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PBS Ombudsman

Keeping Their Heads Down

One of the most minor and least visible effects of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that two oil companies not connected to the explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform have minimized their profiles as underwriters of some popular PBS programs as the crisis continues.

This is not an unusual situation in the media generally. Many airlines pull their advertising completely from newspapers and other outlets, for example, when there is a major crash involving an aircraft of any commercial airline. The PBS case is somewhat different in that the program sponsorship and corporate identification continues, as does the financial support of the sponsor, but its prominence on the screen is reduced. This means the normally longer and more descriptive visual and spoken messages are replaced simply by a logo, for example, keeping the company's head down but allowing PBS to make sure it continues to identify its underwriters.

Nobody who wrote to me in recent weeks seemed to spot this, but I thought it may be of some interest to readers of this column. When I asked PBS about it, officials who deal with underwriting policy reported:

"Recently, series underwriters Chevron and ExxonMobil have chosen to mark their support with an on-screen display of their name rather than the more typical underwriting credit. The companies continue to underwrite PBS NewsHour (Chevron), NOVA (ExxonMobil), Nightly Business Report (ExxonMobil), and other programs. Their support of these programs is clearly acknowledged on the air at the time of the broadcast, in accordance with our guidelines regarding public disclosure of program funders."

A Larger Question

Beyond this question of reduced profiles during a crisis, the larger question of advertising, underwriting, sponsorship — whatever one calls it — remains a relatively small but fairly steady component of viewer comment directed at the ombudsman's mailbox. I've written about this issue a couple of times in the past, but the current oil disaster and the recent financial collapse seem to have increased both the flow of mail and the anger attached to some of it. And PBS does seem to have its share of corporate underwriters who have been in the public spotlight.

Here's an e-mail that arrived recently from Robert H. in Rochester, NY:

"One question . . . How can PBS NewsHour claim to be un-biased when their main sponsors are Big Banks (Bank of America), Big Oil (Chevron) and Big Farms (Monsanto)? These companies are infamous for shutting down real news. How can we expect them to be fair and balanced about a story about little farmers or how the every day citizen is affected by companies like Bank of America? I do not have a problem with corporate sponsorship, but let's be a little more selective please. Thank you for your time."

And another from Dee Roe in Santa Cruz, CA:

"I am terribly upset over the addition of Chevron and Bank of America to your sponsors. I have always trusted the freedom of viewpoints on this station. How do you explain being beholden to these corporations? Why was this decision made? Please put a column addressing this on your site and address this issue during broadcasts. I hesitate to give to PBS knowing they might now be compromised."

Here Are Some Others:

Nice work on sanitizing coverage of the disastrous oil gusher in the Gulf and not showing the incestuous relationships between Big Oil, government regulators, etc. Perfect editorial policy to keep those corporate underwriters happy!

Curt Smith, Tyrone, NM

I am an avid fan of PBS via KSPS to Calgary. My support and my friends' support of PBS was completely undermined when we saw that Monsanto was one of the sponsors. We then felt that PBS had sold out and lost their independent integrity! Monsanto does not represent the ethical standards we adhere to. They have been sued by the farm community in Canada (and, of course, they won). This comes across as one of those companies with an amoral business plan using a cost/benefit economic plan that ignores the importance of the individual and their rights. This is only more of what has got the USA and Canada into the mess it is in today.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I am very disappointed in your letting Monsanto be a contributor. With doing so you have lost me as a viewer. Monsanto is totally not kool in any way, shape or form. I will not watch you again and that makes me very sad. As have said many of my friends. How could you let a murderer of plants represent you? The World has gone crazy and greedy. Shame for Shame. With Soul and Spirit with all that lives and is natural and allows farmers to save their own SEEDS.

Candace McGhee, Parthenon, AR

I continue to be uncomfortable with your cozy association with oil giants (BP, Chevron, etc.) and other notorious corporations like Monsanto who apparently shovel a lot of money your way. This practice undermines trust of your truth telling capacity when it might affect one of your corporate supporters. How is this practice any different than the other national corporate media entities who also accept money for the same reason you do? We have no trust of the integrity of these corporate media sources and we are losing trust in your operation for the same reason.

Ashland, OR

A NewsHour Official Responds

The PBS NewsHour has support from a number of these corporations and I asked Robert Flynn, the program's vice president for communications, about these comments. Here's what he had to say:

"The NewsHour is very selective about who it associates with the program. We do not seek funding from any companies whose motives we question or who may want to advocate a specific point of view.

"Once we have partnered with a funder we feel a loyalty toward that funder unless there is a specific reason why we should back away from them; for instance, malfeasance in their operations, indictments, convictions, etc. In the case of our current funders — including Bank of America, Chevron and BNSF Railways, and other funding partners such as Toyota and Monsanto whose funding terms have recently expired — while some viewers may have issues with them, they've given us no reason to question the motives behind their NewsHour funding.

"We continue to evaluate all of our relationships on an ongoing basis, and if there were reasons to stop accepting funding from a specific corporation we would not hesitate to do so. In the 30-plus-year history of the NewsHour, no corporate funder has ever attempted to manipulate our editorial product. If that were to happen, we would walk away from that funder without hesitation.

"In this financial climate we obviously are eager to find funding where we can. However, we try to balance our need with our dedication to the reputations of trust and credibility at both PBS and the NewsHour. No funder is worth compromises either."

When asked about finding different sponsors, Flynn says it isn't easy. "It's not as though others are out there standing in line. This is not an easy juggling act. It's a constant battle between protecting the NewsHour's credibility and associating with companies with appropriate motivation.

"Individuals who may take issue with the business practices of one PBS corporate funder or another often suggest that producers simply walk away from that funder, assuming that replacing that funding source is easy to do. The fact is that it is not that simple. Finding the right funder — especially those who are a match for the kind of limited corporate messaging that PBS guidelines require — is a complex procedure and often takes a long time."

The Issue Isn't New

In a column on this issue last September, Cathy Hogan, senior director of program underwriting policy, explained that PBS guidelines "permit producers to accept funding from a wide variety of companies, with very few exceptions (liquor, tobacco products, and firearms). While we review credits for their compliance with FCC and PBS noncommercial standards, we do not discriminate on the basis of any particular business or industry category."

She added: "Public television is made possible by a remarkable public-private partnership involving individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundation and educational institutions. PBS policies are intended to preserve the highest standards for editorial integrity. For example, underwriters are never permitted editorial control over content." And, she pointed out, that "as one of the current underwriters of The NewsHour, Chevron has helped make important news coverage possible."

My Thoughts

Until such time as some new formula for funding public television is devised, I think these issues are going to continue. There will always be some viewers unhappy with some or all corporate underwriters and, indeed, public television would truly be more public if the funding didn't have to rely at all on some portion from the corporate sector, which now accounts for roughly one-fifth of national program funding. So one can understand the frustration of viewers who don't like to see companies that they consider villains as sponsors of programs that they consider to be, or should be, journalistically beyond reproach.

It would be nice to find companies with squeaky-clean, non-controversial images and deep pockets to help fund expensive, hour-long, five-nights-a-week programs like the NewsHour. Then again, just a few months ago Toyota looked pretty squeaky clean.

There's no doubt that several big companies, whatever dedication they may have to the cause of public affairs and public broadcasting, see some benefit to their image, especially if it needs buffing or rehabilitation, by being associated with flagship programs on PBS. On the other hand, there is the question of whether one would rather have the NewsHour or NOVA or Washington Week with their own decision-making on the suitability of individual underwriters in the current environment, or not have them because the sponsors were unappealing to some viewers.

Until some new system is devised, I would rather have the programs with the underwriters than no such programs or ones seriously scaled back. But there is still a huge responsibility on PBS and its programs not to be influenced by these sponsors when the chips are down, and not to mislead viewers or under-report news about the important events of our time. I have no doubt that viewers would pick apart, with specific details, any PBS program that failed this responsibility.

Back in August 2006, when I first wrote about this issue, the subject, interestingly, was a very big story at the time: the shutting down of production at the Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska — the nation's single largest source of domestic crude oil — because of badly corroded pipelines that had not been properly maintained for many years. The culprit: British Petroleum, a NewsHour sponsor at the time.

I pointed out that the program made clear BP was an underwriter and it did a lengthy and informative segment on what went wrong, including interviews with outside experts and watch groups as well as a top BP official.

Nevertheless, a handful of viewers wrote at the time questioning whether the program had probed deeply enough, especially into the company's negligence. The program reported BP's failures but, as I also pointed out, the story in The Washington Post, for example, was more broadly tougher on the company in what turned out to be a prescient assessment. "BP's announcement also gave another black eye to a company that has fashioned an image as a responsible, environmentally concerned company, and it drew new criticism from pipeline experts and environmentalists who have been saying for years that the company had failed to do the maintenance needed to keep the pipeline free from sludge and protect it from corrosion in the harsh Alaska conditions," the Post said.

"Does BP 'fashion an image,' as the Post phrased it, in part by helping to sponsor one of PBS's most respected programs?" I asked in that 2006 column. "If so, there is nothing wrong with that under existing PBS guidelines. BP also advertises in the Post and The New York Times."

Still, it's that image-fashioning quality that is central. It is clearly one reason some companies like PBS. But it demands that PBS producers and editors always be on their toes.

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