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PBS Defends Use of Convicted Felon as Expert on Documentary

‘Frontline’ says it didn’t know about criminal record, but stands by story.

PBS’s “Frontline” defended its use of a convicted felon as an expert in its “Dollars and Dentists” documentary. Phil Bennett, managing editor at “Frontline,” responded on June 28 to the Business and Media Institute, saying the show was “unaware of [Christina] Bowne's criminal record,” and that he did not think it undermined the story.

However, the interview was crucial to the show’s case against the for-profit company Kool Smiles. Bowne’s record takes away from the force of her argument, raises credibility issues and makes the Kool Smiles HR VP’s reason for her termination seem very plausible.

Yet, “Frontline” pointedly defended its use of her story in the documentary. If the show was unaware of her criminal past and how it might impact her credibility, how many other similar interviewees in “Dollars and Dentists” have more to their stories than viewers were led to believe?

PBS launched the program bashing privatized dental firms, which relied heavily on the testimony of Bowne, to support its case against the private dental chain “Kool Smiles.” She was a former office manager for the company, and is now suing the firm for wrongful termination.

However, according to a Virginia Criminal Record report, Christina Summers Bowne was convicted of “obtaining money by false pretenses.” That resulted in a five-year sentence, which was suspended. “Frontline” confirmed that this Christina Bowne and their interviewee were one and the same.

The PBS documentary premiered on June 26, and was made in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity. The hour-long program also relied on other anti-industry interview subjects, such politicians and competitors, to depict for-profit dentistry as bad. Reporter Miles O’Brien, formerly of CNN, was the on-screen personality.

The  Center for Public Integrity’s reporting was based on information from the Pew Research Center. Both the Pew Research Center and CPI are both funded by liberal mogul George Soros. Pew got $500,000 from Soros’s Open Society Foundations in 2009 alone. The Center for Public Integrity received $2,416,000 in Soros funds from 2000-2003.

The Full text of Mr. Bennett’s response is listed below.

On your first point, the FRONTLINE/CPI story that accompanies the film includes this section: 

Bowne is now suing Kool Smiles for wrongful termination. The company’s human resources senior vice president testified in a deposition that she was fired for falsifying business records and tensions with one or more of the dentists. [emphasis his]

On the second point, we were unaware of Bowne's criminal record. We are still gathering the facts since we learned today of the conviction, which occurred 13 years ago and prior to her employment at Kool Smiles. We relied on numerous sources in our report, and Bowne's testimony for the film and text was corroborated by other sources and by documents. We stand by the story as accurate and fair.