More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of "NOVA" station

By David Sirota , written on March 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Last month, Pando's "Wolf of Sesame Street" investigation broke the news that one of PBS's flagship outlets had inked a secret deal with anti-pension billionaire John Arnold. That deal, which was not explicitly disclosed to viewers, was designed to broadcast anti-pension programming on public television stations throughout the country.

The story spotlighted how ideological billionaires and powerful corporations are increasingly - and stealthily - attempting to launder their political agendas through the trusted public-television brand, potentially in violation of PBS's own rules.

Now, as part of our continuing investigation into who funds public television, Pando has learned that a new campaign is being launched against another major PBS station, once again over the issue of billionaire influence.

The campaign, sponsored by the environmental group Forecast the Facts, aims to remove one of the most influential and politically active fossil fuel magnates from the board of the PBS station that provides science-related programming to outlets across the US.

The campaign's target is David Koch, who serves on the board and the Science Visiting Council of Boston's WGBH. These are particularly powerful posts for the conservative financier -- one of the infamous Koch brothers -- because, like the Arnold-infiltrated WNET in New York, the Boston station produces many of the national PBS network's programming. In fact, according to its own website, WGBH is "PBS’s single largest producer of Web and TV content." That includes PBS's iconic science show, NOVA.

Pando has learned that along with online ads and a new website, Forecast the Facts' campaign plans to unveil a prominent billboard right outside of WGBH's offices, demanding Koch's removal. The new ad campaign is being launched following protests outside the WGBH offices and a petition signed by tens of thousands of viewers that calls for Koch to be ousted.

Koch's role at WGBH may conflict with PBS's own rules prohibiting editorial control and funding from donors who have a political or financial interest in the PBS they oversee. In this case, Koch is on the board of the station that produces PBS science content. He has also funded some of that content. Yet, he owns a fossil fuel conglomerate and has bankrolled the fossil fuel industry's campaign to deny climate change.

Citing estimates from Greenpeace, Forecast the Facts claims "that David Koch and his brother have donated over $67 million to climate denial front groups dedicated to misleading the public on climate change since 1997." Additionally, according to American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, "A quarter of U.S. senators and more than one-third of representatives have signed a little-known pledge — backed by the Kochs — not to spend any money to fight climate change without an equivalent amount of tax cuts."

Allegations that Koch has exerted editorial control over PBS

Given WGBH's role in producing NOVA and so much other public television content, Koch's ownership of a fossil fuel conglomerate and his attendant climate-change-related activism is directly relevant to his leadership position at the station. Koch's position at WGBH is also significant because of fears that his past presence in leadership positions in public television has already shaped public broadcasting content.

For instance, as Pando already reported, Koch's previous perch on WNET's board put him in a position to append his own political message to the end of a documentary on income inequality by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney. The New Yorker noted that a planned documentary scrutinizing Koch's political activism was subsequently killed by that same PBS affiliate station.

Additionally, in 2009, reporter Matthew Yglesias noted that through underwriting a NOVA series on evolution, "Koch the Global Warming Crank" may have used his influence to conclude the series "with an oddly upbeat description of the positive role cataclysmic shifts in climate have played in human history." That NOVA segment drew a rebuke from the PBS Ombudsman, who said it "does raise questions in my mind about the internal decision-making process at NOVA and whether conflict-of-interest or perception issues among viewers were considered."

Is WGBH ignoring PBS rules to appease Koch?

In its rules barring commercial interests from shaping its programming, PBS promises to "carefully analyze the relationship of the funder and its business interests to the subject matter of the program."

PBS also declares that a "perception test will be applied most vigorously to current affairs programs and programs that address controversial issues." In such cases, PBS says that "when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable."

Yet, even though Koch Industries' fossil fuel business means the company has an economic stake in downplaying climate change, and even though Koch has financially supported the climate change denialism movement, the PBS Ombudsman reports that David Koch has been permitted to provide "roughly 2-3% of NOVA's overall budget." He has also been permitted to remain on WGBH's board and its Science Visiting Council.

Pressure mounting on WGBH

In response to earlier pressure, WGBH officials have insisted they will not remove Koch from the board. That has increased tensions between the station and it's viewers.

Last month, facing planned protests at the WGBH board meeting, station officials appeared to ignore open-meeting requirements by not publicly disclosing when the board meeting was taking place. There were also allegations that WGBH officials deliberately gave protesters the wrong meeting date information when they telephoned the station demanding schedule information. WGBH denied those allegations, but in emails obtained by Pando, A WGBH official admitted the station did not post the board meeting schedule on its website.

“Keeping a fossil fuel baron like David Koch on the WGBH Board is like keeping a tobacco executive on the board of the Cancer Society,” said Emily Southard, campaign manager at Forecast the Facts. “By dedicating his life and fortune to mislead the public on climate change, David Koch is violating his duties as WGBH board member to foster a more informed public.”

[Image adapted from DonkeyHotey]