How PBS sold its soul to a billionaire

A short news item, but something you should have on your radar for later. Not long ago David Sirota published an exposé of a scandal at PBS in the online magazine PandoDaily. (That link is here.)

I want to link to Michael Hiltzik’s description of the scandal though, since it gives you more context. Hiltzik’s reporting is based on Sirota’s, so feel free to read both.

Bottom line — There’s a billionaire trying to kill public pension funds and he’s washing the money through his foundation. The PBS station in New York, WNET, sought him out to make a series called “Pension Peril” (see Sirota for who initiated contact). Then NewsHour ran a bunch of segments because the producers wanted to. Then they all got caught (by Sirota).

Did PBS go to sleep in the 1980s and wake up next to a pod? Did News Hour? Here’s Hiltzik writing at the LA Times:

How PBS sold its soul to a billionaire donor

A few days ago the Public Broadcasting Service announced it was returning a $3.5-million grant it had received from a Texas billionaire to fund a series of documentaries about the “pension peril” — the costs to cities and states of their public employee retirement obligations. PBS took the action after a report in the tech news website PandoDaily exposed the conflict of interest underlying the original donation.

pbs-logoThat was the good news. The bad news was that PBS had accepted the funding from a self-interested billionaire in the first place. The worse news is that this sort of fundraising from the rich has undermined what originally set PBS apart — its independence from vested interests.

The $3.5-million grant had been made by John D. Arnold, a billionaire natural gas trader from Houston. The series of news segments on the PBS NewsHour it funded, “Pension Peril,” included an episode on California public pensions. That segment mentioned a ballot initiative being pushed in the state to roll back public employee pensions — an initiative campaign being partially funded by, yes, John D. Arnold (through something called the Action Now Initiative).

Who’s John Arnold? A taste:

Most Californians don’t recognize John Arnold’s name. They should. Before setting up his own trading firm, he was an energy trader at Enron — a firm that ruthlessly manipulated the California energy market, leaving the state’s residents with costs they’re still paying.

And here is the news release telling what “Pension Peril” is all about. Look for the phrases “complex story” and “in-depth”:

Public Television Multi-Platform Initiative Examines Public Pensions in America’s Cities and States

As fiscal crises loom, The Pension Peril shines a spotlight on the deficit in funding for public employees’ retirement benefits

With the recent bankruptcy ruling in the city of Detroit and the aggressive action implemented by the  state of Illinois, the complicated issues surrounding funding for public pensions have been catapulted into the headlines and to the forefront of a national debate.

Across the nation, many cities and states are facing fiscal crises, in part due to overpromising and underfunding their retirees’ pensions and benefits.  Communities struggle to walk the tightrope between cutting essential services to pay for pension benefits, overhauling their pension systems, raising taxes – or all three. There is great debate over the nature and scale of the public pension shortfall, its culprits and causes, and above all, who should bear the cost of setting it right.

But this public policy challenge was foreseen by many. A major report authored by Former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker recently put the crisis into stark focus – and drew public attention to its scale.  Which is why in September of 2013 WNET, New York’s flagship PBS station, launched The Pension Peril.   This two-year, local and national multiplatform 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.

“This is the type of complex public policy story that only public television covers in an in-depth and ongoing way,” said Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET.  “WNET is poised to lead and further the dialogue about this challenging situation all across public media, on PBS, public radio, and online.”

As part of the initiative, segments have appeared on the PBS NewsHour Weekend and Long Island Business Report, covering a range of stories from a model pension system in The Netherlands to the current pension concerns in Illinois and Long Island, New York. A website will serve as a focal point for debate, an aggregator of print and video content, and “virtual meetinghouse” for citizens to share stories, videos, and information about the pension challenges in their cities and towns will launch in February, 2014.

Over the course of the next two years, a dedicated editorial and production team at WNET will be reporting on The Pension Peril throughout the country, producing news stories for the PBS NewsHour Weekend, collaborating with local public TV station producers, commissioning both radio and television documentaries for national distribution, gathering all the material onto a single unified website – a go-to public resource for comprehensive information, data and analysis.

About WNET

As New York’s flagship public media provider and the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than 5 million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS News Hour Weekend, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings available on air and online. …

News, or propaganda? Looks like billionaire propaganda to me, serving the 1% who want your pension money too, since they don’t have enough of their own.

Maybe PBS needs another name besides NewsHour for that show, something more fitting. One of these days, that hard-won 1970s liberal cred will rub off of that network, and then where will they be? Maybe then they’ll look like what they are.

UPDATE: The folks at WNET, producer of much programming for the PBS network, are the folks who got the film “Citizen Koch” cancelled. That story is here. It features several people prominently, including David Koch and James Tisch.

David Koch is and was a high-dollar contributor to public television. As of last year, he sat on the boards of two of the major public television stations, WNET and WGBH. James Tisch, billionaire scion of the billionaire Tisch family, is chairman of the board at WNET. Looks like a 1% op to me.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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