"I think they can feel confident the program they're sponsoring is not going to sponsor investigative journalism about genetic engineering or pesticide use." - Sheldon Rampton, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy
Corporate-sponsored PBS Documentary Riles Small Farming Advocates
by Christopher Getzan
The New Standard
Environment, consumer, agriculture and media watchdogs say the production of upcoming PBS show America's Heartland exemplifies the problem of major corporations driving television journalism.
Aug 23 - A new television series set for distribution this fall to public TV stations across the country is drawing fire from activists who say its funders exploit a model of factory farming that has profoundly undermined the same rustic lifestyle the program is meant to showcase.
The telecast, America's Heartland, consists of twenty half-hour episodes produced by PBS affiliate KVIE in Sacramento and is based on a popular, long-running KVIE broadcast called California Heartland. While the bulk of the new national program's underwriting will be provided by the farming trade group the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and biotech giant Monsanto, the show is also receiving financial support from other large farming associations such as the National Cotton Council, United Soybean Board and the US Grains Council.
While the Department of Agriculture noted in 2001 that the vast majority of farms are still family-run, half of all agricultural sales were concentrated among just two percent of farms.
Without actually having seen the show, which producers are keeping under wraps, advocates for family farming and the environment are engaged in a campaign to dissuade local television stations from running the series. They cite the main financiers’ involvement in technologies and policies that undermine small farmers as cause for their assumption that the programming will offer a distorted picture in documentary form.
"Our opposition really stems from how they went about finding funding for the program," said Chris Cooper, a spokesperson for Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), which has been organizing around the announcement of the program. "While it might be fine for Exxon to fund a program on Masterpiece Theatre, it wouldn’t be for a documentary on oil."
More importantly, Cooper said, GRACE believes the pastoral theme of the program will breed misconceptions about the state of rural life to the urban and suburban audiences for which the America's Heartland will likely serve as a primary window into agrarian life in the US.
"The problem is that when you're talking about farmers or rural America, it's impossible to tell an accurate story without telling about the role of agribusiness," said Ben Lilliston, Communications Director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), "The sponsors of that program are kind of the spearheads behind the movement for factory farming."
The number of US farms has been rapidly declining since the 1960s. While the Department of Agriculture noted in 2001 that the vast majority of farms are still family-run, half of all agricultural sales were concentrated among just two percent of farms.
Lilliston said Monsanto and the major farming trade associations "rely on the mythological view of the farmer to sell their products."
In a letter sent to public television managers about America's Heartland, 70 groups including IATP, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, and the Organic Consumers Association suggest stations should either forego showing the series or schedule complementary programming to expose Heartland as a "piece of propaganda."
The coalition leveled a harsh critique of what it expects the controversial new series entails.
"The destruction of America's rural communities and the disappearance of its small farmers is an important story that needs to be told," the letter reads. "This story, one of rural depopulation, dwindling economic opportunities, industrial levels of pollution and their attendant health and social concerns, is the ugly reality of the excesses that come from the unregulated large-scale industrialized agricultural system promoted by corporate America."
The signatories say they are concerned that Heartland is "being produced to put a friendly face on the very forces that are causing these problems."
They point out that Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau promote policies that "place the US food supply into the hands of a few major corporations" by pressuring politicians to keep federal subsidies flowing to large agribusinesses.
"A significant part of these subsidies then flows directly to Monsanto from the purchase of genetically modified seed and artificial hormones to increase milk production at mega-dairies that put small farmers out of business," they write.
But the documentary's creators say that criticism is premature.
Jim O'Donnell, director of program marketing for KVIE, said the only difference between his station’s parent program and the new America's Heartland spin-off is "geographical coverage."
"The tone, style, and content of the show, the mission of the show, was well-established in the eight years" it ran on KVIE, said O'Donnell. "When we contemplated a relationship with Monsanto, KVIE exercised due diligence and found them to be acceptable to the goals of the show. Their mission in this is the same thing as the show’s."
That mission, according to O'Donnell, is to "educate a non-farm audience about how food gets from farm to table. It's not an issues-based show."
GRACE's criticism, O'Donnell said, is baseless for two reasons. First, he says, California Heartland's educational value is proven by the large audiences in California's largest, most highly concentrated urban TV markets, like San Francisco. Additionally, the farm community’s response to the program was "overwhelmingly positive."
Second, says O'Donnell, is that no one outside of KVIE has actually seen America's Heartland.
"I'm surprised at the criticism," said O'Donnell. "Nobody's seen the show" The criticism, he said, "is not based in any factual review of the program. I don't know how they do it. If you haven't seen the example, I'm not sure how anybody who has any opinion is basing that in fact."
Monsanto spokesperson Lee Quarles defended the company's involvement in the funding. "If you look at why we got involved, by far the most important reason was that farmers wanted their stories to be told," he said. "We recognized we have a role to play because we are in the agriculture industry."
O'Donnell, Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau Federation refused to furnish The NewStandard with figures on the funding corporate big-leaguers are injecting into Heartland, but O'Donnell said the only "deliverables" returned to Monsanto or AFBF are underwriting credit on the show.
"We have a relationship, clearly, but it doesn’t include content," O'Donnell said. "We are enjoined in a regulatory manner and a very strict guideline manner."
O'Donnell said that even Monsanto and the Farm Bureau have only seen the trailer for America's Heartland. "And certainly," he said, "Monsanto and the Farm Bureau would have an interest in a program that would have an interest to their constituencies," noting that "the content will speak for itself."
Cooper acknowledged that GRACE and its partner groups had not seen America's Heartland yet, but "there's at least the perception the content’s going to be biased," he said. "We don't want to come across as fundamentalists, but it seems to violate the guidelines of [distributors American Public Television] and PBS."
Lilliston said Monsanto and the major farming trade associations "rely on the mythological view of the farmer to sell their products," and that the big agribusiness firms are using the program to "create this kind of sense among the urban audience that they're supporting farmers when they buy or use" Monsanto products or goods backed by the large trade councils.
Sheldon Rampton, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, a media watchdog group, said a series like America's Heartland can poison news-gathering at cash-strapped and politically insecure PBS stations. "The [funders] understand [station programmers] have a limited news hole," he said, and "when someone else proposes programming [on a similar subject], they can say we've already covered that topic."
While the program's underwriters may not exert control over editorial content, Rampton said he is "sure that Monsanto and company have a pretty good idea about what shows are going to be broadcast." He added, "I think they can feel confident the program they're sponsoring is not going to sponsor investigative journalism about genetic engineering or pesticide use."
Bottom line, Rampton said, "They get their name[s] associated with the phrase 'America's heartland,' and just by virtue of sponsoring this, the programming being sponsored fits their vision of the world."