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The Ombudsman Column

'It's (Not) Okay to be (Not) Smart'

The headline above is my edited version of the title of a PBS Digital Studios production of "A Very Special Thanksgiving Special/It's Okay to be Smart." The idea, its webpage states, is to "be thankful for everything science has given you this year."

First, a bit of background. PBS Digital Studios started last year and, by most accounts that I've seen, "has had a heck of a first year," as Digiday put it. Forbes described the launch as a way "to give the public broadcaster a way to create and distribute content that was created just for online viewing, as opposed to just distributing content that was being created for TV."

It was a way to connect big-time with the YouTube audience and an early offering called "Garden of Your Mind," based on the venerable Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, has been viewed more than nine million times.

One of the new video series is called "It's Okay to be Smart," but it appears that the Thanksgiving Special, set at a holiday dinner table, is more akin to the proverbial skunk at the picnic.

I've received a fair amount of mail about this five-minute segment and all of it is sharply critical. A sampling of those emails is posted below. I'm in agreement with the viewers.

There are far more comments posted below the video on YouTube than came directly to me and they, too, are almost uniformly critical.

The video presents a clever idea — to shed light on the personalities of some world famous scientists using bobblehead dolls to represent them around the table and some catchy dialogue. Only one is a woman, Marie Curie. She gets some sexual harassment-type attention from the Albert Einstein bobblehead and that's where "Okay to be Smart" gets dumb. Einstein, as a matter of fact and probably like others of that era, did not have what you'd call a great track record when it came to behavior toward women. How many people, do you think, know that?

But this attempt to be creative and humorous goes south fast. So fast, in fact, that the video now contains this statement at the beginning: "Several have taken offense to a scene at end of this video. Please see link in description to read our apology." The writer, Joe Hanson, to his credit, posted an explanation and apology on his blog.

What astounds me is that, while risk-taking is often to be applauded, this depiction of Einstein and Curie is so not funny, so off-the-wall, so not likely to be understood yet virtually guaranteed to anger a huge segment of a viewing audience for no good reason that one wonders how it was decided to show it. On the other hand, in an era where clicks count the most, maybe it is not so dumb.

What follows is a sampling of the letters to me, followed by a statement from PBS's Jan McNamara, senior director for corporate communications.

Here Are the Letters

My husband and I have supported NPR and PBS forever. For an equally long time we have been working to improve science education for all students and to increase the quality and diversity of the scientific workforce. And, oh yes, for many years we have been working not just providing services to rape victims but to change the culture that makes rape "ok."

We thought that we and PBS were on the same page until we saw your "A Very Special Thanksgiving Special/ It's Ok to be Smart." I don't know where to start — having Albert Einstein sexually harass Marie Curie and later in the piece, strip naked and "accidently" assault her could be a beginning. Does it make it worse that the woman being assaulted was the only woman there or that someone decided it was cool to make Albert Einstein a rapist or that everyone was white or that someone thought having Einstein try to rape the best known woman in science was a great way to encourage girls to enter science or . . . I just can't go on. I don't know what the heck you were thinking but I do know what I am thinking and it strongly impacts my future long-term support of public broadcasting.

Patricia B. Campbell, PhD, Groton, MA

~ ~ ~

I find the PBS Digital Studios video, "It's OK to be Smart," to be very offensive and unacceptable. I am very disappointed that PBS — normally a bastion of intelligent conversation and equality — would endorse such a blatantly sexist production.

Christopher Hunter, Warsaw, IN

~ ~ ~

I'm appalled that PBS allowed the video short, A Very Special Thanksgiving, to be distributed. Sexual harassment of women in science is not humorous, it's appalling. I expect more of PBS.

M. Eblen-Zayas, Northfield, MN

~ ~ ~

Have you seen the incredibly stupid and offensive "It's Okay to Be Smart" video done in PBS's name that has a naked Albert Einstein sexually assaulting a timid Marie Curie? Please, take down the video and have PBS issue an apology. There are so many things wrong with this video, from wronging Einstein and Curie, to making Curie (and thus women scientists in general) look like meek, "just grateful to be here" token sexual objects, to making male scientists look like misogynistic jerks. It is so embarrassing that this has been done in the name of PBS. This video sends exactly the opposite message of "it's okay to be smart." It suggests it's not only okay to be stupid, it's also okay to sexually assault a woman colleague or watch someone do it without saying anything.

Alice Dreger, PhD, East Lansing, MI

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SO DISAPPOINTED IN PBS! Einstein raping Marie Curie? What were you thinking? Not funny, not appropriate, not up to your standards. Shame on you.

Acton, MA

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The PBS Digital Studios youtube channel put up a Thanksgiving Special edition of Joe Hansen's It's Okay to be Smart series, in which a group of scientists from the ages gather for Thanksgiving dinner. In the video, Albert Einstein spends the entire time sexually harassing Marie Curie. He starts by blowing on her neck — with the scripted encouragement of Joe Hanson as narrator — and then continues with escalating physical and verbal attacks. He drops his clothing and jumps on her, knocking her over, at the end of the video. Many people have written to Hanson — via twitter, via comments on his blog post — and he has responded with a sort-of-apology post on his blog (which suggests people who don't see the humor in the sexual assault aren't understanding his intent), by linking the sort-of-apology post underneath the "see more" fold on youtube, and by adding a little text that appears if you hover over the play button that says "several have been offended by a scene at the end of the video." In the meantime, PBS (which promoted the video on its twitter feed) and PBS Digital have been silent . . . I am heartsick that a) Hanson does not seem to be able to hear the critiques, b) PBS Digital is letting that video stay up and, c) PBS/PBS Digital has not spoken to any of this.

The PBS imprimatur usually tells me that something is good; that it's educational; that it's something I'd be proud to show my kid. In this case, your brand is being seriously damaged.

Susan Harrington, Burlington, VT


Here's the PBS Response:

Joe Hanson issued a sincere apology on his blog, which is the channel he chose to discuss this issue. It included a detailed explanation of how the video was created, what he was trying to accomplish and the statement, "this video makes a joke to call attention to the sexual harassment that many women still today experience, often from wannabe Einsteins. The joke is uncomfortable because these issues are uncomfortable. To be very clear: that joke is not an endorsement of sexism in science. We aimed to ridicule miscues of science in society, past and present, using dolls, and we failed."

He also asks in the post that people form their opinions based on his past videos and writings, such as the video from the previous week, where he examines the fact that the vast majority of Nobel prize winners have been white men and criticizes women's "Nobel snubbing" as a "symptom of a larger problem," that "women are under-represented in science in general."

There have been a number of comments about "A Very Special Thanksgiving Special" since it debuted that have ranged from critical to laudatory. With this video, Joe has opened up an important, though difficult, debate. We believe we are meeting our public service mission by providing an open forum where this and other conversations about complex subjects can take place.