PBS Ombud’s Trust in Nova Only Goes So Far

PBS ombud Michael Getler has thankfully expanded on his “I trust Novaresponse to concerns that public TV’s leading science program might be influenced by its climate change-denying funders (FAIR Blog, 9/8/10). In a more extensive response to those who thought they detected the fingerprints of oil tycoon David Koch (and industry giant ExxonMobil) in a Nova broadcast, Getler (9/13/10) suggests that those critics might have reason to be suspicious.

Getler points to the interconnection of Koch’s gifts to Nova and to the Smithsonian museum, which has a David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins that portrays climate change as a driving force behind our species’ evolution. The curator of this exhibit, Rick Potts, appears in Nova‘s “Becoming Human” program (rerun 8/31/10), making a similar case. As Getler notes:

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.

Nova remains unapologetic and indeed seems indignant that anyone would question the integrity of their science reporting. In a statement to Getler, the program responds to Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, who had criticized the “Becoming Human” series:

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.

The reference to “doubters of evolution” makes one wonder: What would people say if the top few of Nova‘s most generous supporters included the two most prominent funding sources for “intelligent design” advocacy? Surely the mere fact that a science program was bankrolled by proponents of pseudo-science would raise eyebrows. And if there creationist shibboleths found their way into Nova‘s programming, however subtly, there would be howls of protest.

Koch’s denial of climate change is no less a pseudo-science than creationism. The big difference is that evolution, unlike global warming, is not a catastrophe that requires urgent action, so its skeptics are much less dangerous–and have pockets not nearly so deep as those who benefit from not taking action against global warming.

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.