The Pundit: Why We Should End Government Support for PBS Pt. 2
A Case Study: Cancer Whitewash

(January 2016)

This graphic is from the website for the Ken Burn's series "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" that aired in 2015. The sponsors of the PBS series include the Kochs, other corporate interests and foundations created by the corporate elite.

Watching the Ken Burn's series "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies." I was amazed at how quickly the producers whitewashed and dismissed the role of toxins in the environment and workplace as causes of cancer. This editorial choice appears to be a an obvious example of corporate funders influencing PBS content to divert attention away from the issues of corporate pollution and hazardous workplaces, key fronts in the war against cancer and other environmental health problems.

The series was comprised of three episodes, each one hour and fifty two minutes long. The series emphasizes the treatment of cancer and the search for a cure. This emphasis serves the narrative by providing a succession of heroes in the fight against cancer.

Cancer prevention, as distinguished from treatment or diagnosis, is discussed in the third episode for under fifteen minutes. Five minutes is devoted to the successful campaign to reduce tobacco use. Obesity is given 45 seconds without any mention of the type of food that obese people eat. Radiation (the sources of radiation are not mentioned), sunlight (with no mention of recent changes to the ozone layer), asbestos and viruses are listed on a graphic as the remaining known causes of cancer. Asbestos is the only industrial or workplace toxin mentioned.

All other environmental causes of cancer are dismissed as "unproven theories...paraded in the media...' and "...increasing fear." The use of epidemiology to determine cancer causes is described as similar to "circumstantial evidence in court." The program tells us that famous examples of cancer clusters such as Love Canal "have frustrated investigators and led some to doubt that they were anything but a statistical mirage."

To state the obvious, in this segment the viewpoint of corporations generating toxic products or byproducts is well represented, and the opinions of nearly all environmentalists and scientists in the relevant fields are quickly dismissed in a surprising brusk manner. That is a major lie of omission considering that, "...(e)nvironmental factors including tobacco smoke, nutrition, physical activity, and exposure to environmental carcinogens are estimated to be responsible for 75-80% of cancer diagnosis and death in the US. About 6% of cancer deaths per year -- 34,000 deaths annually -- are directly linked to occupational and environmental exposures to known, specific carcinogens. The potential of environmental carcinogens to interact with genetic and lifestyle factors, as well as each other, in the development of cancer, is not well-understood. Nor are chemicals in the environment exhaustively tested as to their carcinogenicity. Therefore the cancer burden caused by exposures to environmental carcinogens may be even larger.." according to .Physicians for Social Responsibility.

It is not surprising that tobacco, asbestos and viruses were the cancer causes discussed most extensively in the series. Tobacco and asbestos were a safe choice for the producers since those industries do not advertise on television, have little power in DC and are not major PBS funders. The polluters, owners of toxic workplaces and producers of contaminated food that helped sponsor the program and consistently fund PBS were left off the hook.

After extensive on-line searching I found just one comment on this whitewash from Ted Smith on the website .Health News Review. I don't know who he is, but he made some points worth quoting.

"I’ve been an avid fan of Ken Burns ever since his PBS Civil War saga, so I was eager to see his take on cancer.

I’ve also been an advocate for a safe environment and healthy families for even longer. While I was glad to see such an important focus on cancer, I was very disappointed to see that the emphasis was so disproportionately focused on “finding the cure” for cancer with very little focus on preventing environmental causes of cancer.

Even when the program did focus on prevention, it was mostly on tobacco, and the impact of industrial chemicals on the life and health of people around the world was ignored.

Many of us have been fighting for decades to eliminate toxic hazards and to promote safe chemicals, and to protect families from exposure to carcinogens on the job and in our communities, yet this work was completely missing from the series – the only mention of workplace related carcinogens was on asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral with no mention whatsoever of man-made chemicals, not even benzene – and no mention of the current very important fight going on in Congress right now to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to encourage the production of safer chemicals. ....

When I saw the list of sponsors at the end of the program, a light bulb went off – it was no wonder that industrial chemicals were ignored when we saw that David Koch (of the infamous Koch Brothers,) was a sponsor, along with Genentech, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, etc. Koch makes his $$ by producing toxic chemicals (and denying their impact on climate change and the environment) and Genentech and Bristol Myers make their $ by making pharmaceutical chemicals to “cure” cancer, so the economics once again explains the framing of the problem. I don’t know if Ken Burns is responsible for this imbalance in perspective, but I’m sure disappointed that his name is on it."

The Pundit does not believe every suspicion or theory about environmental causes of cancer and is a strong advocate for using sound science as a tool for developing good policy. Many of the notions that people believe about cancer causes are simply wrong and there are many crackpots and exploiters taking advantage of the gullible.

The Pundit also understands that one of the Kochs didn't walk into Ken Burns' office and slip him a few bills to keep the heat off corporations as a possible cause of cancer. The system is designed to prevent sponsors from having that type of direct influence on program content. The system is also designed to obscure the reality that sponsors have a cumulative indirect influence on program content. PBS producers like Ken Burns know who funds their programs and are aware that you don't become or remain successful by angering loyal PBS sponsors.

This is just one small example of how a television program can spread disinformation simply by dismissing or omitting relevant information. When corporate polluters can influence the content of a public/government funded PBS television programs to whitewash their bad behavior with an investment in sponsorships, then the network has lost its credibility and usefulness as a source of information. This program is evidence that the time has come to stop government subsidies for organizations committed to benefiting the large corporations and billionaires that fund them. Without government funding for PBS, corporate influenced programming will continue to be available on television, but at least it will no longer have an imprimatur of legitimacy provided by the government and its taxpayers.

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