PBS ombudsman Getler whitewashes the Koch-funded greenwashing episode of Nova that whitewashes the threat of human-caused climate change

If you think Getler missed the boat on this, you can email him here.

They don’t make ombudsmen like they used to. Once upon a time, when numerous viewers launched a credible complaint against even the appearance of loss of objectivity and conflict of interest, the ombudsman would seriously investigate the matter, talking to parties on both sides, and then rendering some considered independent judgment.

But not PBS ombudsman Michael Getler. He seems to have no trouble whatsoever with David Koch, a leading funder of the anti-scientific climate disinformation campaign (and the anti-science Tea Party), funding an episode of the great science show Nova, which:

  • is an effort to greenwash Koch’s activities
  • just happens to whitewash the threat human-caused global warming

Getler ignores the first concern entirely, and his entire defense of Nova’s dubious entanglement with Koch is “As a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust NOVA.” The beauty of that defense is that it could apply equally well to essentially every PBS show. Hey, they are all first rate programs, so what the heck are you listeners complaining about?


Getler apparently sees himself the “Maytag repairman” of ombudsman. PBS ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. Here’s the background on why he’s wrong — and why Nova’s own defense is also wrong:

This story began from a joint effort by Think Progress and Climate Progress to investigate David Koch’s funding of a dreadful Smithsonian Institute exhibit put together by their Human Origins Program director Rick Potts (see “Must-see video: Polluter-funded Smithsonian exhibit whitewashes danger of human-caused climate change: Koch money and dubious displays put credibility of entire museum and science staff on the line”).

I had noted at the end of my Smithsonian post:

For related background, which makes clear Koch knew exactly what kind of science he was buying from the Smithsonian, see the Yglesias post, “David Koch, Climate Change, and Human Evolution.”

The Yglesias post was on an episode of Nova on “Becoming Human” — featuring Potts — that noted how, in

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.

The New Yorker then published a devastating investigative piece by Jane Mayer that exposes the Koch family’s efforts to put together the Tea Party movement and much of the modern right-wing infrastructure. It also exposed their greenwashing and whitewashing Smithsonian exhibit, which is even worse than the Nova piece.


Coincidentally, Nova rebroadcast that Koch-funded piece right after the Mayer piece appeared. Not surprisingly, Getler got a bunch of angry letters. Surprisingly, Getler decided to brush the whole thing off without any serious effort to understand what the complaints were and why they should have been taken far more seriously. Here’s what he wrote (emphasis in original, his entire three sentence defense/analysis is at the end):

First come viewer suspicions about the subject that generated the most mail this week: the broadcasting of the first of a three-part series titled “Becoming Human” on NOVA, the popular and award-winning PBS science program. I get very few complaints about NOVA programs “” and this series initially aired in 2009. No complaints, at least that I can recall, at that time. But timing is everything, and the re-broadcast this week of Part One came in the immediate aftermath of a now widely quoted article in The New Yorker magazine by writer Jane Mayer about David and Charles Koch, “the billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” as the article’s sub-title claims, and a follow-up assessment by New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

So what does this have to do with NOVA? One thing is that David H. Koch, as an individual rather than the Koch Foundation, is among the funders of NOVA. Another is that among his many interests, according to Rich’s summary of the Mayer piece, “Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial “” a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries’ vast fossil fuel business.”

So, once again, we have the issue of whether sponsors or underwriters can be seen by some viewers to be undermining credibility or influencing programs. The most recent surfacing of this came a few weeks ago in a documentary about former Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

Here Are Some of the Letters

I was watching the NOVA program “Becoming Human” tonight (8/31/10) on KVIE and I noticed two things: the program 1) implied that we humans have adapted to past climate changes and that we need not worry that we might not survive future climatic changes; and 2) was sponsored by David H. Koch. I have read Jane Mayer’s article on the Koch family in the August 30th New Yorker magazine, and I am concerned about someone like Koch “” who has a stake in the status quo in terms of energy policy “” funding a program that gives us the message that we don’t really need to be concerned about climate change. This is a conflict of interest for NOVA that renders the program less than academically sound. I expect better from PBS.

Arden Collier, Vallejo, CA

~ ~ ~

After reading recent articles in both the New York Times and New Yorker magazine regarding the activities of Charles and David Koch’s foundations to fund stories that debunk Global Warming, and then this evening to find that my favorite of all PBS programs, Nova, presents a story stating Global Warming is but a myth. Guess whose foundation sponsored the program? This is supposed to be a Democracy, but more and more I see the richest among us strive to promote their myopic point of view, campaigns designed by MBA’s to sell average Americans politics that have led this country to ideological gridlock. All this happens at a time when true journalism is under assault with the collapse of local papers, and we are being perceptions in the hope they become our realities. Maybe when the Koch Foundation destroys PBS’ integrity, and the Tea Party becomes the new dominant force in American politics, journalists will wake up. But guess what, it will be too late . . .

Woodruff, WI

~ ~ ~

I watched NOVA last night, “Becoming Human”, and I was shocked and dismayed that PBS would air a show that is funded by David Koch and clearly supports his perspective: climate change is good for humans. In fact the thesis of the program was that climate change is what made us what we are today, as opposed to the other human like species that died off. This is a bizarre and incorrect thesis that leaves out crucial information about today that is different from other times in earth’s history (ie C02 levels). I would normally trust a PBS program and the information conveyed there, but now, knowing the show was funded by Koch and understanding his agenda (see recent New Yorker article) I was unable to trust anything I saw on that program. Most importantly it made me feel that I could not trust PBS anymore, a station which I have supported and watched my whole life. What are you going to do about this situation?

Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

RE: Nova: Becoming Human, Part 1 as aired Aug. 31, 2010 on Colorado PBS. I thought it odd that the program concluded with the thought that human evolution was mostly a response to natural climate change, with the implication that we can do so again. Certainly climate may have been a factor, but I have never seen it singled out as the prime motivator before. Shortly after, I learned that the program series was underwritten by the David H. Koch Foundation. This is the same David Koch, oil man, who has spent millions of dollars to undermine human-caused climate change theory and any political action that might come from it. What a shame that Nova sold itself to this pernicious bidder.

Dave Lucia, Denver, CO

~ ~ ~

I am disturbed to see that the Koch Foundation funds Nova. It is well established that the foundation has a very conservative political bias and mode of operation that makes one assume that their money influences the facts and information that Nova presents. In particular, the Foundation is vehemently opposed to any suggestion that evidence for global warming exists. They will spend any amount of money necessary to attack the science behind global warming. Money that the Koch Foundation donates carries the implication that they have exercised control over the contents of the program. PBS should not allow such a conflict of interest to exist. The integrity of all your programs will be questioned if the integrity of even one seems challenged by the source of funding.

Philadelphia, PA

A Response from NOVA Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell:

WGBH is committed to the editorial integrity of all our programs, adhering to the strictest journalistic standards. To maintain that integrity, and the trust of our audiences, funders are prohibited from any involvement in the editorial process. NOVA, like all WGBH programs, maintains complete, independent editorial control of its content.

The idea that variations in climate played a key role in human evolution is a widely accepted and influential idea in the scientific community. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History played a leading role in developing the theory. He first published the theory in the journal Science in 1996 (“Evolution and Climate,” Science 273:922–923) and in the same year wrote a popular book about it (“Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Environmental Instability,” William Morrow: 1996). 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.

For further information on Potts’ theory, see the interview with Potts on NOVA’s web site. See also an article in the National Museum of Natural History’s “Anthronotes” magazine.

(Ombudsman’s Note: 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. As a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust NOVA.)

Wow! How embarrassing for Getler.

That is the most unbelievable thing I have ever read an ombudsman write.

He basically says that because you can’t know for certain how influence works or if it is a factor, then the only thing that matters is whether you generally trust the potential object of that influence. But since the vast majority of PBS shows are “consistently first-rate,” this means he can essentially dismis any complaint against any of them with a wave of his hand.


In fact, trust must be earned — over and over again. And it can be lost by one serious blunder. That’s why news organizations created ombudsmen in the first place.

For the record, the defense that NOVA Senior Executive Producer Paula Apsell offers is quite disingenuous, because the Nova story actually makes a different case than the one she defends. It ends:

NARRATOR: Those that couldn’t adapt died out, like Selam and Lucy’s kind. Better problem-solvers, like Homo habilis, survived.

The new discoveries about ancient climate upheavals in Africa have led Rick Potts to formulate a bold theory of human evolution.

Notice that while Apsell claims, “The idea that variations in climate played a key role in human evolution is a widely accepted and influential idea in the scientific community,” the show itself claims that it was Potts who formulated this theory and that it is “bold” — and that it isn’t just about climate variations playing a “key role” in human evolution, it is about those variations being the “driving force of human evolution.” Potts himself makes the same point that he is trying to upend traditional thinking:

RICK POTTS: The traditional idea we have had about human evolution is that it was the savannah, the grassy plane with some trees on it that was the driving force. But instead, what we’ve discovered is that climate changed all the time.

And so the idea that we’ve come up with is that variability itself was the driving force of human evolution, and that our ancestors were adapted to change itself.

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.

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.”

NARRATOR: Today, climate change seems to threaten our survival, but it may have held the keys to the astonishing story of how we became who we are, because it didn’t stop 2,000,000 years ago. These dramatic upheavals would continue for another million and a half years, propelling our ancestors down a road leading, ultimately, to the smartest creature the world has ever known.


So what is it Apsell? Are you selling some sexy new bold theory, or something that is rather mundane and widely accepted. I know the answer — the answer is that our scientific understanding of what will happen on our current path of unrestricted emissions is based on vastly more research and observations than Potts’ intriguing but ultimately untestable hypothesis that past climate variations were the driving force of human evolution. And the theory of warming is testable and has met that test (see “10 indicators of a human fingerprint on climate change” and U.S. National Academy of Sciences labels as “settled facts” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities”).

And no, Nova narrator, the path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t just “seem” to threaten us. It most certainly threatens the health and well-being of billions of people in the coming decades.

The issue isn’t the straw man concern about whether “we can survive the future” because we are so damn smart. The issue is whether our stupidity is going to lead to the destruction of a livable climate and multiple catastrophic impacts, like these, to name but two:

Yes we will “survive” — but why, for instance, doesn’t that show mention the fact (pointed out in the Smithsonian exhibit) that an episode of extreme climate change 74,000 years ago “” which is still a subject of much scientific debate “” nearly wiped out the human race.

Apsell’s second point is quite disingenuous: “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.”

I think anybody can see that the show downplays the threat of human-caused climate change.

To modify my critique of the Smithsonian Exhibit for the Pollyannish conclusion to the Nova episode, the show’s major intellectual failing is that it does not distinguish between 1) the evolution of small populations of tens (to perhaps hundreds) of thousands of humans and pre-humans over hundreds of thousands of years to relatively slow, natural climate changes and 2) the completely different challenge we have today: The ability of modern civilization “” nearly 7 billion people, going up to 10 billion “” to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change over a period of several decades (and ultimately much longer).

The show fails to make clear that while small populations of homo “sapiens” evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of fluctuating climate, the rapid population growth of human civilization occurred during a time of relatively stable climate.

Here is a rough 6,000 year reconstruction that climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe put together from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) Paleoclimate archive for her new book, “A Climate for Change,” which you can see in a terrific March presentation:

Let’s be clear here. Not only has the atmospheric concentration of CO2 “” the principal human-generated greenhouse gas “” risen sharply in recent decades, it has risen at a rate that is unprecedented in the past million years (see “Humans boosting CO2 14,000 times faster than nature, overwhelming slow negative feedbacks”). As the author of 2008 study on this subject noted, “the average change in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 600,000 years has been just 22 parts per million by volume.” Humans have run up CO2 levels 100 ppm over the last two centuries. The author added, “Right now we have put the system entirely out of equilibrium.

Even another 100 ppm change could be devastating to the billions of people who have settled in places based on current sea levels and fresh water from inland glaciers and relatively consistent levels of soil moisture and precipitation (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher “” “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm” “” a study based on the exact same kind of paleoclimate reconstruction the entire Smithsonian exhibit is based on).

Worse, we’re poised to run CO2 levels up another 500 ppm this century if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path! (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F and U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm).

But you’d never know any of that from Nova.

If this were just another Nova show, I’d call it a “grave disappointment” and “seriously flawed.” But since it was funded partly by the billionaire polluter David Koch, who is founder of a vast network of conservative organizations that deny the threat of global warming “” with overall funding of disinformers that now exceeds Exxon Mobil— the show is pure greenwashing and whitewashing that does undermine the credibility of Nova as an independent provider of objective scientific stories and analysis.If you think Getler missed the boat on this, you can email him here.