Merchants of Doubt

Petroleum Broadcasting System's "Newshour" and the Merchants of Climate Doubt

  • Posted on: 20 September 2012
  • By: Connor Gibson

Written by Steve Horn, crossposted from DeSmogBlog

There's an old German proverb that goes, "Whose bread I eat his song I sing."

Enter a recent spate of reportage by the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) "Newshour." In a September 17 story titled, "Climate Change Skeptic Says Global Warming Crowd Oversells Its Message" (with a URL titled, "Why the Global Warming Crowd Oversells its Message") the Newshour "provided an unchecked platform for Anthony Watts, a virulent climate change denier funded by the Heartland Institute," as described by Forecast the Facts.

Forecast the Facts created a petition demanding that the "PBS ombudsman...immediately investigate how this segment came to be aired," stating that, "This is the kind of reporting we expect from Fox News, not PBS."

Very true, this is exactly the type of reporting we've come to expect out of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, a cable "news" network that provides a voice for right-wing propagandists on all policy issues, including climate change denial. But perhaps expectations are too high for PBS' "Newshour" and we should've expected exactly what we got: a friendly platform for the climate change denying merchants of doubt

What's at play here goes above and beyond a single bad story by "Newshour." Rather, it's a small piece and the result of an aggressive campaign that's been going on for nearly two decades to destroy public television in the public interest.

Based on the shift in how the "Newshour" has funded itself over the years, it's evident that the once-esteemed "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" streamed on the Public Broadcasting System has transformed PBS into what investigative reporter Greg Palast calls the "Petroleum Broadcasting System."

"Petroleum Broadcasting System" Sponsored by Chevron, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Et Al 

In an October 2010 story, Palast pointed out that the "Newshour" is funded by Chevron in critiquing its softball coverage of the BP oil disaster. This led him to refer to PBS as the "Petroleum Broadcasting System."

Above and beyond funding from Chevron, "Newshour" also lists Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), owned by Warren Buffett under the auspices of Berkshire Hathaway, as a sponsor. As previously reported here on DeSmog, BNSF - the second largest freight rail company in the U.S. behind Union Pacific - is a major transporter of tar sands infrastucture to the Alberta tar sands. It's also a major mover of coal being sent to coastal terminals and exported to Asia.

BNSF also inked a deal in June 2012 with U.S. Silica Holdings Inc. to "build and run a major warehousing operation...to store sand destined for the Eagle Ford Shale." The Texas-based Eagle Ford Shale basin, like all shale basins, requires vast amounts of fracking sand (aka sillica sand) in order to tap into the gas located deep within the shale reservoir. This sand predominantly comes from western Wisconsin's "sand land," as we explained in a recent short documentary.

The San Antonio Business Journal explained the situation in-depth:

The proposed facility, scheduled to open in early 2013, will be constructed on 290 acres of land the railroad purchased late last year. It will be able to store up to 15,000 tons of sand used by drillers during the hydraulic fracturing process to release oil and gas from dense shale rock.

The Fort Worth-based railway will haul up to 40,000 tons of silica sand and other products per month to San Antonio from U.S. Silica operations in Ottawa, Ill., and Rochelle, Ill.

To top it off, Buffett himself has major personal investments in Big Oil, as we've written about on DeSmog. As of August 2011, he owned 29.1 million shares of stock in ConocoPhillips, 421,800 shares of stock in ExxonMobil, and 7.777 million shares of stock in General Electric, all three of which are involved in various aspects of the tar sands extraction industry and the shale gas extraction industry.

In sum, BNSF is cashing in big time from the shale gas boom, the tar sands boom, and the coal export boom. 

Koch Industries - a major Heartland Institute funder and key behind its founding - has also funded PBS' "Nova" to the tune of $7 million. ExxonMobil has also provided funds to PBS' "Nova," "Nightly Business Report" and "Masterpiece Theatre." Both ExxonMobil and Koch Industries are among the top funders of the climate change denial machine.

The Plan: Cut Public Funding, Make PBS Rely on Fossil Fuel Industry Money

Looking at the situation more broadly, it's important to understand that PBS didn't always rely on fossil fuel industry largesse to keep itself afloat.

Rather, over the past two decades, PBS has been under attack by the Republican Party, with constant threats and a coordinated campaign to defund a network originally set up to be a public educational service via the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

As explained in a February 2011 ABC News story,

One of Newt Gingrich's first acts as speaker of the House in 1995 was to call for the elimination of federal funding for CPB, and for the privatization of public broadcasting. Neither attempt was successful, though it did keep the hot-button issue in the limelight for years. 

During the early 2011 budget debates, ABC explained that "The House Republicans' budget would rescind any funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which partially supports these two organizations -- for the remainder of the year, and zero out millions in funds after that."

President Barack Obama joined in on the attack on public television with his "bipartisan deficit commission" -- referred to as the "Catfood Commission" by FireDogLake -- calling for "eliminating funding for the CPB, estimating that it would save the government $500 million in 2015," ABC explained. His Republican Party opponent for the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney, has also called for the defunding of PBS.

Private funding of what was originally supposed to be a publicly-funded television station comes with its own agenda. This agenda departs from the mission set out by the 1967 Act, which deemed it "in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public...television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes" and said it "should be created...to afford maximum protection from extraneous interference and control."

The New York Times said it best in a May 2008 story: benevolent corporate underwriting of public television is "increasingly out of step with the...needs of corporations" as they don't "sponsor public television programs for purely philanthropic reasons."

Plenty of Money for PSYOPs Campaigns Abroad

Even PBS President Paula Kerger has internalized the message that the U.S. government is "broke," stating after the latest attempt to defund NPR by House Republicans, "While we understand the many difficult decisions appropriators must make and that the nation is facing challenging economic times, if enacted, such drastic cuts in federal funding could have a devastating effect on public television stations."

Far from being strapped for cash, though, the U.S. government has plenty of money to spend on overseas psychological operations (PSYOPs) campaigns around the world of the sort covered by DeSmog during the shale gas industry's PSYOPs revelation of November 2011.

Media scholar Bob McChesney explained this phenomenon in a March 2011 Democracy Now! appearance, during the middle of the previous round of PBS funding cuts debate in the U.S. House of Representatives:

You know, currently the United States spends roughly twice as much money bankrolling international broadcasting — Voice of America and the various Radio Martís and things like that — than it does paying for domestic public broadcasting and community broadcasting, roughly twice as much — $750 million, roughly, last year. And the idea of raising that and putting more propaganda out to sort of enhance the view of the United States vis-à-vis other nations of the world is entirely the wrong way to go. 

That $750 million is more than the $500 President Obama said the U.S. could save by slashing publicly-funded media. In leiu of public funding, American citizens are being shafted with fossil fuel-funded disinformation here at home, while subsidizing it with their tax dollars abroad. 

Unless we see big changes in funding for public television, it'll continue to be a standard operating procedure for outlets like PBS to transform into iterations of the newfangled "Petroleum Broadcasting System" - and to end where we began - play the game of "Whose bread I eat his song I sing."

Image Credit: Forecast the Facts

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