PBS Ombudsman Addresses Possible NOVA Conflict

By Alex Weprin 

The long-running PBS series “NOVA” is known for being one of the few places on television where long-form Science journalism has a home.

Now, however, the show has caught the attention of the PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who looks into whether a financial backer of the program may have had influenced the editorial content of an episode.

The episode in question is called “Becoming Human” and it discussses the role climate change has played on human evolution and development:

The problem some PBS viewers had was with one of the financial backers of NOVA, David Koch:

Koch is a science enthusiast, hence his donations to WGBH Boston, which produces “NOVA,” but he is also considered to be something of a climate change crank. In “Becoming Human”, the narrator says “Today, climate change seems to threaten our survival,” and adds “it may have held the keys to the astonishing story of how we became who we are.”

Some critics believe that is downplaying the significance of climate change.

In this case, it is a series of connections that I agree, upon reflection, is bothersome. It doesn’t prove that Koch had influence or tried to influence anything, but 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.

NOVA responded to Getler and some of the critics:

Regarding David Koch’s support, he has been a generous supporter of WGBH since the 1980s and is a member of the WGBH Board of Trustees. Because of his interest in science, his support has been intermittently directed to NOVA beginning in the early 1990s to be used for programming in archaeology, anthropology, and antiquities. Given the broad scope of NOVA’s work, his donations have comprised roughly 2-3% of NOVA’s overall budget.

The entire column, including letters from viewers, is worth reading,