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

Read time: 7 mins

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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When the liberal green enviro types start trashing PBS, there are real problems ahead!

Do you guys really want to do that?


I am showing what the costs and consequences are of cutting public funding to PBS. It's a criticism of those who are making the funding cuts, not PBS.

The BBC is under constant attack from the right wing press in the UK - particularly Murdoch's rags - for the same reason.  They have been successful in that its funding has been severely cut, but the damage would have been far worse had the phone hacking scandal not erupted.  However, I'm sure the process of attrition will not let up.

Yeah, the BBC has been atrocious on climate. Still is. They've been scared in to false balance, false equivalence, he said / she said for a long time now.

If someone relies on the BBC, they are at best woefully uninformed about the severity of climate collapse.

Only works when there is plenty of bread. 

Reality of global warming means less bread, more drought, fires, floods… gonna have to sing louder and louder. 

Great posting.   Thanks 


“Yes, we have some global warming. It's clear the temperature has gone up
in the last 100 years, but what percentage of that is from carbon
dioxide and what percentage of that is from the changes in the local and
measurement environment?”
- A. Watts

As he said on WUWT yesterday, what is he denying? Only the actual amount of contribution to GW that is attributable to man.

Is the amount of governmental expenditure even going to make a dent in climate change? We don't know, because we don't know the natural variability. We don't know the optimum average temperature, or if there even is one, and if so, optimal to what? Animal life, plant life, the planet, or humans???

Until these and many more questions are answered definitively, spending, government regulation, and the making of energy and manufacturing into environmental boogeymen is not only unnecessary, it is foolish.

Why do you believe what an uneducated (certainly some one who never finished post secondary education) has to say? You only show your own lack of intelligence and education by supporting such a fraudster as Watts. His theory that urban heat islands are causing the global warming is just laughable. Where are the concrete structures and trash burning barrels in the lower troposphere which satellites have shown to be warming? Where are the barbecues and airport runways in the Arctic which is warming at 2 to 3 times the global average?

Keep up the good work since unintelligent people like you are the show case for AGW deniers.

I was talking about how what was formerly public funding for PBS has been replaced with climate change denial funding in the form of Koch, ExxonMobil, and Friends' largesse, then you went off on a total tangent.

Re your tangent: climate change denial/skepticism, well, that's a non-starter and completely ridiculous. Study after study continues to come out by scientists, including this one today linked to below, showing that the crisis is only getting worse and quickly, too.

I didn't actually read the whole article and assumed it was more of the intense zealotry on display from the warmists' camp after the PBS segment. I almost never comment before reading, sorry.

But as a rational thinking person, what do you honestly make of the incredibly severe backlash from the CAGW side? PBS produced a 'story' on the Climate debate, obviously not intended to be a judgemment on the 'science' of GW, and the Rooms and Huffposts and Desmogs of the world go ballistic. I mean really! If anyone here can step back and view this reaction as a neutral observer it has to be seen as totally off the reservation. How can one not see it that way?


If you bought a new pair of shoes that fell apart… wouldn't you complain about the workmanship?

The journalism in that piece was embarassingly shoddy.   And no matter what the story - sports,  or city hall, or man bites dog… PBS should do better work, and this was bad.  

And the fact that most people think this is the most important story of all, makes their bad work more significant. 

While that may be true (shoddy work) the piece was totally representative of the Climate debate as it stands today. You must see that, no?

'Global Warming', especially the of anthropogenic variety, is under extreme scrutiny from all sides these days. Not just for the wild claims made by some scientists/activists but for the truly massive amounts of taxpayer dollars spent funding all manner of questionable 'studies' (Katherine Hayhoe just snagged $750,000. to study climate effects on bridges and infrastructure in Texas!) and on renewable energy boondoggles that are not yet proven and are more to do with making money for investors. This PBS story was trying to show both sides of that debate, not attack the science. And as Hank said in another thread, Watts comes across as a reasonable person, plainly stating his case for pragmatism in our estimate of the GW threat and in our (financial) response to it. The unatuned public will look at that, and the way overboard response from the climate faithful and really start to wonder.

Seriously, try to look at this from a neutral position.

chas rasper gets it right for once:

“the piece was totally representative of the Climate debate as it stands today”.

yes, Watts' lies, misinterpretations, misrepresentations and smearing of climate science is exactly how the “debate” is represented by the dishonest AGW deniers.

Why do you support such dishonesty? Are you too ignorant and uneducated to see how dishonest they are?

“climate debate as it stands today”  ??   No, climate debate of about 5 or 10 years ago.  The climate debate today seems to be about “How bad?” and  “How soon?”

And as to mocking the ”study climate effects on bridges and infrastructure in Texas   - Tell me have you ever driven on highways that buckle in the heat?  It is dangerous. In Arizona, airplane tires will sink into overheated asphalt.  The railroads know all about what happens to their steel track in the additional heat - it warps and twists.    And bridges are crucial and don't last forever, they need constant attention.  You don't want to under-maintain - and don't want to spend money over-maintaining.  Do you chas?

I think it is money well spent, if you want to keep infrastructure - and that applies whether they are government roads and bridges or private roads and bridges. 

You can be neutral all you want, but it has nothing to do with facing the issue. 


Dude, we don't need to give $750,000 to some propagandist woman who knows nothing about infrastructure, but surely knows how to drink from the public teet. Sure, all infrastructure everywhere needs maintenance. We have engineers and public works departments staffed with people who are trained for that.

There is a huge gravy train rolling now for all who want to jump on. THAT is what I and many others emphatically do not support. Watts said it himself in that interview, but you wont hear Joe Romm or James Hansen talking about that. Whole departments have been built in colleges around the world. Governments have thrown BILLIONS of dollars at this thing and it has gotten us nowhere! Anyone who honestly believes we can buy back our .7C degrees or legislate our way to the mythical 'perfect' global temperature is a fool!

Our global econonomy is in the shitter and all you guys want to do is make it worse!

You need to focus. Are you disagreeing that AGW is occurring or just arguing about the cost or efficacy of proposed solutions?

The post itself is about shoddy journalism. No media outlet should be approaching the climate change debate in the “GOP says Earth is flat, some Democrats disagree” mode. Facts matter, and treating those who disrespect reality as if they were on equal footing with real live scientists is bad journalism. PBS did that here. 

I wonder if, rather than jumping to unfounded conclusions, anyone would be curious to know how much of our new NSF-funded project on climate impacts on infrastructure in New England is going into my pocket.

The answer is: zero dollars. Not even being used for any of my salary. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

'Our global econonomy is in the shitter and all you guys want to do is make it worse!'

Now this is rambling off topic again maybe but it is connected.

Sure, what do you think is going to happen to the price of grain based products following this dreadful year of droughts and floods? Grain crops of all types are down across the world because of a mix of damaging weather.

Why do you think this is? So you know about how a shift in the jetstream produces blocking weather pressure areas that cause a drought across one area whilst all that ice melt goes into the atmosphere and precipitates out in another area?

Another year like this and the economy world wide will tank further and then there will be many angry people who have lost their livelihoods, homes and have little to eat.

The global economy in trouble has nothing at all to do with scientists facing up to the reality of climate change and watching the fallout. Watts has never understood the basic truth that Richard Feynman offered in an Appendix to his Space Shuttle Challenger report:

'For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.'