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The Ombudsman Column

Drones Are Real. So Are Perceptions.

PBS's long-running and award-winning science series, NOVA, aired an hour-long documentary last week on the rapid increase in the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones. It was titled, appropriately, "Rise of the Drones."

If you read the newspapers and keep up with the news, you know that military versions of these small, pilotless aircraft are being used to spy on and sometimes kill real and suspected terrorists in trouble spots around the world. You know there is growing controversy about them. The drones carry daylight and infrared cameras with extraordinary resolution, and some carry Hellfire missiles to blow away their targets. They are controlled by operators on the ground that can be thousands of miles away. The government claims, according to the program, that "drones have helped to eliminate 70% of Al Qaeda's top leadership."

But sometimes — nobody knows for sure how often — it turns out that the tiny figures on the ground that appear on those controller screens are civilians, not terrorists. Deadly mistakes are made. Nobody knows how many. Sometimes these amazingly simple, in one sense, yet extremely high-tech robots crash. They are used in a lot more places abroad than the government acknowledges, and because they are risk-free in terms of not putting pilots in harm's way, they make it easier for us to fight wars without really saying so.


Most of this program focuses, as NOVA usually does, on the science, technology and inventiveness that have propelled these new air vehicles to a point where, we are told, "because they have been so effective, the Air Force predicts nearly a third of its attack and fighter planes will be drones within a decade."

It also takes us to future domestic, non-military possibilities with smaller versions, the very thought of which is already stirring controversy.

But in the middle of the program, NOVA does not shy away from reporting, although with less depth, on the darker side of the increasing military usage.

For example, we are told: "In 2012 alone, the U.S. carried out hundreds of drone strikes across four countries . . . Afghanistan is the only publicly authorized war, while strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are covert CIA operations performed without putting American lives on the line." And NOVA reports, "There are no fully reliable counts of civilian deaths, but some critics claim that as many as 30% of those killed in the broader drone wars are civilians and that the strikes turn people against the U.S. and violate international law."

First Thoughts

I did not see this program when it first aired on Wednesday, Jan. 23. But I did watch it online a few days later. As a viewer, I felt that it was well done, informative and important. This is, without doubt, a new technology and new form of warfare that is already here and is certain to become ever more prevalent. So I was grateful to know more about it. The controversy about these weapons is well-known to those who keep up with the news, so an engaged viewer could keep things in perspective. And NOVA's main role has always been to focus on the science, engineering and usage of its subject.

There is, clearly, a need for far more in-depth reporting about the moral, legal and invasive issues surrounding these devices. They would be suitable subjects for PBS's Frontline or Need to Know programs.

Nevertheless, I valued the program for what it was and gave it high marks when I clicked on the video link. So I was surprised to be bombarded by roughly 700 critical emails and phone calls beginning on Jan. 28, five days after the program aired, mostly from those responding to an "Action Alert" from the media-watch organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) urging their subscribers to write to me. The lead of FAIR's analysis said: "The PBS Nova broadcast 'Rise of the Drones' was sponsored by Lockheed-Martin — a clear violation of PBS's underwriting guidelines."

FAIR acknowledged that it wasn't their eagle-eyes that spotted Lockheed's funding involvement. That came from Kevin Gosztola who reported in a posting on Firedoglake.com on Jan. 24 that, "before the documentary began, PBS noted the program had received funding from the David H. Koch Foundation for Science. It also received 'additional funding' from Lockheed Martin." He pointed out that Lockheed is "one of the nation's biggest military defense contractors and is developing drones."

Gosztola also reported that although the actual broadcast included an underwriting announcement including Lockheed at the beginning, "that credit was removed from the webcast, and the company is not credited on the Nova website for the episode."

These are very important observations and explain why I was surprised and why I saw no mention of Lockheed when I watched the program online or when I looked at the NOVA website. And there was never any mention of Lockheed in the body of the program, even though that huge defense company is heavily involved in drone development, which I didn't know and I'm sure vast numbers of online viewers — unless they are in the Air Force or CIA — also probably did not know.

Both Gosztola and FAIR ask the question: Can a corporation really provide "additional funding" for public TV journalism that discusses its own interest? And they take note of three of PBS's own guidelines that this situation raises.

Editorial Control Test: Has the underwriter exercised editorial control? Could it?

Perception Test: Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?

Commercialism Test: Might the public conclude the program is on PBS principally because it promotes the underwriter's products, services or other business interests?

On the perception test, FAIR cites a portion of the PBS guideline: "When there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder's actual compliance with the editorial control provisions of this policy."

And on commercialism, FAIR reports, PBS says: "The policy is intended to prohibit any funding arrangement where the primary emphasis of the program is on products or services that are identical or similar to those of the underwriter.

I asked NOVA about the FAIR critique and observations. The reference to Abe Karem in the response below relates to a person whose company has a business relationship with Lockheed, Gosztola reported.

Here Is NOVA's Response:

WGBH fully adheres to PBS funding guidelines and takes our public trust responsibility very seriously. With regard to NOVA "Rise of the Drones," Lockheed Martin's sponsorship of NOVA is not a violation of the PBS underwriting guidelines. First and foremost, Lockheed Martin, like all WGBH/PBS program funders, had no editorial involvement in the program. Their credit on this episode was part of the ongoing recognition they have been receiving for their support of the NOVA series since January 2012. Their credit is included, along with other funders, for episodes in that period; their funding is not directed to or connected with any particular episode.

With regard to Abe Karem's relationship with Lockheed Martin, that has no relevance to the story we were presenting in this program. Mr. Karem was included because he is a crucial early figure in the current generation of drone development, and we would have been remiss not to include him in this episode.

Regarding the web and webcast credits, PBS, as a matter of standard practice, deletes all funder credits from the streamed/online version of the program. We will include Lockheed Martin in the list of funders on the NOVA website for full transparency.

"Rise of the Drones" makes a responsible and significant contribution to the public understanding of the impact of these rapidly developing technologies. The program addresses the ethical and moral issues raised by the latest generation of drones. It has generated significant coverage and discussion in the media. Judging by that, it has had the important effect of advancing the public dialogue about the complex issues and controversies involved in drone technology. This is entirely in keeping with the NOVA, WGBH and PBS mission.

Jeanne Hopkins, VP, Communications, WGBH Boston

Hopkins also explained that "the 'additional funding' designation is used for a series funder that gives smaller amounts to the series than a major funder. In this case it is not program-specific funding; they [Lockheed Martin] are on for the NOVA series."

Earlier, Paula Apsell, NOVA's senior executive producer, had this to say: "I think it's correct to say this is not a public affairs show and that I think that the issues would be handled in a different way on a public affairs show. In a time honored tradition on 'NOVA' of presenting military technology, it's my belief that people really have to understand the technology, its capabilities, and where it could take us in the future before they can really evaluate in a reasonable way what the ethics are of the situation."

My Thoughts

I have written several columns over the years about whether PBS is living up to its own guidelines with respect, especially, to the perception test. The most recent column was last April involving corporate underwriting by the Dow Chemical Company of the series "America Revealed." My verdict was that PBS flunked, a view that PBS strongly disagreed with. Other critical ombudsman columns dealt with, for example, financial support for documentaries about former Secretary of State George Shultz, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Armenian Genocide and Las Vegas.

The perception test is not part of the editorial guidelines but is central to the Funding Standards and Practices of PBS. It is actually quite a long and complex guideline. The succinct quote above by FAIR conveys the general theme but there are a great many variations and exceptions in the actual document.

Here are my thoughts about the drone program and the "additional funding" from Lockheed Martin.

Worthy of Attention

First, I commend, especially, Kevin Gosztola of firedoglake.com, and also FAIR, for calling attention to this issue. It is, so to speak, a fair one. I think the Lockheed funding does present a perception and commercial test problem for PBS. My feeling is that this particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed support. That is easy for me, an outsider, to say when it comes to finding funders for programs.

The guidelines deal with issues surrounding a series of programs and require that "funders must be credited for the run of the series and must not vary from program to program," so that seems to mean Lockheed could not have been dropped for this specific program since it has been providing some additional funding of NOVA generally since last year. On the other hand, the perception test guideline also says, "As a general rule, a funder that would not be acceptable for any single program in a series would not be acceptable to fund any other part of the same series." That raises the question, did NOVA and Lockheed know that a program on drones was coming down the road a year later?

As I said at the outset, as an online viewer, I felt this was a good and useful program. But when the email started arriving, I felt, as an ombudsman, deceived by NOVA. When I went back and looked at the original as it had been broadcast, Lockheed Martin was clearly identified on screen as having provided additional funding for the program. So NOVA did the right thing on the TV platform and those who watched it as it aired should not have been deceived, at least about Lockheed's financial role.

What is also interesting is that nobody else seemed to call attention to or have a problem with Lockheed's funding. None of the reviews of the program that I read, in the New York Times or NOLA.com in New Orleans, for example, along with several others, ever mentioned the Lockheed connection. And, with the exception of a single viewer, nobody wrote to me to complain or raise the funding issue, until five days after the program aired when the FAIR "action alert" was sent out to its subscribers.

Good Program, Not Enough Disclosure

Nevertheless, in hindsight, I think NOVA handled this situation poorly and did not comply with the spirit, at least, of the guidelines when it came to being upfront with viewers. The most imposing and well known of the weapons featured on the program is the Predator drone, which is not made by Lockheed. But in December 2011, an advanced RQ-170 drone crashed in Iran. It was a big story. It is covered in the program but no mention is made that it was developed by Lockheed.

As Gosztola points out, Abe Karem, known as "the father" of the Predator, is an important figure in the program and "his company has a business relationship with Lockheed Martin," which was not mentioned. And when the program also discusses drones of the future, "it is talking about the kind of miniature drones Lockheed Martin is developing," Gosztola reported. But Lockheed is not mentioned.

In sum, there were several places along the line when Lockheed could have been mentioned. It might not have been necessary in every case, but should not have been avoided completely.

In cases such as this one, it always seems to me that it is journalistically proper, and much less costly in the long run, to give transparency the benefit of the doubt — when common sense tells you there might be the perception of a conflict or question — than not to do so.

Programs like the NewsHour or others routinely say that such-and-such is a sponsor of the program or a segment when news or analysis involves that company.

Lockheed, of course, has a perfect right to offer to underwrite a series such as NOVA. But when a planned specific segment cuts as close to the bone as this one on drones did to the business interests of a sponsor, the producers should ask the underwriter to bow out of the whole series right from the start. Or, if that is not the case when the series started out, those linkages need to be made clear during the body of the program. Asked about this, NOVA's Hopkins said, "When Lockheed Martin joined the series we did not yet have a schedule of programs set for the year."

Here Are Some Letters

Rise of the Drones on NOVA was underwritten by Lockheed Martin. Are you kidding me? Where is your code of journalism ethics? Where is your underwriting policy? I know that you must see the strong conflict of interest; a program on drones sponsored by a drone manufacturer. What an incredible disservice to viewers. Ya know, it might be different if it were a program about chocolate cake underwritten by Betty Crocker. But these are weapons that have killed many civilians. Weapons that are highly controversial. In that light, Lockheed Martin's sponsorship sounds more like a PR campaign to me. Please remember that you are supposed to serve the public.

Rosemary Johnson, Spokane, WA

~ ~ ~

The special sponsorship of the NOVA program "Rise of the Drones" by Lockheed was a breach of the public trust. Lockheed is one of the principal manufacturers of drones, and to pretend that their sponsorship was not related to the generally positive tone of the program is outrageous. While the NOVA program did mention some of the problems with drones, even then they often implied that engineers will soon have these fixed. I can understand that sometimes a program might have regular sponsors over several years, and that rarely it might be that the program for one week would touch on products produced by that company. Even then, it would seem to be necessary to exercise care that the content not be influenced by the sponsorship. But to have a company make a special grant for a particular program that touts its wares seems to me completely unacceptable.

In the good old days, public TV and public radio didn't broadcast commercials (and even now during fund drives stations sometimes claim to be commercial-free). When that policy changed public TV incurred a special responsibility to guard against control of content by the sponsors.

Hazel Tulecke & Bill Houston, Yellow Springs, OH

~ ~ ~

I would like to add my voice to the many who question why PBS accepted funding for "Rise of the Drones" from a special interest in the subject. When I saw the screen listing of LM as one of the funding sources I immediately asked myself: Is this an ad for drones or is PBS really free to report without conflict on this topic. After viewing the program I thought it went especially light on the related ethical, moral, and legal issues involved and spent instead a lot of time on the "remote control model airplane" aspects in which I, as a thinking citizen, could not have been less interested.

James Manista

~ ~ ~

If NOVA is serious about objectively examining America's embrace of drones, then underwriting the effort with donations from drone manufacturers is absurd. Corporate control of institutions has become so routine and internalized that bureaucracies are blind to even the most obvious conflicts of interest.

Nicholas Schmader, Warwick, RI

~ ~ ~

Your program segment "The Rise of the Drones" that NOVA received additional underwriting funding for from Lockheed-Martin, maker of drones, is a violation of your guidelines to separate funding from coverage of public issues. After all it is taxpayer funding that pays for the Drones in the first place and then to have the manufacturer then use profits from that funding to further build acceptance of that contacting is a severe conflict of interest.

Arnold Gore

~ ~ ~

As a journalist with many decades of experience, you must understand the importance of transparency and disclosure, not to mention adherence to conflict-of-interest guidelines. So I ask you to consider and determine whether PBS violated its own guidelines and, of course, journalistic standards of wider applicability, by 1) airing the Nova program on "Drones" without disclosing the fact that Lockheed Martin (which provided "additional funding") makes and sells the very drones touted in the program, or 2) by airing the program without disclosing the commercial ties between one of the "experts" quoted (I believe his name is Karem) and Lockheed Martin, or 3) by producing and airing this or any other program involving drones with the support (even if disclosed) of Lockheed Martin.

Philip Fertik, Oak Park, IL

~ ~ ~

This Nova episode was funded in part by Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of drones.
Additionally, the underwriting attribution, though it appeared at the beginning of the original television broadcast, does not appear on the webcast or on the Nova website for the episode. This appears to be a violation of PBS's rules, specifically relating to the "perception test" and the "commercialism test."

Jim Recht


'A Necessary and Useful Invention' and Program

I'm a PBS financial supporter and regular viewer of NOVA. NOVA is a show about science and technology — making drones an appropriate and timely topic. The program primarily covered the technical aspects of unmanned aircraft while briefly touching on some of the legal and moral concerns (which are better left to programs like Frontline). I did not consider the underwriter's connection to be a conflict of interest. These companies have sponsored NOVA for years. The smart kids who are inspired by shows like NOVA go on to get really great jobs doing amazing things — not flipping burgers or complaining about how unfair life is because they can't find a job with their philosophy degree.

Drones are a necessary and useful invention. Whether they are good or bad all depends upon how we decide to use them. I've heard people complain that drones result in collateral deaths. They do. But does anyone seriously think that boots-on-the-ground warfare doesn't have collateral consequences too? War is a nasty business. From my perspective I'd rather fight it with the least risk to our own troops and in a way which is cost-effective to the taxpayers.

In hindsight I suppose PBS could have been more careful about the sponsor for this episode (if sponsors even select specific episodes rather than sponsoring entire series). That said, I think there are a lot of anti-drone folks out there who were just looking for a fight. The bottom line, however, if you try to make everyone happy with your programming you'll end up with American Idol and a generation of uninformed viewers whom are poorly prepared to understand and vote upon the important issues facing us all.

Chris Novy, Oklahoma City, OK