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Learning from history: ‘Retro Report’ explores how today’s events are shaped by the past

The PBS series “Retro Report” examines the process of becoming accustomed to risky actions, which helps explain the Challenger disaster. (Courtesy of NASA)

History does repeat itself – and humans could learn from it.

This is part of the theme of the PBS series “Retro Report.”

The one-hour magazine-format series aims to widen the discussion, revealing the story behind the story, providing new insights into how today’s events have been shaped by the past.

The series premieres at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, on PBS.

It is hosted by journalist Celeste Headlee and artist Masud Olufani and features New Yorker magazine humorist Andy Borowitz.

Each episode will explore four stories.

The seventh episode, which will air on Monday, Oct. 28, looks at how risks are measured after the Challenger space shuttle disaster and how current immigration controversies echo the past.

Viewers will also discover the truth behind the infamous lawsuit over hot coffee and the origin of special operations forces.

Bonnie Bertram, producer of “Retro Report.”

Producer Bonnie Bertram traveled to Albuquerque to do an update on the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru on Gibson SE with her grandson. Her grandson pulled over and parked so she could add cream, and the cup spilled onto Liebeck’s lap. She ended up in a hospital with third-degree burns and needed skin grafts.

She asked for McDonald’s to pay her $20,000 to cover her medical bills, but McDonald’s went to trial instead.

In 1994, a federal court jury in Albuquerque awarded Liebeck $2.9 million – most of the money in punitive damages.

Bertram says the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit has often been used as fodder for jokes and impetus for tort reform.

But Bertram says that when she dug deeper, she found that there was more to the story, which will be shown in her piece.

“It was the first time that the attorney from McDonald’s talked,” Bertram says. “She is from Albuquerque, and she explains that it was an industry standard to make the coffee that hot. I think people walked away from having watched this to have a greater understanding.”

Bertram says that when the story broke, there was an in-depth story. Then it began to get reduced to just the headline.

“It was an important story,” she says. “Each time it was written about after, it seemed the context was altered. When you see this case on paper and you see it on the visual, it’s a compelling story. It’s worth more than the 140-character world we live in with social media. The program takes the opportunity to revisit many of these national stories.”

Bertram also filmed part of the segment in the offices of the Albuquerque Journal, which first reported the story.

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