the beholder.

Nevertheless, Here Are the Components of My Thinking

First, Dyer is not a proponent of a specific religion. He mentions Jesus several times, cites passages from the Old and New Testaments and refers to other religious figures and texts. And he is smart and puts on a very sophisticated presentation.

But "Wishes FulFilled" is filled with scores of references to "God, ourselves...to be aligned with your source, to be aligned with God...your connection to your source...to the divine, to God...with God, all things are possible...God never fails. And you are a piece of that which never fails...You can either be a host to God, or a hostage to your ego. It's your call. God bless you." There's a lot more.

(I wish I could link to a video of the complete program so readers of this column could form their own view but that is not possible. So you need to watch it on PBS or buy the video.)

Next is the editorial standards issue. Since 1985, PBS policy has been that member stations (of which there are more than 350) provide a "nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service." This is called, for short, "the three nons." But these three nons were not included in the actual, published editorial standards until an updated version of those standards was adopted in June, 2011. So the three nons, including the one about nonsectarian, are now on my turf, officially.

Unfortunately, there is no explanation in the new editorial guidelines about how to define nonsectarian. However, there was such a definition provided by the PBS Board in 2009 in connection with a dispute involving five local stations. I wrote about it at the time and posted the Board statement that said, in part: "Sectarian content includes programming that advocates a particular religion or religious point of view."

What Is the Meaning of "Or"?

As I've said, Dyer does not advocate a particular religion, but now I am involved in a difference of opinion with PBS officials over what is the meaning of "or" as in "or religious point of view." I'll come back to this.

Finally, although there have been many critical emails to me about Dyer over the years, two new letters bring the issue into sharp focus. Posted below is a letter that was included in my March 14, 2012, mailbag. I'm posting it again because it provoked a response by the director of content for a PBS-member station in Montana.

Here Are the Letters

I am sorry to inform you that we will no longer be supporting our local public television station as we have in the past nor defending PBS from charges of bias. The issue is the tacit endorsement of Wayne Dyer's spiritual belief system by the repeated exposure that he is perennially given. Wayne Dyer is a preacher and proselytizer for "New Age/New Thought" religion. That it is unorganized and has no churches does not make it any less a religion. Dr. Dyer's and similar books can be found in any bookstore in the same section as Christianity and the other traditional organized religions. The programs that you air amount to a New Age Religion Gospel Hour, as he arrogantly and smugly paces the stage presenting his version of absolute truth about the nature of the cosmos and man's place in it. The difference between him and any other preacher is only content and style.

I am familiar with other PBS shows ABOUT various religions, but none that repeatedly give air time to a specific: "here is the TRUTH. Follow me." Like any other preacher, Wayne Dyer believes that he is just presenting accepted universal truth, but like any other, his message is sectarian. I am tired of it and now understand what those who accuse PBS of bias are talking about.

William Glasner, Victor, NY


I appreciate that you have once again given some space to the complaints about the Wayne Dyer programs on public television stations, but I am disappointed that you do not more aggressively take PBS to task on this issue. I have attempted to for years, but generally I am shrugged off at Public Television Meetings and in our online PTV chat groups. The show makes so much money for the system that programmers, fundraisers and GMs in our system just don't want to talk about it. Under my watch here at Montana PBS, we have not aired a single one of these Dyer pledge specials...even though there was significant pressure at the time.

The letter you have from William Glasner in NY hits the nail on the head. These programs are nothing more than promotion of a spiritual belief system that just doesn't happen to have the label of "Catholic" or "Mormon." For some reason New Age gets a stamp of approval on most PTV stations in this country, even though this program is clearly proselytizing for a specific belief system. I thought that this violated our generally accepted PTV principles back when the first show came out many years ago, and this current special is no different. Anyway, I am very alone in the PTV system on this subject, so when I see even a brief mention of the topic, I can't resist to speak up again...for all the good it does. I do believe this to be a cancer in our editorial principles. There is no comparison to be made to the Joseph Campbell Power of Myth shows...as these do not 'promote' a belief system. The one that could be a fair comparison are the Deepak Chopra shows. We do not air these either. It is discouraging that so many PTV stations and PBS Fundraising Programming toss out their editorial standards as soon as the pledge drive begins. Thanks for letting me vent. Thanks also for the good work you do on the behalf of our system.

Aaron Pruitt, Bozeman, MT

PBS Responds

My specific question to PBS was this: Does the pledge program, "Dr. Wayne Dyer: Wishes Fulfilled," meet the new PBS Editorial Standards and Polices which state that PBS "is committed to providing a nonsectarian...program service" which, in 2009, was defined by the PBS board this way, "Sectarian content includes programming that advocates a particular religion or religious point of view?"

PBS's top programming executive, Senior Vice President John F. Wilson, responded this way:

Making its official recommendations in 2009, the Station Services Committee of the PBS Board noted with respect to sectarian programming that "PBS [membership] policy criteria addresses content that seeks to promote one ... religious viewpoint over others." PBS believes that Dr. Dyer's programs do not promote one religious viewpoint over others. Rather, his programs are motivational in nature and reflect multiple cultural, religious and non-religious philosophical traditions.
Additionally, it should be noted that Dr. Dyer is not an ordained minister or otherwise an official of any organized religion. He is a noted motivational speaker. Based on the facts outlined above and a careful review of the program, PBS determined that Dr. Dyer's programs are non-sectarian and meet PBS' editorial guidelines.

The Meaning of "Or"

When I then asked if the Board statement should not take priority over the Station Services Committee recommendation, Wilson explained:

It was the recommendations of this committee that the full Board voted to accept when it approved the updated policies. It carries as much validity as the Board statement. However, even just focusing on the Board statement, the responses you've received from Joe Campbell and me are in keeping with the excerpt you quoted. You highlighted the words "or religious point of view," but the rest of that sentence is critical to any analysis of this issue: "Sectarian content includes programming that advocates a particular religion or religious point of view."
PBS believes that Dr. Dyer's programs do not promote one religious viewpoint over others. That is, his programs do not advocate a particular, specific religion or a particular, specific religious point of view. Instead, his programs are motivational in nature and reflect multiple cultural, religious and non-religious philosophical traditions...For these reasons, we have concluded that Dr. Dyer's programming meets our editorial standards with regards to non-sectarian programming.

The Problem for Me...

Is that the Board statement in 2009 does not say: "or a particular, specific religious point of view," as Wilson interprets it. It says, again: "Sectarian content includes programming that advocates a particular religion or religious point of view." I view "or" in that usage to mean alternatively, that programming should not advocate a religious point of view.

So there we are, stuck in semantics about the meaning of a word, a sentence and of all that talk about God. I did have one other thought: I wonder how many top PBS executives — other than Wilson and Campbell — have actually watched the full two-hours plus of Wayne Dyer, including the segments devoted to the local pledge drives?

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