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PBS Ombudsman

Trust but Verify

* Ombudsman's Note: This posting was updated on Sept. 17 to include a reaction to this ombudsman's column by Margaret Drain, vice president for national programming at the WGBH (Boston) Educational Foundation.

Ronald Reagan liked to use that slogan — a translation, he said, of an old Russian proverb — in dealing with then Soviet-leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Together, they made a good deal of progress.

I chose that headline for this column because one of the things I said in a brief ombudsman's note in my Sept. 2 posting was: "I trust NOVA," the long-running PBS science program. It was an honest, quick reaction on my part. But I should have been more cautious. It was too off-handed a comment in my role as ombudsman because some viewers were raising legitimate questions — specifically about the financial support of one individual sponsor, billionaire David H. Koch, of the "Becoming Human" series — and something akin to "trust, but verify" would have been more appropriate at the time.

I don't expect readers to ponder the difference between ombudsman mailbags and columns, but the earlier posting was a mailbag in which viewer e-mails that had accumulated while I was away in August were posted and I made only brief observations, as opposed to the longer examinations of specific issues that make up columns.

Warning: This Is a Long Column

What follows are lots of letters from viewers, some of whom wrote about the program and funding issue after the mailbag was posted, and others who wrote a bit later after a blog posting on Sept. 7 by Dr. Joseph Romm, the editor of Climate Progress which is "dedicated to providing the progressive perspective on climate science, climate solutions and climate science." His online bio notes that, last year, Time magazine named him one of the "Heroes of the Environment" and "the Web's most influential climate-change blogger."

He is also a pretty colorful ombudsman-basher, alleging that my trusting phrase was "whitewashing" the funding by Koch that was, in turn, "greenwashing" the episode of NOVA that, in turn, "whitewashes the threat of human-caused climate change." Romm also describes as "disingenuous" the response to viewers included in that mailbag by Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer of NOVA.

So, having acknowledged, above, that there is actually more to say about this program than I said earlier this month, I hope I can add some context and further thought that doesn't seem too defensive.

After Romm's posting, I sent questions to Apsell, who was away from her office late last week, and have included, below, NOVA's response to Romm's charges and my inquiries.

A Brief Summary

When the first segment of the three-part NOVA series "Becoming Human" aired last month it was actually a re-broadcast. It originally aired in 2009 and, as I said initially, I can't recall any complaints at the time. But, in an apparent coincidence, just before the re-broadcast, an extensive article by Jane Mayer about the brothers David and Charles Koch appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Then came an immediate follow-up blast by columnist Frank Rich in The New York Times at the Kochs, their fossil-fuel industries and their alleged role that Romm describes, in the New Yorker article, as "big-time polluters, who are underground funders of action to stop efforts to deal with this threat to humanity," meaning the man-made, carbon dioxide-producing elements of global warming and climate change.

It is the first part of the series, titled "First Steps," especially in its concluding segment, that has become controversial.

Romm, in his posting, quotes from an assessment last year by blogger Matt Yglesias, in which Yglesias says, "if you watch the end of Episode One you can see Koch the Paleoanthropology Enthusiast collide with Koch the Global Warming Crank as it concludes with an oddly upbeat description of the positive role cataclysmic shifts in climate have played in human history. What the research is saying, basically, is that climate swings led to a lot of death, destruction, and extinctions thus opening up new ecological niches that our ancestors filled but the material is presented in a weird 'change is good!' kind of way that avoids mentioning all the death."

What Yglesias also said back in 2009 when the series first appeared, but which Romm didn't quote, is, "as best I can tell Koch is also genuinely interested in research into human evolution. He helped underwrite NOVA's excellent recent three-part series 'Becoming Human.' It seems to be available online and I recommend people watch it."

No Free-Pass

I mention that only in the context of my "I trust NOVA" remark. The program has won every major award from the broadcast industry and many from the scientific community over the years. That doesn't mean that any broadcast gets a free pass or that the funding of every program should not be scrutinized. Indeed, I have written many columns critical of what appear to me and some viewers as PBS funding conflicts — from a recent documentary about former Secretary of State George P. Shultz to earlier ones on Las Vegas, the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. Marine Corps, for example — because funding associations undermined the credibility of those programs.

On the one hand, Koch certainly has a right to offer to be among the funders of NOVA, and he has, indeed, been a funder of NOVA generally for many years. He also clearly has an interest in the subject. For my Sept. 2 posting, Apsell said to me, as PBS guidelines require, that "funders are prohibited from any involvement in the editorial process" and that "NOVA, like WGBH [the producing station in Boston] programs, maintains complete, independent editorial control of its content." That was another reason I said, at the time, that "I trust NOVA." But I also said, "One rarely knows when or how, if at all, influence works its way. If it is a factor, it can come from outside or from within."

In this case, it is a series of connections that I agree, upon reflection, is bothersome. It doesn't prove that Koch had influence or tried to influence anything, but it does raise questions in my mind about the internal decision-making process at NOVA and whether conflict-of-interest or perception issues among viewers were considered.

Here Are the Linkages

First, there is Koch, an MIT graduate, 1980 Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate and a man of extraordinary wealth who, last year, donated $15 million to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History dedicated to the study of human evolution over six million years. A 15,000-square-foot hall is named after him, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. A multimedia exhibit there explores the theory, as Mayer describes it, that mankind evolved in response to earlier climate change, and that echoes Koch's views.

The curator of the exhibit and director of the museum's Human Origins Program is Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian, who plays a small but central part in the final minutes of "First Steps," where the subtle but more positive message about climate change is emphasized. He plays a much larger role in the accompanying online interviews at the NOVA website. Potts, as Apsell has said, has played a leading role, for many years, in developing the "theory" that variations in climate change played a key role in human evolution.

When Koch made his donation to the Smithsonian in October 2009, Potts was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying, "What we find in David Koch is a person who's committed to doing things for the American public that has no relationship to politics. He has an ability to separate that out, and so do we," he said of the Smithsonian's role.

Does It Just 'Seem' to Threaten?

Toward the end of the segment, the narrator seems to play down the threat from climate change by saying, "Today, climate change seems to threaten our survival," but adds that "it may have held the keys to the astonishing story of how we became who we are."

Romm argues that Potts' hypothesis is "intriguing but ultimately untestable" and that the theory of global warming "is testable and has met that test" as evidenced by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences labeling as "settled facts" that "the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities." And, he argues, compared with the evolution of small populations of humans and pre-humans over thousands of years, there is a much different challenge today with nearly 7 billion people "to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change over a period of several decades."

I, too, found Potts' theory intriguing and definitely worth thinking about. But it is also fair to say, as critics do, that the segment did leave you with both a subtle message and the feeling that climate change may not be so bad, or bad at all. Of course, it may be very bad and there is nothing about that in the episode.

I'm not judging the science here, or even the program itself. But the three-way link between Potts, the Smithsonian and David Koch are not explained in the program or online and, somehow, they should have been, even though this was a re-broadcast. Failure to do so adds to the question of whether any red flags went up inside NOVA last year or this year or whether they just didn't want to call attention to those connections.

Among the questions I asked NOVA were a couple that raised the connections among Koch, Potts, the Smithsonian and the money. "Was this discussed internally as a potential credibility problem for the series based on the funding connection? If it was seen as no problem, could you explain the reasoning?" Those were not answered in the latest NOVA response below.

NOVA Responds to Romm and to Me

Rather than "whitewashing" the issue of climate change as was recently alleged, NOVA, over the last several years, has consistently produced documentaries that have brought the threat of global warming vividly to life for the U.S. public.

In 2009, NOVA produced "Extreme Ice," which presented shocking time-lapse images of the rapid retreat of glaciers around the world, and "The Big Energy Gamble," an in-depth exploration of the state of California's ambitious plans to grapple with climate change. "Dimming the Sun," a 2006 NOVA program on aerosols and global warming, received a Grantham Award of Special Merit.*

NOVA is now in production on two additional programs dealing with climate issues: "Secrets Beneath the Ice" and "Beating the Heat," both of which will continue the series' track record of in-depth, accurate coverage of the climate change threat.

The NOVA miniseries "Becoming Human" was about the ancient human past and the forces that shaped our evolution; it was not about future climate change or the future of human civilization and survival. In taking issue with the concluding few minutes of the show's coda, Joe Romm presents a misleading caricature of the program and the research on which it is based. Rick Potts' theory that extreme climate swings were a central force in human evolution is, indeed, to borrow Dr. Romm's words, "a sexy new bold theory" because it overturns a previous, highly influential scenario that a slow drying out of the East African environment forced our ancestors out of the trees and on to the savannah. But far from being untestable, there is now robust evidence accumulating to support it, including an ambitious program of field investigation supported by the National Academies of Science. Leading scientists have published on the theory independently of Dr. Potts, including Mark Maslin of University College, London, who makes the closing remark in the coda of "Becoming Human" that we should take pride in our past record of surviving climate change. As prominent scientists know, Mark Maslin is no minimizer of the global warming threat; he has published three major popular books on the issue and has frequently taken on climate deniers in the UK media. By taking the final few minutes of NOVA's show out of context, as if the episode were intended to be a major exploration of humanity's future rather than its past, Dr. Romm has distorted NOVA's efforts to engage in much-needed, responsible, popularization of a scientific field that is constantly under siege from doubters of evolution.

Regarding David Koch's support, he has been a generous supporter of WGBH since the 1980s and is a member of the WGBH Board of Trustees. Because of his interest in science, his support has been intermittently directed to NOVA beginning in the early 1990s to be used for programming in archaeology, anthropology, and antiquities. Given the broad scope of NOVA's work, his donations have comprised roughly 2-3% of NOVA's overall budget.

NOVA's Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell is a former board member of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and this relationship has provided a valuable point of contact with leading scientific research in many fields. Nonetheless, editorial decisions at NOVA and WGBH are always made with complete independence.

* A Follow-Up Comment by WGBH Vice President Margaret Drain

Twenty-five years ago, long before it became a politically sensitive issue, NOVA presented its first program, "The Climate Crisis," on the science of climate change. Since then, the series has produced eleven programs examining this critical subject. Given this extensive body of work and our own editorial guidelines, we had no reason to be concerned that funding from David Koch could present "a potential credibility problem," as you write, for the series.

There is a strict firewall between fundraising and funders on the one hand and the editorial divisions of WGBH on the other, and that firewall has not been breached in this case or any other episode of NOVA. Our long standing track record for producing landmark, award-winning documentaries on Frontline, American Experience, and NOVA surely gives viewers the assurance that our journalism can't be bought. That's one reason NOVA is still the most utilized resource for science teachers throughout the country.

Here Are the Letters

Having seen the NOVA piece, read the article by Jane Mayer, and read the interview with Potts; I'm reminded of the old saying, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck; it's probably a duck." Reading the Potts interview wasn't all that enlightening. It was Potts advocating for Potts. I got no context in terms of what the larger community of Anthropology thinks of this theory. As to David H. Koch funding the show, I'm reminded of another adage: foxes guarding henhouses . . . who is guarding the PBS henhouse? Sorry for the rant, but given Koch's history; the lack of context in the NOVA piece; the lack of context in the Potts interview; and, in my estimate, the shallow PBS defense of the whole thing, I'm now extremely concerned about donors influencing content at PBS.

William Talbott, Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

I just saw the response to letters [in the Sept. 2 mailbag] about David Koch and Nova from Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. She uses a scientist from the Smithsonian to back the thesis of the incredibly flawed program. Well, the Smithsonian's David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins has also been funded by Koch (obviously). That throws their objectivity into question as well. Apsell also says "Far from playing down the impact of climate change, the whole point of the conclusion to NOVA's first episode of Becoming Human is to emphasize how profoundly episodes of global cooling and warming have shaped the human past." Exactly . . . that is what we are all upset about. Climate change is certainly not the only variable that has led to the evolution of the human being as we are today, but both the NOVA program as well as the Smithsonian exhibit give this impression — leaving the viewer to surmise that had it not been for dramatic climate change, we might not be here today. This is an incredibly myopic viewpoint and quite unusual for a PBS program. I think an apology to the PBS viewers and members is in order. Something more than the tepid generic response that was written by Apsell.

Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

Accepting money from the Koch brothers is akin to the Sierra Club investing in oil companies. Just don't do it. I suppose if the same standard were applied, most corporate donors might fall in the same class. I'd have to say though that I don't feel other corporations are quite threatening radical change in our government to anywhere near the extent these fellows do. I share your view, though, that the program in question did not show evidence of their influence, though I found the programs a little anemic.

Philip Obley, Ardmore, PA

~ ~ ~

My letter pertains to the convenient coincidence between the theme of the recent NOVA program and the agenda of its sponsor, Mr. Koch. It will be difficult for me to fully trust either the Smithsonian or NOVA in the future.

In reading Frank Rich's column and Jane Mayer's article in The New Yorker that Rich cited, I was fascinated to learn more about the billionaire Koch brothers' secret funding of the FreedomWorks tea parties as well as their more open funding of right wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Americans for Prosperity, all of which are engaged in the Kochs' self-serving efforts to deny global-warming and to stop and/or stall regulation.

However, what was far more disturbing and surprising was Mayer's reporting about how the Koch's have infiltrated more mainstream institutions such as the Smithsonian where the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins "whitewashes the modern climate issue." I happened to watch a PBS NOVA show last night entitled "Becoming Human". After recapping man's ancestral evolution for most of the hour, the show only revealed its surprising theme at the very end: We became human because our brains expanded 2 million years ago in order to deal with severe climate change; therefore we should not fret about our current and future climate change. The program's sponsor also was revealed at the end: David H. Koch. Evidently, science, like history, is now being written by the victors.

Greg Carr, Cornelius, NC

More on Koch

I am disappointed in the decision of PBS to run a recent NOVA episode sponsored by David Koch. NOVA is typically one of the best educational- and science-based programs on television, but this episode did not live up to those high standards. Koch's goal with focusing on human evolution in the face of past climate changes is an effort to confuse and obfuscate the public understanding of anthropogenic climate change. The changes that are occurring in the atmosphere today are unprecedented on such a small timescale and will likely lead to great human suffering in the future. On our current emissions path, CO2 will reach 800+ ppm and temperatures will climb 5C+ within a century. David Koch would like to minimize this threat by comparing it to past climatic shifts. By providing Mr. Koch an opportunity to employ his sleight of hand, you have done the public a great disservice and helped disseminate misinformation.

David F., Toledo, OH

~ ~ ~

You'll notice the letters you had in your Sept 2 page all insinuated Koch Foundation has some kind of influence over a PBS Nova broadcast about climate change. Trace the origins of this to the 8/30 New Yorker article, and it insinuates Koch money influenced scientists skeptical about man-caused global warming. Trace the origins of that via the article's sources at Greenpeace, Naomi Oreskes' "Merchants of Doubt," book and the Center for Public Integrity . . . and now you start running into enormous problems, because each imply skeptic scientists are corrupted by big oil/coal money, but NONE offer evidence to show which money contributions prompted what fabricated false conclusions about natural cycles that may cause global warming. No need to trust me for this, look for yourself. Surely you will agree guilt-by-association accusations would be ripped to shreds by any competent cross examining trial lawyer.

These accusers have a disturbing common origin which goes back to approximately the same time the NewsHour seems to have taken its position on presenting one side of the global warming issue, while excluding skeptic scientists as rebuttal guests to IPCC scientists. I'm just an ordinary citizen, a mere nobody who simply wants to know what prompted the decision to exclude skeptic scientists.

Russell Cook, Phoenix, AZ

Boos, Mostly, for the Omb

When I first watched (last year) the "Becoming Human" series, I came away with the distinct impression that "climate change seems great for human diversity and evolution, it sounds fun!" After thinking for about two seconds, of course, I realized that all the death and near extinctions were likely not very fun — but the program certainly did make me and others think that way.

I don't believe conflict of interest is ever as blatant as some might make it, and I know David H. Koch wasn't editing some Nova tape or inserting verbiage etc . . . But is it too much to believe that simply knowing your funding source subtly or subconsciously affects editorial decisions? When was the last time Nova did an episode actually dedicated to climate change? I see one in 2000 — first lines Al Gore: "Global Warming is Real." Narrator: "Or is it?" Since then we also had that great episode on "Global Dimming" (2006) where it sounds like C02 might save us from the Sun, hmm . . . And yet, no recent episode dedicated to discussing global warming? Last year there was an episode about melting glaciers, and a photographer's exploits, but it seemed to suggest there's nothing that can be done about it!

Global warming is only the biggest scientific story of our generation, and one that may cause untold death and misery in the coming generations, and no Nova episode dedicated to global warming since it was supposedly (though not actually) controversial back in 2000? And two or three episodes that paint it as either controversial, a benefit, or perhaps unstoppable? You seem to be trying to blow this off, but Nova has a very serious credibility problem here.

Gary Kunkel, Salt Lake City, UT

~ ~ ~

As for Koch and PBS, I've never refused taking money from anyone . . . it's what you do with it that counts. NOVA is a good program and I like hearing the other point of view, so long as it is based on fact and, so much as we can tell, the truth. I'd be very surprised if climate change didn't impact, even determine, our evolution. In fact, I thought it was part of the theory of evolution. But to also think that global warming and climate change isn't happening or won't be catastrophic is absurd. People who think this are just like the Holocaust deniers or have their own ox to gore as, obviously, Koch does. In other words, the problem isn't with NOVA or PBS but Koch. Take his money but keep his opinion out of it. That seems to have happened here, but it is a problem of credibility for PBS. That's why I'm for total public funding for PBS. Conservatives will still bitch, as they did, and still do, and liberals like myself now, but PBS will no longer be dependent on corporate money and right wing foundations to fund their programs. In other words, bring it all out into the open, let each side make its case and demonstrate it with the facts. You do a good job of that and I commend you.

Tom Felt, Tucson, AZ

~ ~ ~

My wife and I have been solid viewers and financial supporters of PBS for decades. We are extremely upset at your defense of showing anything from David Koch about Global Climate Change. How can you follow along behind Smithsonian Institute's example of letting him buy his way into American homes with lies and distortions? It is obvious that PBS prays to the mighty $ god . . . most sad to see! If your defense is that you "trust NOVA", even though it is partly paid for by Koch, how do you call yourself an "Ombudsman?" It looks like you are mostly looking at the $$.

Richmond, VA

~ ~ ~

I think that the funding of the Becoming Human series on Nova by notorious anti-science ideologue and climate change misinformer David Koch is extremely unsettling. I highly doubt that he would fund a Nova episode that spent an hour exploring the latest climate science, which is perhaps why PBS has failed to inform on such an important issue? PBS risks becoming just like commercial media if its programming depends on industrialists who profit from environmental collapse. The daring is gone from PBS's science programming and we're distracting ourselves with the latest astrophysical and paleontological speculation while established climate research is cynically sidelined by people like Koch. This research says that millions of people in the next couple of decades will have their food, water and safety threatened by a changing climate that is near blowing past tipping points faster than anyone predicted only a few years ago. PBS is awash in money from the fossil fuel interests that are undermining our democracy and a livable environment. Coincidentally, the natural sciences programming is not keeping in step with the foremost research on what is, if scientists are correct, the most important scientific issue of the era. What are we supposed to think?

G.W., Portland, OR

'You Badly Failed'

As an ombudsman, your job is not to tell us who you trust, but to investigate and find the evidence so we can decide for ourselves. This is a job that you badly failed to do in regards to the allegations of influence by the Koch brothers on the NOVA series "Becoming Human." You should learn to do your job, or PBS should get an ombudsman who can.

Jameson Quinn, San Francisco, CA

~ ~ ~

OK, so you've taken the Koch funds in order to greenwash the whole climate debate. As a result, Nova, an American institution, has been irreparably damaged. Please, please fire the incompetent executives who allowed the oil industry to control the programming. Come on, if we can't fire these jerks, what's left? Either fire the people who sold Nova down the river, or let's get rid of PBS. There has to be such thing as basic competence, and basic standards, and basic integrity, and a basic mission for public television. Let's get back to basics, and STOP selling pbs to the oil industry.

Kevin O'Donnell, Johnson City, TN

~ ~ ~

What is WRONG with you??? You don't deserve your job, because you are certainly NOT doing it in an impartial fashion! I am so disgusted with NOVA and the fact that political big money can apparently buy the show and use its formerly good reputation for scientific veracity to advance its own (unscientific and illogical) viewpoint. And you, the so-called ombudsman, (in name only, obviously), turn a blind eye.

Nancy Honeychuck, Joseph City, AZ

~ ~ ~

There may not have been a general effort to bias the program, but the defense of the NOVA rebroadcast on the effect of prehistoric climate change misses the point. The episode sounded like a one-sided sales pitch for our invincibility, with no distinction between millennial climate swings in Africa and the risks of accelerated global warming during the Holocene. That is, the relatively mild period that has fostered widespread agriculture and civilization. The poor timing and apparent connection of Koch and Potts with questionable climate change exhibits aside, at least this could have been more balanced.

Allen B., Springfield, OR

* Correction: The 2006 NOVA program "Dimming the Sun" received a Grantham Award of Special Merit in 2007, not The Grantham Prize as originally stated in the NOVA response posted above.

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