Screen shot from preview of Nova’s “Rise of the Drones”

The ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has responded to complaints about the perception that an episode of NOVA called “Rise of the Drones” received “additional funding” from Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest US military defense contractors in the United States.

In my review of the documentary on January 24, which was published the day after the documentary premiered, I noted that the program had apparently received some amount of funding from Lockheed Martin, which on its face looked like a violation of PBS’ underwriting guidelines.

The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) picked up on what I noticed and put out an “Action Alert” asking PBS ombudsman Michael Getler to investigate whether NOVA’s “Rise of the Drones” violated PBS underwriting guidelines. By January 29, the ombudsman had received over 550 comments on the program.

Getler responded:

…I commend, especially, Kevin Gosztola of, and also FAIR, for calling attention to this issue. It is, so to speak, a fair one. I think the Lockheed funding does present a perception and commercial test problem for PBS. My feeling is that this particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed support. That is easy for me, an outsider, to say when it comes to finding funders for programs.

The guidelines deal with issues surrounding a series of programs and require that “funders must be credited for the run of the series and must not vary from program to program,” so that seems to mean Lockheed could not have been dropped for this specific program since it has been providing some additional funding of NOVA generally since last year. On the other hand, the perception test guideline also says, “As a general rule, a funder that would not be acceptable for any single program in a series would not be acceptable to fund any other part of the same series.” That raises the question, did NOVA and Lockheed know that a program on drones was coming down the road a year later? [emphasis added]

Getler wrote that when he viewed the program he thought it was “good and useful” yet, when he began to receive complaints, he felt “deceived by NOVA.”

He also explained, “FAIR acknowledged that it wasn’t their eagle-eyes that spotted Lockheed’s funding involvement. That came from Kevin Gosztola who reported in a posting on on Jan. 24 that, ‘before the documentary began, PBS noted the program had received funding from the David H. Koch Foundation for Science. It also received ‘additional funding’ from Lockheed Martin.’ He pointed out that Lockheed is ‘one of the nation’s biggest military defense contractors and is developing drones.'”

What I did not catch (which Getler incorrectly gives me credit for reporting) is that the “actual broadcast included an underwriting announcement” with Lockheed Martin mentioned at the beginning, however, the credit was removed from the webcast and the company did not receive credit on the NOVA website for the documentary.

Getler stated:

These are very important observations and explain why I was surprised and why I saw no mention of Lockheed when I watched the program online or when I looked at the NOVA website. And there was never any mention of Lockheed in the body of the program, even though that huge defense company is heavily involved in drone development, which I didn’t know and I’m sure vast numbers of online viewers — unless they are in the Air Force or CIA — also probably did not know.

He also mentioned, “in December 2011, an advanced RQ-170 drone crashed in Iran. It was a big story. It is covered in the program but no mention is made that it was developed by Lockheed.”

Getler noted that “nobody else seemed to call attention to or have a problem with Lockheed’s funding.” Reviews from the New York Times or in New Orleans, for example, along with several others, did not mention “the Lockheed connection.” So, had I not written the review, there never would have been discussion of Lockheed Martin’s funding and it never would have been an issue for PBS.

NOVA responded to complaints:
With regard to NOVA “Rise of the Drones,” Lockheed Martin’s sponsorship of NOVA is not a violation of the PBS underwriting guidelines. First and foremost, Lockheed Martin, like all WGBH/PBS program funders, had no editorial involvement in the program. Their credit on this episode was part of the ongoing recognition they have been receiving for their support of the NOVA series since January 2012. Their credit is included, along with other funders, for episodes in that period; their funding is not directed to or connected with any particular episode.
In my review, I highlighted how Lockheed Martin teamed up with Karem Aircraft Incorporated to develop “Karem Aircraft’s Optimum Speed Tilt-Rotor (OSTR) design” in 2008. It was “one of three approaches selected by the Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Heavy Lift program office to receive a Concept Design and Analysis extension contract.” Karem Aircraft Incorporated was founded by Abe Karem. He appeared in the documentary and, as The Economist has described him, he is the man who “created the robotic plane that transformed the way modern warfare is waged—and continues to pioneer other airborne innovations.” In other words, he’s the father of drones and in the documentary Karem talked about the advancement and benefits of drone technology, which I considered to be a conflict of interest.
To this NOVA reacted:

With regard to Abe Karem’s relationship with Lockheed Martin, that has no relevance to the story we were presenting in this program. Mr. Karem was included because he is a crucial early figure in the current generation of drone development, and we would have been remiss not to include him in this episode.

I do not disagree. However, acknowledgment of Karem’s current business with military defense contractors like Lockheed Martin was absent and could have been mentioned.

NOVA asserted it is a “matter of standard practice” to delete “all funder credits from the streamed/online version of the program.” I do not fully understand why such a protocol would be followed. Online viewers have just as much right to see who funded projects as those who view the programming when it airs on television. In any case, NOVA said it would “include Lockheed Martin in the list of funders on the NOVA website for full transparency.”

It is clear now that Lockheed Martin did not specifically fund the “Rise of the Drones” program, however, as Getler concluded, “When a planned specific segment cuts as close to the bone as this one on drones did to the business interests of a sponsor, the producers should ask the underwriter to bow out of the whole series right from the start.Or, if that is not the case when the series started out, those linkages need to be made clear during the body of the program.”  [Jeanne Hopkins, VP of Communications, told Getler: “When Lockheed Martin joined the series we did not yet have a schedule of programs set for the year.”]


I did not only take issue with the fact that it appeared Lockheed Martin had funded part of the program. I thought the program could have done a better job of exploring ethical questions posed by the development of the technology.

Getler shared the following from Paula Apsell, NOVA’s senior executive producer:

…I think it’s correct to say this is not a public affairs show and that I think that the issues would be handled in a different way on a public affairs show. In a time honored tradition on ‘NOVA’ of presenting military technology, it’s my belief that people really have to understand the technology, its capabilities, and where it could take us in the future before they can really evaluate in a reasonable way what the ethics are of the situation

That would be fair if the program had only explored the technology: its history, capabilities and what it might be able to do in the future. Yet, it went a step further and about halfway into the program presented a segment that highlighted current flaws in the technology, how the US might be using the technology in ways that violate countries’ sovereignty and how there is uncertainty around who exactly is being killed by US drone strikes. CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, a fierce opponent of drone warfare, was even shown interrupting an April 2012 speech on drones given by Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. So, when these aspects were highlighted, the program went from just highlighting the technology and its capabilities to acknowledging the current debate on whether the use of the technology in warfare is ethical.

The program hinted at the reality that drones are redefining privacy in public space and also what is permissible outside of declared war. That is why I suggested it would have been valuable to hear how scientists and engineers were grappling with the possibility of the technology being used for wars of aggression or to transform societies into totalitarian states. It would have been valuable to hear what safeguards or laws the inventors might like to see so that it would be harder for powerful individuals to use the drones for purposes that are inhumane or repressive. However, it seemed the producers chose to not fully explore the dystopian possibilities with subjects interviewed.

In any case, Getler is to be commended for doing his job and responding to complaints. I thank him for his words constructively critiquing how PBS allowed Lockheed Martin to fund the series this season and produced an episode on drones. Hopefully, in the future, PBS will be more transparent and disclose more details at the time of the premiere if they think a conflict of interest could be perceived.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."