The Mailbag: A Powerful Cancer Series and Other Hot Buttons

Posted by Michael Getler on

There’s been a lot of mail on a lot of issues recently, much of it critical but a lot of it raises interesting points and observations. Here is a sampling of what’s been on the minds of some viewers, along with responses from the director of the just-concluded six-hour, three-part series on cancer and from PBS, and some thoughts from me on this and other subjects. So as not to make these individual mailbags too long, we will be posting more comments and responses on more subjects in coming days.

Here are the letters and the responses.

Romanticizing ISIS?

Frequently when PBS and other stations are reporting about Islamic terrorists, in the background there are very romantic pictures about terrorists riding with flags on horses or marching with guns along the street or riding with cars and automatic weapons. In my opinion this is not valuable information but emotional support of the propaganda.

Wilfried Pesch, Margaree, Nova Scotia

(Ombudsman’s Note: I confess to having the same feeling as this viewer. These depictions strike me as widely used on television generally—especially on the big broadcast and cable networks as well as occasionally on PBS—and I’ve wondered whether producers think about the issue this viewer raises.)

On That Cancer Series

PBS's documentary series "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" deserves praise for better educating the public about cancer. Unfortunately, it also deserves condemnation for its grossly disproportionate focus on women and cancer and reinforcing the utterly false notion that cancer is primarily a women's disease. In fact, notwithstanding PBS's distortion, cancer is primarily a men's disease. Evidently, neither Ken Burns nor anyone responsible for the documentary's content, knew about — or worse, cared about — that unassailable truth, perennially confirmed by CDC cancer incidence and mortality statistics. Measured in absolute numbers and by age-adjusted cancer mortality rates, males are cancer's chief victims. It may be politically correct to ignore these statistics and to focus on women and cancer but doing so does a grave disservice to reality and to male Americans.

Larry Kalikow, Warrington, PA

The Film’s Director, Barak Goodman, Responds

First, we say in one of the very first lines of the film that “one in two American men and one in three American women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.” But more importantly, this is a historical film. The reason we focus on breast cancer in the second episode (really the only episode in which we “favor” women over men) is that the cancer world itself focused on breast cancer during the last three decades of the 20th Century. That was in part the result of intense activism on the part of the breast cancer community, which had become by far the most aggressive among all the cancer advocacy groups. And it was the result of the fact that the most significant research breakthrough were happening in breast cancer — from the debunking of the radical mastectomy by Bernie Fisher to the development of the first targeted therapies (Tamoxifin and Herceptin). 

(Ombudsman’s Note: I think this is an important exchange. The viewer raises an important issue, although using language that I feel is too strong, and Goodman gives a proper response, as I see it. Goodman is correct that the program, at the outset, makes clear that more men than women are affected. One can, however, come away feeling that cancer among women is the dominant theme, as Goodman also suggests, because the entire two-hour second segment of the program is devoted primarily to breast cancer. In a rough count conducted by my office of the first and third two-hour segments, there was also an edge in the number of patients and cases involving women, but not by much — 13 females and nine males, including children.)  

Other Voices

I am watching the series "Cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies." Fantastic series. So insightful and interesting. I am a cancer survivor! Some of the thought and feeling of the patients profiled here so touched me, I wept. Thank you for this wonderful informative program. Ken Burns continues to astound me. Looking forward to the next part.

Patricia Becker, Saginaw, MI

~ ~ ~

I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your airing of the Cancer Film documentary. It was a great history lesson. However, I believe you would be doing yourself a favor by also airing Ty Bollinger's The Quest For the Cures. Millions of American people do not believe in the conventional treatment of cancer, myself included. Ty Bollinger's documentary shows and teaches an alternative approach to treating cancer by using clean, unadulterated food.

Derick Matney, Grundy, VA

~ ~ ~

"Cancer - The Emperor of All Maladies.” How could Ken Burns and PBS produce and air such a one-sided tribute to big Pharma and its 75 year, $40 billion dollar failure to produce a cure for cancer. Is Ken Burns a rubber stamp for the AMA? It is a crime to allow the health of a nation to be in the hands of corporations whose bottom line is more important than finding a cure.

Larry Larson, Fairfield, IA

~ ~ ~

While I am a PBS fan, I want to encourage PBS to give up Koch, and the like money. I noted that Koch $ were used for the recent cancer program and that it is used for NOVA, and NOVA related programs. In my, admittedly amateur opinion, these programs are way over-produced, and could actually benefit from a tighter budget. As you know, Koch and their ilk are doing ongoing damage to our planet and industry other than chemical/oil related enterprise. Beside improving the production quality of programs, you could send a message to the public and to Koch and their like, by actively refusing all funding from them.

Diana Page, Nashville, TN

~ ~ ~

I have been seeing allegations that the Smithsonian Museum or some other presumably reliable scientifically-oriented museum has opened a display that claims to minimize human contributions to climate change, and that museums are yielding to pressure from a major donor, David Koch. Does Koch actually exert that kind of influence over museums or PBS, and would discussing such questions publicly jeopardize the funding of PBS or the NewsHour?

William Dent, Rockingham, VA

My Thoughts

A couple of thoughts on some of the letters above. There are 15 different financial supporters listed for the cancer series. Most are the usual suspects – foundations, associations and societies. Three are corporations, including Genentech, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Siemens, and there is David H. Koch. Genentech is a major biotechnology company and its work occupies a central part of the narrative in Part Two of the series dealing with breast cancer. That work is important to the story and was powerfully presented. That’s all proper but, ideally, the company should not have been among the series’ sponsors, in my opinion. Nor should Bristol-Myers Squibb and Siemens. All have a heavy stake in cancer drugs and treatment.

As for Koch, he continues to be a lightning-rod for criticism among some viewers. I have some 600 emails over the past two years testifying to this and have written about his role on a number of occasions. The Koch brothers are mega-billionaire industrialists. There are other wealthy supporters of PBS but none that are also such influential and powerful political activists and political funders, and that's the difference. David Koch has a lifelong interest in science and medical affairs. Back in 2006, he gave $20 million to the Johns Hopkins University for what is the David H. Koch Cancer Research Building. That's a fine thing to do but Hopkins is a major force in cancer research and is featured prominently in the series. That seems quite natural but also raises the question of whether Koch's support for the series should have been accepted.

Director Barak Goodman says there was "an impenetrable fire wall" between sponsors and the film's content. An official with Producer Ken Burns' company told me that "Ken asked me to convey that both he and Sid [the author of the book upon which the film is based, Siddhartha Mukherjee] were kept in the dark as to who the funders were until after the show was done." PBS guidelines on whether certain sponsors can cause a violation of the "perception test" in the mind of viewers are more flexible when it comes to programs that have multiple sponsors, as this one had. PBS has a complicated funding model but this is a close call and my view would have been for PBS to have been perceived more purely.

PBS Responds

CANCER is a production of Ken Burns, a long respected PBS producer with an established track record of multiple programs that are noted for their editorial rigor and integrity. PBS Guidelines prohibit funders from having any editorial control, and the three funders in question did not, in fact, have any editorial influence over or exercise any editorial control over this program, which is based upon a previously published book. Our Guidelines further contemplate that there can be instances in which having numerous funders will help mitigate any perception that a particular funder may have exercised any editorial control. With regard to CANCER, the fact that the program was based upon a well-known book and the multitude and the mix of funders qualified these funders in this instance.

On That UVA/Rolling Stone Story Gone Bad

On the Rolling Stone [UVA rape case] story: Why doesn't the NewsHour take any responsibility for poorly reporting the story and not being more challenging when they interviewed the writer of the Rolling Stone story? Should we think of you as rushing to judgment – promoting a false tale-rumor mongering? Your story tonight [April 6] pointed fingers at many – do you owe your audience an apology?

Sandy, OR

My Thoughts

The original interview with the Rolling Stone reporter took place on the Nov. 21 broadcast, soon after the article was published. On Dec. 5, Rolling Stone said that “there now appear to be discrepancies in [the alleged victim] Jackie’s account." The NewsHour posted this in an editor's note on its website on top of the transcript of the Nov. 21 broadcast and that evening of Dec. 5 interviewed the Washington Post reporter who helped unravel the problems with the original story. Two days earlier, on Dec. 3, the NewsHour reported online that it had been trying to get follow-up interviews but the reporter and the magazine had not responded. Then on April 6, the NewsHour had an extended interview with the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism after all the journalistic failures of that story had been investigated and exposed.

You could argue that the NewsHour might have focused earlier and in more depth on its initial handling of the story because the flaws began to be uncovered by other journalists within a week of the original publication. But it was the acknowledgement by the magazine that brought the story back to the NewsHour on Dec. 5 and kept viewers abreast of the unraveling. The April 6 interview with Dean Steve Coll of Columbia was more informative than most, if not all, other TV reports. So, a slow start and strong finish overall. And, in defense of the NewsHour, which has a small staff, you do need reporters that you can assign fulltime to looking into such stories.

Posted on April 10, 2015 at 2:39 p.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?

An old teaching plan revives an even older controversy.

Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Some thoughts about an old “great war” and a new not-so-great one.

The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Viewers call attention to how interview choices can be interpreted in different ways.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an E-mail notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from E-mail update.