PBS ombud Michael Getler (4/27/12) agrees that the Dow Chemical Corporation’s sponsorship of a PBS series violates PBS underwriting guidelines. PBS, unfortunately, stands by its show.
A FAIR Action Alert (4/23/12) pointed out that the decision to allow Dow to sponsor the series America Revealed, which deals with issues that closely track Dow’s business interests, flies in the face of PBS funding guidelines. Noting that he had received some 500 messages inspired by the alert, Getler agreed, saying that “the points raised by FAIR were fair ones, in my view, and many of the letters were quite comprehensive in their criticisms.”
The main problem with the funding arrangement, as Getler sees it, is that it fails the PBS “perception test,” which warns against allowing underwriting if viewers might “perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control.” As PBS puts it:
Actual editorial involvement in the program is a separate test; in this scenario, the perception of a connection is enough.
Getler wrote that
PBS, which has given corporate underwriters a pass several times over the years (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/02), does not think so. In response to several questions from Getler, PBS defended Dow’s sponsorship. They pointed out that the company has sponsored other programming, including An Evening With Smokey Robinson. They also revealed that Dow was approached by station WGBH to sponsor the show. And PBS argued that it “did not consider that Dow’s business interests were so close to the actual content of the program as to make it an unacceptable funder.”
As FAIR pointed out in the alert–and Getler agreed in his column–it would not be hard for an alert viewer to make a connection between Dow’s interests and the program it was sponsoring. One segment touted genetically modified corn, a controversial product made by Dow, as a “game changer” for agriculture; the four parts of the series (agriculture, transportation, energy and manufacturing) perfectly matched the four areas of business Dow touts on its website.
PBS stressed that Dow was not involved editorially in the program. That may indeed be the case. It is also irrelevant, in that their perception test does not require such a direct link.
As the PBS guidelines make clear:
If those words mean something to PBS, then the only logical conclusion to draw is that it believes the significant number of viewers who are troubled by Dow’s sponsorship are unreasonable.
FAIR thanks the hundreds of activists who wrote to PBS, and Michael Getler for taking their concerns seriously.