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PBS Ombudsman

Fish Stories and Fishy Stories

"If your mother says she loves you, check it out" is a cautionary principle that journalists have always been taught but sometimes forget and sometimes, for what seem to be good reasons at the time, see no obvious need to pursue.

But somewhere within the thick catalog of things that can surprise and come back to bite TV producers there should be an entry for checking on sources that don't appear, at first glance, to need checking. I'm not stating this with much clarity because it's an occasional problem that varies from case to case — sometimes with no one at fault — and it would be hard to improve on that pithy warning about your mother.

Yet, it struck me as worth recording a couple of recent cases just so they could go into a catalog, especially since, in today's confrontational political environment, some viewers and organizations use these situations to draw larger allegations about PBS's credibility and politics.

For example, the headline on this column springs from a July 18 segment on the PBS NewsHour, reported by Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, about how a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest is adjusting to declining numbers of a traditional food staple, salmon, and the role of climate change in this.

Watch Swinomish Tribe Works to Adapt to Shrinking Salmon Supply on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The problem arose when a viewer wrote to say that the chairman of the Indian Tribal Community prominently featured in the report had "illegally offered to sell State fisheries agents salmon 'under the table' in violation of state and tribal law. It makes a mockery of PBS's credibility to feature a tribal leader on a national news program complaining about disappearing salmon harvest, when he is currently under investigation for killing and illegally selling the salmon, and failing to report the harvest to fishery managers."

Sreenivasan thanked the viewer for alerting the program about this but pointed out that the taped NewsHour interview with Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby took place on June 14, two weeks before the incident with the fisheries agents, and that the question of legal violations is in dispute, according to other accounts.

Although the woman who wrote to us did not cite any sources for her information, our office had researched the issue and forwarded to Sreenivasan a July 19 article about the episode in a local publication called The Olympia Report.

Sreenivasan, in his response to the viewer, says that "the source you cite seems to be fairly agenda driven in their reporting," noting that it is a "service of the Freedom Foundation" and that the article about the alleged illegal $100 sale of six salmon also reports that "the tribe has donated more than $414,000 since 2004 to a variety of Democratic political candidates and causes — most notably Gov. Christine Gregoire."

I'll come back to this, but the point is this stuff can get tricky.

'NewsBusting' PBS, Again

In late June, the conservative media-watch site NewsBusters, which says it is devoted to "exposing & combating liberal media bias" and which has focused on PBS programs many times, claimed that PBS's Frontline investigative series "defended its use of a convicted felon as an expert in its 'Dollars and Dentists' documentary" that aired on June 26. NewsBusters reported that Frontline Managing Editor Phil Bennett said, in response, that the show was "unaware of [Christina] Bowne's criminal record" but that he, Bennett, did not think it undermined the story.

NewsBusters claimed, however, that the interview with Bowne "was crucial to the show's case against the for-profit [dental] company 'Kool Smiles'" and that "Bowne's record takes away from the force of her argument [and] raises credibility issues. If the show was unaware of her criminal past and how it might impact her credibility, how many similar interviewees in 'Dollars and Dentists' have more to their stories than viewers were led to believe?"

Bennett, in his response to NewsBusters, pointed out that the conviction occurred 13 years ago, prior to her employment at Kool Smiles, that there were numerous sources used in the documentary, and that "Bowne's testimony for the film and text was corroborated by other sources and by documents. We stand by the story as accurate and fair," he said.

NewsBusters put its political stamp on its assessment by also reporting that the hour-long Frontline documentary was made in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and on information from the Pew Research Center and that they "are both funded by liberal mogul George Soros."

My Thoughts

First, as a fair-minded viewer, which I hope I am, I would say that the Frontline program was a hard-hitting but fundamentally fair look at a subject that badly needed looking into — the millions of Americans who have no dental insurance and no dental care yet are suffering from dental problems and can't afford treatment. As a viewer, I could tell early on where this program was headed yet felt that it was a topic that needed a challenging focus.

Slate carried an interesting critique of the program calling it "an important story about a key part of the U.S. health care system that is usually ignored" and "should be watched by everyone except those who are convinced they will never have a problem paying for their family's dental care." But it also points out that the program doesn't deal with some basic questions such as why dental care costs so much. And it says that repeatedly using phrases such as "corporate dental chains . . . backed by private equity firms" might make people forget that private dentists also run for-profit businesses.

The role of Christina Bowne in the broadcast, and her background, is not worthy of discrediting the program, in my opinion.

Bowne is a former officer manager with Kool Smiles, a large, relatively new corporate chain of high-production dental offices, backed by a private-equity firm, to treat kids on Medicaid. She was hired in 2006 but left a few years later because, as she told reporter Miles O'Brien, "it became more about numbers."

Bowne is an important person in the telling of the narrative of "Dollars and Dentists." But she is hardly alone. There are several other parents, dentists, state medical directors, a U.S. senator (Charles Grassley, R-Iowa), and CEOs of other firms, that tell stories that are essential to this investigation, and the regional director of Kool Smiles gets plenty of air time.

As for Bowne, it is true that she plead guilty to obtaining money under false pretenses in 2000. She did not disclose this to Frontline producers prior to her interview for the program. But it is also true, based on a copy of her application for employment at Kool Smiles that I have read, that she described the details of her crime and its resolution to the firm at the time of her hiring, and that Kool Smiles went on to make her an office manager. I have not seen court documents, but from what I have read on her application, and assuming the copy of the document is authentic, the dispute involved a family issue at a difficult time and that she was not sent to jail and was released early from probation.

In a separate response, Bennett wrote:

"FRONTLINE examined the problems facing millions of American adults and children who can't easily access or afford dental care, and the various solutions that have arisen to try and help them. We did not look only at corporate dentistry. We explored models involving non-profits, mid-level providers, charity care and a university providing expensive last resort care. The rise of dental chains backed by private equity firms is a recent and rapid development to treat underserved populations, and so merited our scrutiny. A thorough appraisal is even more justified given that the practices of several firms in the film are being evaluated by state and federal investigators and members of Congress. We stand by the fairness and accuracy of our reporting. This view is supported by the Academy of General Dentistry and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists."

It's Happened Before

This issue is not a new one for PBS and, I suspect, for lots of other media outlets. This kind of after-the-fact surfacing of new or additional information about sources can be important, informative, embarrassing and journalistically instructional, and it is important that viewers and media-watch groups call attention to such things.

But it should not be used to discredit media outlets that clearly are serious about their work, as is Frontline and PBS. It does reinforce the notion, however, that TV operations, in particular, not take anything for granted and do as much background checking as is possible beforehand.

The most dramatic case of this variety I've written about unfolded in two columns I wrote three years ago in which one of PBS's top viewed shows — the annual Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol — featured a star-studded dramatization of the case of a very badly wounded Army Sergeant whose mother and sister were taking care of him. Many people and organizations reached out with great generosity to help the mother and sister cope.

Viewers in the soldier's hometown in New Hampshire wrote to tell me about lots of things that were not mentioned in the dramatization and that eventually led to indications, which I was able to confirm through newspaper accounts and court authorities, that the mother plead guilty and was convicted on two separate occasions for "theft by deception" and "theft by unauthorized taking" and served jail time. In the first case, the newspaper account reported that she had been "indicted for allegedly bilking her co-workers of nearly $2,000 to pay her daughter's non-existent medical bills."

Wrapping the Fish

Now, let's try to wrap up this column and the fish story I began with.

There are dueling accounts of whether Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman featured in the NewsHour segment, violated either Washington state or tribal laws.

A weekly report by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement records the incident about the fish sale at issue and underlines that: "It appears that the violator is the Swinomish Tribal Chairman!"

The story in The Olympia Report says, "Cladoosby, under whose leadership Washington's Swinomish Tribe has actively opposed everything from wells drilled on private property to plastic water bottles in the name of preserving salmon runs, was apparently cited himself last month for poaching" and that the matter has been turned over to the tribe "for disciplinary action."

But the website of the local newspaper, the Skagit Valley Herald, calls The Olympia Report account "erroneous" and says the chairman has received no citations.

Sreenivasan, in a lengthy and detailed response to the complaining viewer, who asked not to be identified, concludes: "We do not think that the alleged infraction in question of $100 of fish sales which occurred after we interviewed our source, negates his position as a leader of the tribe, to speak for how his people are coping with the impacts of climate change, or for his role in helping his community with the mitigation strategies, which was the point of our story."

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