THE BLOG
05/24/2010 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dancing With the Devil: Public Broadcasting's Questionable Choices in Sponsorships

I love public programming, and it is a part of my daily life. Loving someone, however, doesn't mean being blind to their flaws (ask my boyfriend). As a rabid PBS, PRI, and NPR fan, I am circumspect to criticize they way they choose to keep themselves afloat, especially in this economy, but why do they let the corporate axis of evil -- Monsanto, Exxon, and Wal-Mart -- sponsor their otherwise socially responsible programming?

I was listening to APM's Marketplace when I first heard the announcement that Monsanto was the show's proud sponsor. I thought it was an auditory hallucination. The monopolistic agricultural company -- whose many, many sins include being the leading producer of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, the illegal dumping of toxic waste in the UK, being accountable for 56 contaminated sites in the US, introducing the synthetic bovine growth hormone rGBH, and monopolizing agricultural development through the use of genetically modified corn -- had the chutzpah to make their tagline "committed to sustainable agriculture".

I also can't help but choke every time Exxon Mobile, the company which supported claims that deny global warning, investing less than any other oil company in alternative fuel research, is hailed as the proud sponsor of Nightly News Report, using airtime to tell the public that they are "committed to reducing greenhouse emissions" (maybe they meant they are committed to reducing anything that gets in the way of their profits)?

I don't even want to think about the sponsorship plug for Wal-Mart that was on PBS the other night.

It is no secret that money makes the world go round, or in this case, makes public broadcasting go round (just try listening to NPR during the fall funds drive), but how did these irresponsible corporate conglomerates end up getting their life-sucking tentacles into educational programming?

And while PBS.org maintains that viewers are more likely to purchase an item from a PBS sponsor then a non-sponsor when all other variables are equal, it still seems like Exxon and Wal-Mart are barking up the wrong tree. Those at home watching two hour shows on polar bears aren't doing to swallow that Exxon is an environmentally progressive company. Not only are they more likely to be more knowledgeable about corporate misdeeds in the first place, and thus know when they are being lied to, but they are more likely to hop on a bike then drive in the first place.

While socially conscious businesses cannot afford to spread the wealth the way Coca-Cola (who sponsors Charlie Rose) can, they would jump at the opportunity to contribute to the sponsorship of a like-minded program. Isn't there a way to have somewhat responsible sponsorship? Do PBS, NPR, and PRI really need the worst of all worlds to stay afloat?

If the answer is yes, they could still shoot for a "C" or better when soliciting for sponsorship dollars. If they need the support of big buck oil companies, ok. So keep Chevron (which sponsor's Jim Leher), but ditch the reigning oil-king of evil. If Liberty Mutual continues to fund American Experiences, fine, but if AIG ever comes knocking (which as far as I know they haven't), please, please, please run the other way.

On PBS.org, they give regulating sponsorship a shot, disallowing any ads which include a "call to action," "R rated movies," "vulgar" or "controversial topics." Even if they do decide they need dirty dollars to continue programming, they could at least keep these questionable companies from using public airspace to propagate falsehoods about their business practices. They could up their commercial integrity and keep America's public airways free of at least this kind of pollution by adding one more restriction to their list of regulations- no lies.

Viewers can also help out by upping their support (i.e.: by pledging money) with a note saying more is coming if they ditch the bad guy. I know my next pledge will come with an attached note saying that anytime I hear an add for Monsanto come on, I'm going to cheat on them with KPFK.