Instead of a usual blog post, this week I bring you my completed story for COMM-425 about PBS and their recent kerfuffle with a Nova program about drone warfare:
Not usually the domain of scandal or controversy, PBS has been exactly that since the Jan. 23 broadcast of an episode of Nova examining the rise of drone warfare.
“We always have an eye on PBS,” said Peter Hart, the activism director at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group. “That night, I noticed people commenting about the episode on Twitter, and I thought it was curious,” Hart said.
What Hart and other viewers noticed that evening was a simple error on the part of Nova: they had failed to adequately disclose that Lockheed Martin was an underwriter for the episode. Even worse, Lockheed Martin is a major drone manufacturer. The resulting fallout has caused hundreds of displeased viewers to write to PBS, and has, in the opinion of several alternative media experts, shaken the foundation of public service, independent media that PBS is supposed to stand for.
“This particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed Martin’s support,” said PBS ombudsman Michael Getler. “It was a good and useful program, but the sponsorship should have been more clearly identified,” said Getler.
The program, called “The Rise of The Drones,” was an in-depth look at the emerging military technology. It featured an interview with Abe Karem, often dubbed the “father” of the predator drone. According to Hart, PBS completely failed to mention that Karem’s current company has a business relationship with Lockheed Martin.
Though the TV broadcast included a brief underwriting message about Lockheed Martin at the start, that credit was removed from the webcast, and the company was not credited on Nova’s website for the program. After the ensuing kerfuffle, Nova retroactively added the credit to the webcast and their website.
According to Kevin Gosztola, a journalist at the progressive news site FireDogLake who was the first to write about the Nova controversy, PBS has a publically stated three-pronged test for assessing bias. The test determines, first, whether the underwriter has exercised editorial control, second, whether the public might perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control, and, lastly, whether the public might perceive that the program is on PBS mainly because it promotes the underwriter’s products.
“Judging by the high-minded and unusually strongly-worded ethical standards PBS has set for themselves, this is an absolutely clear-cut violation,” said Hart. “ The question is really whether PBS believes its own rules – and I don’t think they do,” said Hart.
Gosztola concurred, and said that the increasing scarcity of revenue for PBS has hamstrung the public broadcaster. “I am a supporter and lover of public media, but parts of what PBS is producing these days can look like propaganda for their sponsors, and that is what parts of the drone program reminded me of,” said Gosztola.
According to Getler, the PBS ombudsman’s office has received just under 1,000 viewer complaints about the drone program to date. Getler said the number of complaints ticked sharply upwards after Gosztola and Hart posted critical reports on their respective websites within days of each other.
Producers at PBS and Nova reacted defensively to criticism, writing in Getler’s ombudsman column that “Lockheed Martin’s sponsorship of Nova is not a violation of PBS underwriting guidelines,” emphasizing that the corporation had no editorial input on the program, and stating that PBS takes “our public trust responsibility very seriously.”
“Unfortunately,” said Hart, responding to PBS’ statement, “the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to PBS guidelines, is, in of itself, a conflict of interest. Just saying ‘we’re Nova and no one controls us editorially’ is not enough: you have to either not broadcast the program or change the rulebook, but you can’t just do neither,” he said.
PBS, beset by the dual plagues of declining viewer support and declining government allocation of funds, has increasingly turned to corporate sponsors and underwriters in recent years for a reliable stream of income. While many argue this has been a necessary shift to keep PBS afloat, Gosztola and Hart said this is an action which has also alienated PBS from its core value of public service broadcasting that is commercial-free and independent.
“PBS is strained for cash, and Lockheed Martin has a lot of money,” said Gosztola. “Nova has to defend their donor, and that’s why I think they were so defensive in their reply to criticism,” he said.
“It’s inevitable; this kind of ethical crisis is going to happen again. I think PBS likes the philosophical idea of what their underwriting rules stand for,” said Hart. “They would rather stick with those rules and deal with the occasional underwriter hypocrisy than work to find new revenue resources,” he said.
1. Kevin Gosztola (Journalist for FireDogLake.com’s “The Dissenter”)
2. Michael Getler (PBS Ombudsman)
3. Peter Hart (Activism Director at FAIR)
· FDL Post #1: http://dissenter.firedoglake.com/2013/01/24/rise-of-the-drones-is-mostly-a-pbs-infomercial-for-the-military-defense-industry/
· FDL Post #2: http://dissenter.firedoglake.com/2013/02/04/pbs-ombudsman-drones-program-wouldve-been-better-without-lockheed-martin-support/
· Nova page for the drone program: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/rise-of-the-drones.html
· FAIR Post #1: http://fair.org/take-action/action-alerts/pbs-drone-coverage-brought-to-you-by-drone-makers/
· FAIR Post #2: http://fair.org/take-action/activism-updates/pbs-ombud-nova-disagree-on-drone-disclosure/
· PBS Ombudsman Post:http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2013/01/drones_are_real_so_are_perceptions_1.html