The press has had some transparency issues of its own, however. In late January, PBS’s NOVA program caught some flak when it aired an hour-long documentary, “Rise of the Drones,” which listed Lockheed Martin, a major defense contractor and drone manufacturer, as one its funders.

Firedoglake, a self-described “progressive news site and action organization,” charged that Lockheed’s support was a violation of PBS’s underwriting guidelines, which outline three tests to determine the acceptability of money:

  • Editorial Control Test: Has the underwriter exercised editorial control? Could it?
  • Perception Test: Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?
  • Commercialism Test: Might the public conclude the program is on PBS principally because it promotes the underwriter’s prod¬≠ucts, services or other business interests?

Firedoglake felt, quite reasonably, that Lockheed’s support for the documentary on drones failed the last two tests because the program covered some of the company’s technologies and business partners without acknowledging the connections. Moreover, the media watchdog organization FAIR pointed out, though the broadcast included Lockheed’s underwriting credit, it was missing on in the online version.

I contacted PBS last week to ask about the omission, and spokeswoman Jan McNamara provided the following statement:

While the sponsorship of NOVA by Lockheed Martin has now ended, given our commitment to transparency, PBS and WGBH [the producer of NOVA] have decided to add a clarification to the program’s Web site, in the streaming version of the episode and future broadcasts that will read as follows:

“‘Rise of the Drones’ is produced by WGBH, which maintains complete editorial control over all episodes of NOVA. Lockheed Martin was a minor funder of the NOVA series at the time this program was broadcast. Lockheed Martin produces the RQ-170 Sentinel drone technology mentioned in the program.”

NOVA’s producer denied the charge that it had broken any rules by taking Lockheed’s money, however. When PBS ombudsman Michael Getler followed up on the posts from Firedoglake and FAIR, he received the following statement:

WGBH fully adheres to PBS funding guidelines and takes our public trust responsibility very seriously. With regard to NOVA “Rise of the Drones,” Lockheed Martin’s sponsorship of NOVA is not a violation of the PBS underwriting guidelines. First and foremost, Lockheed Martin, like all WGBH/PBS program funders, had no editorial involvement in the program. Their credit on this episode was part of the ongoing recognition they have been receiving for their support of the NOVA series since January 2012. Their credit is included, along with other funders, for episodes in that period; their funding is not directed to or connected with any particular episode.

The difference between operational funding and program-specific funding is a technicality that would be lost most viewers, however, and Getler came down on the side of Firedoglake and FAIR, writing:

I think the Lockheed funding does present a perception and commercial test problem for PBS. My feeling is that this particular program would have been much better off without Lockheed support. That is easy for me, an outsider, to say when it comes to finding funders for programs.

The conflict-of-interest notwithstanding, Getler said that “Rise of the Drones,” was a “good and useful program.” And in a way, it was. As FAIR noted, the documentary had a “generally upbeat tone,” but it did acknowledge the controversies surrounding targeted killings and civilian deaths. Still, it fell short of the morally penetrating reporting that McKelvey highlighted in her analysis for Harvard.

With so much obscurity in the federal government, we need journalists who both fight for transparency and uphold it themselves.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.