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Sunday, November 23, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Disaster That Keeps on Giving

Three years ago I wrote a column headlined "PBS, Yes and No." It dealt with controversial episodes in which the public had reason to believe PBS was associated in some fashion with a certain television program yet PBS, as a broadcasting service, didn't have anything to do with it.

One of those episodes involved a series of programs being aired as part of a fund-raising pledge drive by the PBS-member station in Denver, KBDI. The films were produced by an organization known as "Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth" that claimed the film "9/11: Blueprint for Truth" offers "evidence that all three World Trade Center high-rises were destroyed not by fire and damage, but by explosive-controlled demolitions on September 11, 2001."

In other words, I wrote at the time, "someone wired these buildings with explosives intending to bring them down in this attack, and this has been covered up by the government, the 9/11 Commission and the mainstream media." I also wrote that "on a personal level I find the idea embedded in 'Blueprint' of a government conspiracy to blow up those buildings to be preposterous and simply beyond belief and I fault the station for promoting this as part of a pledge drive and presenting it without an accompanying on-the-air program in which critics have their say."

KBDI is now called Colorado Public Television, or CPT12, and the station and the Architects and Engineers group are back with another film, "9/11: Explosive Evidence — Experts Speak Out." Here's a screenshot of the A&E website with a big PBS logo on it that is an example of a PBS association that isn't what it seems.

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The new film is a skillfully put-together collection of interviews and sound-bites with dozens of "experts" supporting the idea that the buildings had to be brought down by pre-wired explosives placed inside. It is again part of what appears to be a successful fund-raising drive.

"The evidence is overwhelming," says professor Lynn Margulis, one of the experts. These were "pre-engineered, precisely timed and precisely placed explosives," adds civil and structural engineer William Rice. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dr. Robert Bowman says: "We know we've been lied to about 9/11. We don't know for sure who did it. We don't know exactly how they did everything. And that's why we need a new investigation — to find out. We do know that there was a massive cover-up."

The most widely-cited dismantling of this theme came in "Popular Mechanics" magazine in 2005 with a follow-up in 2007. My layman's views, for what they are worth, have never changed.

CPT12, and before it KBDI, prides itself on presenting "bold and diverse" programs and on "bringing on to TV what others won't," as the station spokesperson says during the fund-drive. I think that's a good thing and the Colorado station clearly has a right to present such controversial material.

Is There a PBS Conspiracy?

What actually interests me about this new round of 9/11 conspiracy films is not that CPT12 is showing it. Rather, it is the association with PBS that it generates, and with PBS's unwillingness or inability to separate itself more clearly from the production and distribution of such programs. There have been other such cases, especially involving programming for pledge drives. PBS is among the more widely trusted brand-names in the country, so an association with PBS tends to convey legitimacy to viewers, and some of them feel deceived and get upset, as most of the letters below demonstrate.

Here, in simplified form, is what seems to have happened as far as I can tell and with some explanations from PBS officials. As has been pointed out many times in this column, all 350 or so PBS-member stations are independent and can run whatever they choose, including the well-known programs PBS distributes nationally, material from others who distribute to public broadcasters, and locally-produced material. The mixing of national and local programming is part of the PBS legacy, its reason for being, and it's what makes PBS public, officials add.

When I first wrote about the films three years ago, they were not being aired by other stations, as far as I could tell at the time. The new A&E film, however, apparently has lots of online viewers, enough to push it into the lead on the "most watched" and "most shared" lists on the PBS website's video page. These most watched and shared categories reflect an aggregate of national and, occasionally, local programs that attract large audiences.

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Then, of course, other sites pick it up such as Digital Journal whose headline reads, "New 9/11 truth documentary among 'most watched' on PBS this week," and Brasscheck TV under the headline "9/11: PBS lets the cat out of the bag."

In many cases, aside from the absence of that little PBS logo in the corner of your screen at the beginning and end of programs, there is no other way to visually set apart material distributed by PBS, with their stamp of approval, from other programs and pledge-drive material. Or at least no one has figured out how to do it. Or possibly nobody wants to do it because the service can have it both ways, be able to say that wasn't invented here if necessary while allowing stations to get funding from programs that come from outside PBS. Because this is a membership organization with independent stations, the stations are not under any obligation to inform PBS about what it plans to use during fund drives.

In the case of the latest 9/11 conspiracy film, the "most shared" video that you can click on at PBS.org does say: "Colorado Public Television Presents . . ." But when you get that video it has both the CPT12 and PBS logos prominently presented and a PBS promotional introduction.

Again, I have no problem with CPT12 or any station running controversial, against-the-grain programming. That's okay and often a good thing. But I do have sympathy with viewers who believe they were misled by PBS, who believe that what they watch on a PBS station, or video they click on from PBS.org, carries with it the legitimacy conveyed by the PBS label. Some better way needs to be found to make it clear when that is not the case.

Here's a sampling of the letters.

Endorsing 'Nonsense'?

I've grown to trust PBS over the years, with great content such as NOVA. But I'm disappointed in what's going around the Internet today. Are you aware that this conspiracy theory video is on the PBS site, making it look as if it is an official PBS "documentary" and that PBS endorses such nonsense? Over the past day or two, it has gone viral.

Here's how PBS is being implicated as endorsing the video: http://www.care2.com/news/member/230449147/3449793. "Amazingly, PBS (public broadcasting in the US) has been screening an intelligent documentary about 9/11. It's called '9/11: Explosive Evidence — Experts Speak Out.' It focuses on the hundreds of professional architects and engineers . . ." Also, http://www.brasschecktv.com/videos/the-911-files/911-pbs-lets-the-cat-out-of-the-bag.html "9/11: PBS lets the cat out of the bag. Architects and engineers speak out." Was this actually aired by one of your affiliate stations in Colorado? Surely PBS isn't actually endorsing this kind of conspiracy theory garbage? If this is not something that is officially endorsed by PBS, you might want to make some kind of public press release about it.

Two more points: 1) The producers, AE911Truth.org, are actually using the PBS logo on their website to make it look as if it is an official PBS documentary. (Go to their website and look at the third slide in the little slideshow on the home page.) 2) Colorado Public Television has a comments section on their website. For this particular show, amazingly, every single comment is glowingly positive — not one negative comment about the show (see http://www.cpt12.org/community/viewer_buzz.cfm?s=563&ta=1). I would say this is a serious breach of journalistic integrity to only show the positive comments and filter out all the negative comments.

Dan Delaney, Louisville, KY

(Ombudsman's Note: When we looked at the station's website on Monday, Sept. 17, there were 230 comments. Of those, seven or eight were negative, but they were hard to find and overwhelmed by the notes of thanks and appreciation. I wrote to the chief of CPT12 to ask about the lack of negative comments on such a controversial program and also about the lack of any follow-up discussion, but so far no response.)

~ ~ ~

I cannot believe that you posted the video from Colorado Public TV about 9/11 without at least some kind of counter to the nonsense that was aired. Shame on you. I think your next posted video should be a proof that the moon landing never happened or better yet, a video proving that the earth really is only 6,000 years old. Instead of some kind of balanced report, your showing of that video only serves to bring out the fears of gullible and uninformed people.

Charles Rice, Luck, WI

~ ~ ~

As a long-time member of my local PBS station, KLRN, I first wish to thank you for all of your efforts in the service of the continued quality programming of PBS. I have a question which I am sure you can answer to my satisfaction. I have recently received an unsolicited email, informing me of an attached PBS documentary video concerning the 9/11 events. I have not watched the video, but judging from the wording in the email, the intent is consistent with conspiracy theory and its preposterous allegations (deliberately placed explosives, etc.) I suspect that while PBS may have produced one or more documentaries on 9/11, they could only have been based on unbiased, factual information, with journalistic integrity. I also suspect that the video referred to in the email may have been "doctored" or edited in some way that misrepresents PBS. Mr. Getler, when you have the time, would you kindly send me a reply concerning the above? Can you indeed confirm that PBS has not produced a documentary supporting the allegation that one or more buildings in the World Trade Center were intentionally brought down by explosives?

Al Boutin, San Antonio, TX

~ ~ ~

I wanted to alert the viewer advocate about something that I saw on the PBS website and register a complaint. I notice that on the list of the most watched online videos at the PBS website that a 9/11 Truther video is currently very near the top. I understand that member stations maintain their independence, and that this is crucial to the mission. I do not see how it follows, however, that a video which is so misleading and factually inaccurate should be made available through PBS's national website. It seems to violate basic program quality standards which PBS is known for. I am not advocating censorship, merely that PBS should examine the decision/process that led to this appearing on the national website and see if it aligns with the mission of public broadcasting to produce a better educated populace. I appreciate your attention to this matter.

Bob Blaskiewicz, Chippewa Falls, WI

~ ~ ~

Really? A film about 9/11 conspiracy theories, Building 7 and all the rest? On PBS? Every time I think the media has hit a new low, something like this pops up. What's next? Maybe you could find a film on how the moon landing was all done in a Hollywood studio . . . I have to admit that I am flat out stunned that PBS would give credence to this crap . . .

Buzz Menzies, San Diego, CA

~ ~ ~

I enjoy watching PBS videos online. I was a bit surprised by the featuring on the videos homepage of an 9/11 Truth video on the collapse of the WTC. One reason Frontline is so persuasive and important is because of how it and PBS mutually reinforce each other's credibility. Is PBS vouching for this documentary as legitimate journalistic debate?

Marc Mayerson, Rockville, MD


A Public Service

Why have you taken the excellent video, "9/11: Explosive Evidence — Experts Speak Out" down so quickly? It was the most shared video on your site. It would be a public service to make it available through the 9/11 anniversary to stimulate discussion and debate.

Durham, NC

(Ombudsman's Note: Last time I looked, it was not down and still at the top of the most shared video listing.)

~ ~ ~

Thank you for airing the program about 9/11. It is deplorable that we have been asked to believe the obviously-fabricated story that we have been told by our government. I wish you would do a similar story about the JFK assassination, in which I believe the Mossad and CIA had a hand.

Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

Congratulations and on airing the film 911: Explosive Evidence — The Experts Speak Out. It takes tremendous courage to present the Truth on this subject. And because of your courage I am going to contribute to PBS. Many thanks and I hope everyone in the USA is able to see this film on PBS.

Tucson, AZ


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