A Tale of Two Totally Different PBS Programs: America Revealed’s Food Machine and Food Forward

by Sarah Henry on April 11, 2012 · 40 comments

in bay area bites,food films,food politics

[Update: 04.29.12: PBS' own ombudsman concedes that America Revealed, whose sole corporate sponsor is the Dow Chemical Company, fails to meet the broadcaster's editorial standards and policies "perception test." Find out why here. Or read more in the comments.]

Host Yul Kwon skydiving in America Revealed. Photo: Courtesy of Lion Television
Yul Kwon takes to the skies — a lot — in the opening episode of America Revealed called “Food Machine.” Photo: Courtesy of Lion Television

Let’s begin, shall we, with the first episode of America Revealed, “Food Machine,” which sets out to explore the vast, industrial way food is grown, processed, and transported in this country. The four-part series on systems kicks off with its first episode on food on April 11 (subsequent programs tackle energy, transport, and industry).

The 56-minute program is hosted by the Bay Area native Yul Kwon, a former Survivor winner, among his eclectic accomplishments. Okay, let’s get some of the others out of the way: He’s been featured in an issue of People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” A lawyer by training, a graduate of Stanford and Yale, he helped draft the Homeland Security bill, worked for the Federal Communications Commission, and is a now a “daredevil television host,” according to his bio. Oh, and he opened a yogurt shop in Walnut Creek, his childhood hometown.

Regardless, this reviewer has one question for the good people of programming at PBS: What were you thinking?

The episode plays like propaganda (at first I wondered if it was going to morph into mockumentary-like parody, alas no). Everything is bigger and better in this great United States of America, Lion Television, who produced the series, would have viewers believe. (The program is based on an award-winning BBC series Britain from Above, by the independent production company, which has offices in the U.S. and the UK.)

You can practically taste the awe at the sheer scale of things in this land from our brothers and sisters across the pond. America Revealed is beamed at you via bright lights, aerial footage, high-definition video, real-time satellite data — in other words, a bunch of high-tech bells and whistles.

Then there’s Kwon who takes to the skies — a lot — to illustrate, well, to illustrate what exactly? Oh, yeah, this is a vast and complex country. And: I am a sexy survivor who skydives.

During the last century, an American industrial revolution has given rise to the biggest, most productive food machine the world has ever known, the show announces. Look at our marvels of engineering magic that allow 80 percent of the state of California’s water to go directly to Central Valley farms — in an area that was previously a desert — to produce 50 percent of the entire country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Might there be anything misguided about redirecting all that precious water? Just curious. But there’s no time for controversy here, we’re simply going to tell you how it is, with a grin, and move on.

The episode also explores how the U.S. food system feeds nearly 300 million Americans every day — an impressive feat for sure — at a time when less than two percent of the population produces food for the other 98 percent. Well, hello Big Ag.

America has put nature to work, the script explains, with a maddening neutrality that made this writer want to run screaming in frustration from the screen. See how the heartland is composed of massive corn farms, where ag pilots spray more than 40 pesticides — in the bad old days there were only a few! — on crops eventually destined for supermarket shelves.

Find out about the modern invention known as genetically modified corn that fills so many of the products in grocery stores. Could any of this be detrimental to human health or farmland? Just asking. But, no time, we must keep on trucking.

Speaking of corn, discover how clever Americans are feeding corn — not a natural source of food for cattle — to animals who get pumped up supernaturally in industrial food lots, where they’re also given doses of antibiotics and growth hormones for good measure, just so consumers might enjoy a large steak. At low cost. Should we discuss whether all this is good for the animals, land, or humans? Nah. The food machine just “gives us what we want.” Next segment please.

Let’s talk “craveability.” What Americans want, the New York restaurant experts explain on America Revealed, is big servings of so-called “celebration foods” and they want ‘em all the time. Case in point the restaurant hit known as the Bloomin’ Onion — soaked in buttermilk and batter and deep fried, this monster on a plate sells like hot cakes at that embarrassment to any self-respecting Aussie known as the Outback Steakhouse. (Walkabout Soup? Alice Springs Chicken Quesadillas? Chocolate Thunder Down Under? Some marketing guru got rich making this stuff up, but I digress.)

So much of this episode is just uncritical content presented without any context, which does a disservice to viewers like you, who expect more from PBS documentaries.

What if some social studies teacher showed this to a bunch of high school kids? They’d get the impression that the American system of food production and distribution is a well-oiled machine. And that’s just so far from the truth.

To be fair, if viewers stick around to the 40-minute mark, there are a few indications that all might not be golden in The Land of Oz. (Yes, folks, the camera crew visit Kansas and there are even references to Toto in this program.) Colony collapse disorder gets some attention. Those super-size-me steak and fried onion feasts are making Americans fat and fatter we learn. Kwon revisits water in California, but only from the perspective of the expense to farmers. Don’t get me started on the crop-dusting segment.

Towards the end of the hour the show explores the subject of food deserts — places where people can’t find real food to eat, since they only have corner stores that specialize in liquor, Lottery tickets, and cigarettes. One guess where the camera crew is headed? Detroit it is.

The Motor City seems to have become the poster child for urban food renewal for visual media. Pans of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and graffiti graphically illustrate something went horribly wrong in the home of Motown. Cut to images of urban farmers — many African American — growing fresh food for their people in a place that had little for a very long time and it’s clear that the city is undergoing a transformation.

Meet the aptly named Will Gardner, an enterprising edible entrepreneur, who sells his produce at a Detroit farmers’ market, and one of the few bright spots in an episode where a fourth-generation Midwesterner described himself not as a farmer but an “input-output manager.” Oh my.

What else not to like? The overwrought writing and soundtrack, the frenetic images that begin the episode, the host’s mug filmed from one too many planes.

Consider yourself warned.

Edith Floyd of Growing Joy Garden in Detroit. Photo: Greg Roden
Edith Floyd of Growing Joy Garden in Detroit. Photo: Greg Roden

Now, back to Detroit. The pilot of the series Food Forward, which showcases urban agriculture across America, reports on what’s gone down and what’s growing up in the Motor City too. The episode aired April 9.

The sight of Edith Floyd beaming on her bright orange tractor turning what were trash-strewn lots into thriving community gardens loaded with edibles is heart-warming and hopeful.

As are all the stories of urban farmers producing change in their own lives and others, such as IATP Food and Community Fellow Malik Kenyatta Yakini of the Detroit Community Food Security Network. These people don’t pretend they’re going to be able to feed an army let alone the entire country. They just want to do their part to get good food into the hands, mouths, and bellies of the people in their local area. You can’t help but root for these underdogs in this series premiere.

This writer has already covered Food Forward before — in an interview with producer Greg Roden for a previous Bay Area Bites post and in a story featuring writer Stett Holbrook for Civil Eats. Watch this program. Don’t just take this reviewer’s word for it. Food writer Sean Timberlake described the pilot as a celebration of the real food heroes around the country. Indeed.

This 13-part series needs support, just like the people it profiles, who are trying to bring about change in America’s troubled food systems, whether it’s a rooftop gardener in Brooklyn, a hydroponic grower in Milwaukee, or a self-described nugget of deliciousness dropping off boxes of freshly picked produce to neighbors in West Oakland.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

Food Forward: A Sustainable TV Show for All Americans
5 Questions for Food Forward Filmmaker Greg Roden
10 Top Documentary Food Films

 

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra April 11, 2012 at 11:18 am

Just wondering whether Monsanto is one of the sponsor of America Revealed? Thanks for this review. I will not waste my time watching this show. I would have expected better from PBS. What a sad state of affairs! I would think a lot of the viewers would have enough education to react as you did. I’m horrified to know 40 pesticides are sprayed on midwestern crops. But then, glyphosate has been found in rainwater there. It is horrible to think what these toxic chemicals are doing to our health. New research shows trace amounts in food or water can produce effects previously only expected from huge doses.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Wellfleet 2012 Arrives

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Sarah Henry April 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Funny you should raise such a point, Sandy. If you go to the America Revealed site here: http://www.pbs.org/america-revealed/ you’ll see that Dow Chemical is a program supporter. Need I say more?

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Alexandra April 29, 2012 at 9:39 am

To clarify, I meant ALSO a sponsor, as in one of the sponsors. These chemical companies are in cahoots though, without a doubt. My husband happened to zap onto one of these episodes and it showed a map of the USA, areas where natural gas was being extracted for energy. The map included New York and PA where fracking has the most opponents. I believe the operation in New York is still on hold.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Back to the Ocean!

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MyKidsEatSquid April 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for the heads-up. America Revealed sounds more like a Christopher Guest spoof from what you describe than a good documentary.

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Sarah Henry April 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm

That’s exactly who I thought of, MKES, while I watched.

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Ron Shook April 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm

It is nothing more than an hour long commercial for industrial agriculture that actually tries to make some of its worst excesses and practices into virtues. Furthermore, it’s junkfood for urbanites who don’t know peanuts about agriculture and at least until recently, didn’t care.

PBS should be hiding under the corporate bed after showing this junk!

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart April 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I’m a fan of Survivor and all, but it sounds like the host comes off like a real tool. Thanks for the heads up. I would absolutely expect more from a PBS program.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart´s last [type] ..Dog Book Review: Your Dog’s Best Health

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Sarah Henry April 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Nothing personal against, Yul Kwon, whom I don’t know and by all other accounts is a nice guy and a smart person. Just think it was a “goodness of fit” fail in this case.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. April 12, 2012 at 5:37 am

Thanks to your earlier coverage, I’ve been looking forward to watching Food Forward (see what I did there?) and enjoyed the pilot immensely. What a study in contrasts between the two programs!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Going to the Food Prom at The French Laundry

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Sarah Henry April 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Glad you watched, Casey, glad you enjoyed it too.

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Sheryl April 12, 2012 at 10:19 am

Thanks for the warning. I vote for Food Forward. Much easier to swallow.

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Sarah Henry April 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Ha! Very punny Sheryl.

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Heather April 15, 2012 at 7:29 am

I watched this program & was totally appalled by what was unfolding before my very eyes. This was the worst program I have ever seen on PBS. I can’t believe it was allowed to air. I went back to see who was funding it & it was Dow!! Corporations aren’t even trying hide their horrible agendas anymore.

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Sarah Henry April 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Thanks for weighing in, Heather. I’m curious to know more about the funding decisions on this one and whether accepting “support” from Dow wasn’t deemed as a conflict of interest, given the material.

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J. Nicole April 16, 2012 at 7:32 am

Maybe I’m not very smart but as an intelligent viewer, I did not need the narrator to tell me there was a problem. I think he did a wonderful job of being objective while leaving people to determine whether the massive amounts of pesticides which lead to death of bees and the chemical ridden corn that swells animals led to slaughter which end up in the bellies and surrounding the hearts of millions of humans only semi-conscious of having cravings which feed the machine. . .is an issue for them.

I thought the piece had sarcastic undertones and was careful not to offend the intelligence of viewers. I watched this with my 15-year-old daughter and a 38-year-old friend and we all were very disturbed by most of what we saw. I have had a vegetable garden for a few years. My daughter and I are among those transitioning our lifestyles toward healthier eating. My friend had never pulled a weed in life and couldn’t understand what we were looking for when we read the labels on food and why we don’t buy from certain places, yet had several “aha” moments throughout the viewing.

Personally, I didn’t even know this person was from Survivor–I just know that he pointed out some issues that made us even more determined to be conscious consumers. He was charismatic and unassuming.

Of course there’s always some bias or some ulterior motive behind showing the tip of the iceberg in such issues. But bells and whistles don’t always mean bad reporting. If the message is being accessed perhaps there are individuals who will find themselves seeking more information and will come upon sites like these which can either further the conversation on solutions and literacy or engage in elitist green banter pitting one angle against another in a “documentary war”? – - wow and now people are vowing to not even watch the show as they rely on the opinions of others. I am so impressed with where post-secondary education has propelled us.

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Sarah Henry April 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I appreciate you chiming in and sharing a different point of view, J. Nicole. For clarification: My intention was not to set up a “documentary war” — if you’re indeed referring to the juxtaposition of the two films here — but to simply note the stark differences in style, approach, and content of two food films airing close together on public television this month.

People can, and should, see for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

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Stephanie at Naturally Mindful April 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I sort of agree with J.Nicole. I don’t think this was a bad show or poor reporting. In my opinion the problem is that as PBS viewers we come to expect more and this program was a “this is what it is and we won’t go into pros and cons here” and if viewers are not aware of the problems with our current food system one would sort of believe nothing is wrong but most PBS viewers are aware of the problems and would now how to read between the lines. This show is fine if it’s aired somewhere else but falls short for PBS conscientious viewers. And in my understanding after reading your post Ms. Henry, that is what you were trying to say?

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Andrea Nguyen April 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm

So great to see Joe Morris and the other sustainable food warriors highlighted. I’ve been buying grass-fed beef from Joe for years. He’s one of the best stewards of our land. His beef is darn good too!
Andrea Nguyen´s last [type] ..Ippudo Ramen in NYC

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Sarah Henry April 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Hi Andrea, Nice to see you here and thanks for providing some personal context to Joe Morris, who is featured in Food Forward.

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plow your yard April 16, 2012 at 8:42 pm

They also neglected to mention during the sequences shot in Kansas that while the irrigation system is a modern marvel, all that picturesque farmland will return to dust should the Ogallala Aquifer be endangered.

The US Geological Survey estimates that total water storage was about 2,925,000,000 acre feet (3,608 km3) in 2005. This is a decline of about 253,000,000 acre feet (312 km3) (or 9%) since substantial ground-water irrigation development began, in the 1950s.

source: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2007/3029/

I guess the farmer DID say pumping water gets more expensive every year, but I don’t think he was speaking metaphorically.

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plow your yard April 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Sadly “Food Forward” is not airing on my local PBS affiliate.

DOW chemicals indeed.

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plow your yard April 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Sorry to hijack your comments section, Ms. Henry.

“America Revealed” upset my sensibilities in much the same way it offended yours.

The family farm in Garden City, KS on “America Revealed” featured the self-described “input-output manager,” Stone Acres Inc. representive Greg Stone. He is also interviewed in this strange item in the Washington Post during the 2008 campaign season:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/hard-times/2008/10/conflicted_in_kansas.html

In the comments section Mr. Stone responded to reader criticism. I found this exchange fascinating.

I have no personal agenda to promote or axe to grind with Greg Stone — i’m just googling way past my bedtime.

As the Washington Post’s comments section suggested, i googled up-to-date stats on the Stone farm.

According to the farm subsidy database, from 1995-2010 Stone Acres Inc. has collected $ 1,416,077.76 in support.

http://farm.ewg.org/persondetail.php?custnumber=A06794807

Ag policy is mind-boggling. Curious to hear your thoughts : P

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Sarah Henry April 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

You’ve provided plenty of food for thought on this thread, plow your yard, thanks for chiming in.

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Jeanine Barone April 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm

It’s so typical of a corporate-funded program to be biased. I hadn’t seen either of these programs but, clearly America Revealed would not be my thing. That is, unless I wanted a program that reminded me of the spoofs directed by one of my faves, Christopher Guest. Very surprising that PBS would’ve allowed this to air.

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Sarah Henry April 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Well said, Jeanine. It did have a bit of the Christopher Guest about it, for my money.

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Sarah Henry April 29, 2012 at 8:40 am

Readers:

I want to bring your attention to this post by PBS’ own ombudsman, “Flunking the Perception Test,” with regard to the broadcaster allowing Dow Chemical Company to act as a (and in this case, sole) corporate sponsor for the series “America Revealed”. Bottom line, ombudsman Michael Getler writes: “I would have voted for finding a different sponsor for this one and not gamble on testing the audience and the perception test.”

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2012/04/flunking_the_perception_test.html

Turns out hundreds of viewers wrote to complain about the chemical company’s support of a program that addresses such subjects as pesticides and GMOs. Some of these emails were in response to a critique of the funding choice by media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Details here:

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4522

For context, here is my own trajectory on this story: I was assigned by my editor at KQED’s Bay Area Bites to write a review, which ran April 2 on the site and was cross-posted on my own site, Lettuce Eat Kale, on April 11, when the “Food Machine” episode went to air.

The review copy I watched and the press release I had, dated January 9, made no mention of Dow’s involvement. (A press releases from February 22, which I did not see prior to publication, includes this line: “Support for the premiere airings of ‘America Revealed’ is provided by Dow Solutionism.”)

In my post I link to the “America Revealed” website, which includes a small Dow logo in the banner and references the company as a sponsor. I don’t recall seeing that when I linked to the website, but it may well have been there and I may have missed it. In any event, had I been aware of Dow’s funding role in this series I would have flagged it in my review.

Regardless, after the air date, when readers, viewers, and an anonymous source within PBS brought to my attention that Dow was a corporate sponsor, I proposed a follow up story for KQED to investigate the potential conflict of interests (perceived or otherwise) in this case. I went back to KQED, as a professional courtesy, since they had commissioned and paid for my original review. Given my review, the resources required to follow up, and the fact that KQED aired the program, I fully expected that they would pass on a second story and suggest I should pursue it with another media outlet.

I pitched doing a follow up on April 13 and received a no thank you on April 26, last Thursday. I then began pursuing alternative outlets for this story. That’s when I ran across the FAIR article, dated 4/23/12, and the PBS Ombudsman piece, dated 4/27/12.

Stay tuned for any further developments.

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Ken Bloomer April 29, 2012 at 10:27 am

America Revealed looks like a program I’d enjoy watching! You just have to mentally fill in the facts and issues they fail to explore. Will it be downloadable from the PBS website?

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Sarah Henry April 30, 2012 at 8:30 am

On the site you can watch some segments and there’s a link if you want to buy the DVDs but I don’t see anything that suggests the series is downloadable. But you can always ask, Ken.

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Ron Shook April 30, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Ken,

You can watch it on the PBS site here:

http://www.pbs.org/america-revealed/episode/1/

My opinion is that you should do so if you enjoy malarky and distortion. (grin)

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Ron Shook April 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm

P.S. If you want to see something about American Agriculture that shows real genius and knowledge intensive farming watch this presentation with powerpoint by Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer, to a group of California farmers. The video is marginal, not like the slick Dow production, but I expect that you will be as enthralled as I was.

He is a marvelous showman who keeps his audience laughing with discovery, and giggling at his bumbling satirical mimicry. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a crackerjack businessman. Joel knows and shows a big picture, ethical/ecological understanding. He doesn’t reject technology, but only accepts that which works and is necessary. How he urges and mimics natural ebbs and flows of nature’s energy with small hits of technology is absolutely fascinating.

The presentation is in 2 youtube segments. In the first segment, Joel’s presentation starts around 22 minutes in, however, the warm up acts earlier are no slouch either, consisting of disciples of his methods in different locals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEzonjuxQU4&feature=related

Part 2 is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdzj0IrPOp4&feature=watch_response

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Ken Bloomer May 2, 2012 at 3:35 am

What are we to make St. Joel? In this recent response to a NYT editorial, he freely admits to feeding GMO crops to his poultry and pigs as part of their diet. I suppose no system is pure, or perfect. What I would NOT say is that Salatin is a mouthpiece for Monsanto propaganda:

https://www.facebook.com/Polyfacefarm/posts/10150655771121105
Ken Bloomer´s last [type] ..Musings, how to separate wheat from chaff

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Sarah Henry May 1, 2012 at 7:08 am

You are correct, Ron, regarding watching “Food Machine” on the PBS site. Thanks for providing that link.

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Sarah Henry May 1, 2012 at 7:09 am

And thanks for pointing readers to the Joel Salatin video.

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Ken Bloomer May 1, 2012 at 7:54 am

Want to see the whole Food Forward program, but clearly the two programs have 2 vastly different perspectives. Food Forward features some inspiring local anecdotes, while America Revealed is a top down view of systems and infrastructure. It’s a series, and only this one episode is about food systems. I expect that Dow Chemical didn’t much influence the content. Will be interesting to see if you complain about Dow sponsoring the transportation episode, or the education one.
Ken Bloomer´s last [type] ..Musings, how to separate wheat from chaff

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Sarah Henry May 1, 2012 at 9:03 am

Ken: As you might imagine for a writer who’s blog is called Lettuce Eat Kale, I cover food, and it was in my capacity as a food writer that I critiqued the “America Revealed” first episode called “Food Machine.”

Subsequent episodes cover transportation, electricity, and manufacturing — not my areas of expertise professionally — so I will leave it to other writers to weigh in on those episodes. The series covers systems and networks and there is no episode on education, as far as I’m aware.

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Alisa Bowman May 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

Well, I guess this is what happens when corporate sponsors come into play. It’s probably more maddening because it’s PBS. Had this been shown on FOX, no one would have noticed because it’s what people expect from FOX. But it’s not what people expect from PBS, which usually has smart programming.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..4 Reasons Irritating People Are Gifts

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Katie February 27, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Personally, I thought it was an interesting piece. I actually like that for the most part, the film is actually pretty neutral to either side of the ‘food war.’ It presents information about how our country gets most of it’s food. It isn’t advocating either side, or condemning either side. It is informative, not opinionated. I like being able to see all of this. It really is amazing that we can produce enough food to feed our entire country. Now, there may be some problems with the system, but that’s not what this film was about. It wasn’t about pointing fingers or blaming; it was about showing us how we get the food we do. No elitist attitudes about our food; just some facts. I thought it was nice that other people’s Utopian or big business agenda’s weren’t shoved in my face. Now, the Dow sponsoring thing is a little suspicious, but I didn’t see any push or advertising for them. I realize they can influence the way the film went, but really, watching that film, knowing that I am already pretty informed about the state of our food system and natural resource use, I didn’t see much of that. Yeah, maybe giving some awe-inspiring panoramics and tones, but I don’t mind that. I like it.

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