Is Nova Catering to Its Anti-Science Sugar Daddy?

Nova: Becoming HumanPBS‘s Nova is taking money from one of the biggest bankrollers of climate change denial–and, surprise surprise, the resulting programming tells viewers not to worry about climate change. But PBS‘s ombud doesn’t see this as a conflict of interest–because Nova is a “consistently first-rate program,” and he trusts it.

Nova‘s conflict of interest was highlighted out by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm (9/7/10), who had previously caught the Smithsonian promoting strange climate science after getting a grant from oil billionaire David Koch (Climate Progress, 4/1/10). Koch, who’s a major funder of propaganda rejecting the science of climate change, is also one of the main underwriters of the popular PBS science program Nova–which is in itself a case of strange bedfellows. (Another major sponsor of Nova is ExxonMobil, the other top funder of science-denial in support of oil industry profits.)

With the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer (8/30/10) calling attention to the Koch family’s political donations–and mentioning the fear that David Koch’s contributions are affecting the Smithsonian’s exhibits–people naturally paid more attention to the donor credit for David Koch on a recent Nova rerun (8/31/10) called “Becoming Human.” What raised more than a few eyebrows was the program’s enthusiasm for climate change as a driver of human evolution–with a not-so-subtle suggestion that we should bear this in mind in our current era of rapidly shifting weather:

Narrator: It is a simple but revolutionary idea: Human evolution is nature’s experiment with versatility. We’re not adapted to any one environment or climate, but to many; we are creatures of climate change.

Geographer Mark Maslin: I think we should actually look to our proud ancestry and how we evolved in East Africa and say: “That’s how we survived that. We can survive the future, because we are that creature, because we are that smart.”

Note that Maslin is not actually a climate-change denier–he’s really a strong advocate for immediate action to restrict carbon emissions–but Nova quotes him as though he takes the don’t-worry-be-happy stance adopted by…well, people like David Koch. Why is that?

As usual, PBS insiders take the position that where you get your money from is absolutely irrelevant, once again rejecting the entire rationale for public broadcasting: “Nova, like all WGBH programs, maintains complete, independent editorial control of its content,” Nova executive producer Paula Apsell told PBS ombud Michael Getler. Getler, for his part, declares that “one rarely knows when or how, if at all, influence works its way,” and that “as a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust Nova“–a hands-off stance that would seem to reject the entire rationale for having an ombud.

PBS‘s position echoes the Smithsonian’s–David Koch is “very interested in the content, but completely hands off,” museum director Cristian Samper told the New Yorker. And that’s Koch’s position as well; asked by Archeology magazine (2/17/09) if he was involved in the editorial content of Nova‘s evolutionary programming, he replied: “No, I am not. I’ve been following the Nova series ever since it first came on the air. I’m a great admirer.”

In that same interview, though, Koch describes a visit to Olduvai Gorge to inspect the Leakey digs, which he also bankrolls: “When I got there they had discovered a Hominin’s bones. They left them in the earth, waiting for me to arrive. And then when I arrived, they let me pull them out of the ground, which was kind of fun.”

Presumably the Leakeys let him extract those bones not because of his paleontological expertise, but because they knew it would make a major donor happy. Nova also knows that downplaying the dangers of climate change would make its major donors happy–and it aired a program that presented climate change as a positive force for good. If you want to believe that that’s a coincidence–well, all you have to do is trust Nova.

UPDATE: See FAIR Blog: “PBS Ombud’s Trust in Nova Only Goes So Far” (9/14/10)

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.