PBS News Division At Center Of Corruption Allegation

A new PBS series on pension policy in America is secretly funded by a billionaire who formerly worked at Enron, a journalist claims.
By @LesNeuhaus |
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    Any police officer, teacher or janitor who works in city government until retirement and expects well-planned pension benefits should be worried about the status of his or her economic future.

    Powerful anti-pension lobbyists want to take that entitlement away from the masses, and they’re willing to bring the media in on their crusade, according to a journalist working for the San Francisco-based news website Pando Daily.

    In his piece on Wednesday, “The Wolf of Sesame Street,” David Sirota, an investigative journalist, author and nationally-syndicated columnist, alleges that the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET in New York is colluding with “former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering” in a new two-year news series entitled, “The Pension Peril.”

    The announcement of the show on Dec. 18 in a press release by WNET said the “reporting initiative will shine a spotlight on an expected $1 trillion-plus shortfall in funding for public employees’ retirement benefits, and what it means for cities and states, retirees and current workers, and taxpayers. “The Pension Peril” will introduce millions of Americans to the tough choices ahead and possible models of reform.”

    Sirota asserts the series, airing on hundreds of PBS outlets in the U.S., promotes “cuts to public employee pensions” and has been “presented as objective news on major PBS programs including the ‘PBS NewsHour’” and is “secretly funded by” Arnold’s lobbying group, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

    Sirota claims the foundation employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey. According to its promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is “pushing lawmakers in states across the country ‘to stop promising a (retirement) benefit’ to public employees.”

    Public employee pensions are becoming an albatross to local, county and state budgets, as many cities have discovered since the great American economic downturn just a few years ago and drumming up money to stay afloat can be difficult. Making sure public schools, police departments and other basic services are properly funded can be tricky.

    Retirement benefits for public workers were long-considered untouchable by economic circumstances. Not so anymore, as the case in Detroit’s spiral toward bankruptcy has proven, with a federal judge warning in December that the troubled city’s public employee pensions were not protected in a federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy. And more and more government administrators are realizing pensions are crowding the funding for other basic services.

    It’s a scary reality for thousands of people who worked under the city’s tenure for decades and are expecting that monthly check and health care coverage.

    What’s scarier is the idea anti-pension activists like Arnold are working feverishly to change policy with respect to pension obligations across the U.S. But who contacted whom first between WNET and the Arnold Foundation? (WNET acts as a PBS representative when entering into agreements.)

    PBS did, according to the foundation.

    “The foundation’s spokesperson said PBS executives approached Arnold ‘with the proposal for the series, having become aware of LJAF’s interest’ in shaping public pension policy, and moving that policy toward cutting retirement benefits for public workers,” Sirota reported. “According to newly posted disclosures about its 2013 grantmaking, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation responded to PBS’s tailored proposal by donating a whopping $3.5 million to WNET, the PBS flagship station that is coordinating the “Pension Peril” series for distribution across the country.

    The donation, categorized under “venture development” on the foundation’s website, says the $3.5 million is for “educat(ing) the public about public employees’ retirement benefits.” Sirota goes on to say it “is one of the foundation’s largest single disclosed expenditures.

    WNET spokeswoman Kellie Specter confirmed to Pando that the huge sum makes Arnold the ‘anchor/lead funder of the initiative.’ A single note buried on PBS’s website — but not repeated in such explicit terms on PBS airwaves – confirms that the money is directly financing the ‘Pension Peril’ series.”

    So, is this new? No. Is it unethical? In this case, yes, Sirota argued. The Arnold-PBS situation “represents a major escalation in the larger trend. In this particular case, PBS seems to be defying its own rules and regulations about conflicts of interest. At the same time, the fact that PBS is obscuring the financial arrangement suggests the network may be deliberately attempting to hide those conflicts from its own viewers.”

    Initially, both PBS and the Arnold Foundation refused to provide Pando Daily with any contract details, but after Sirota’s piece was published, John Arnold issued a statement via Twitter, saying Sirota “made false and incendiary allegations regarding Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s relationship” regarding the WNET grant.

    In that response, which Sirota parsed in another Pando Daily post, the “Arnold Foundation’s new statement insists that under the formal agreement cemented with public broadcasting officials, public television stations would be permitted to ‘provide fully independent reporting.’

    The Arnold Foundation now says ‘there are no provisions in the LJAF/WNET grant agreement relating to editorial content.’ And the foundation in its statement goes on to disclose more explicit terms of the contract it signed with public broadcasting officials.”

    Sirota said that PBS is violating its own rules and regulations by “categorically” refusing Pando Daily the access to review the details of the agreement, since PBS is also taxpayer funded “and therefore ostensibly (a) public institution that watchdog groups insist is subject to basic Freedom of Information Act regulations.”

    Has the agreement between WNET and the Arnold Foundation violated any PBS or Federal Communications Commission rules? The grant agreement would be needed to made public for that to be determined.

    Neither PBS nor WNET has issued a statement in response to the Pando Daily story.


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