The latest dust up occurred this month as PBS aired a three-part series called 'The Mysterious Human Heart.' As Roy Poses at Health Care Renewal notes, Medtronic and AstraZeneca were two of three corporate sponsors. And not only do those companies sell heart-related products - defibrillators and cholesterol meds, respectively - but both have had troubles with those same products. Yet as one viewer wrote Mike Getler, the PBS ombudsman, "viewers are never told about potential problems with those devices....or possible financial ties between the series' on-camera experts" and the two companies.
The press release and 'outreach tool kit' both clearly note that the companies underwrote the series. "But missing from the glowing approbation by PBS...in the release, and what should be prominently featured as well in the series," Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, writes Getler, "is any discussion of the serious health-related risks from Medtronic and AstraZeneca products...We believe that the involvement of these two heart-related commercial entities illustrates disturbing flaws in the PBS underwriting guidelines. PBS programming should not be supported by any concern that has a stake â€” either financially or politically â€” in the editorial content of the show or series."
To his credit, Getler asked the series producer and a PBS exec about the accusations, and he admits "the responses, especially from PBS, do not address the real conflict, criticism and questions at issue here. This program, and the criticisms, once again put the spotlight on what has been a continuing source of viewer questioning and complaint about several PBS-supported and promoted programs â€” the seeming inappropriateness of funders for a number of programs and the residue of doubt that leaves in the mind of some viewers even though one may not see or sense any hint of influence."
To underscore the extent of the problem, Poses found something the critics and ombudsman didn't: The content advisers to the series web site - Peter Libby, who is chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Mallinckrodt Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Doug Zipes, professor of medicine, pharmacology and toxicology at Indiana University - have ties to the corporate sponsors. Libby has received grant support from, consulted for, and served on a speakers' bureau for AstraZeneca, and Zipes has received consulting fees or honoraria worth more than $10,000 from Medtronic. The conflicts weren't disclosed on the site, though.
We understand that PBS funding is a dilemma, and that sponsorship shouldn't automatically imply influence over program content. Nonetheless, PBS has a responsibility, at the very least, to do a better job of disclosing information. And that can be accomplished by including in its programs, web sites and press materials any potential conflicts and, specifically, pertinent problems with products that address the very issues raised in PBS programming.
Hat tip to Health Care Renewal