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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27 Responses to “How PBS sold its soul to a billionaire”

  1. melitagnm105 says:

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  2. ComradeRutherford says:

    “Did PBS go to sleep in the 1980s and wake up next to a pod?”

    On several occasions since Saint Ronald Reagan began his war on We, The People, Conservatives in Congress threatened to end ALL CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) funding if they didn’t start slanting their programming toward extremist Conservatism. That order went out to PBS and NPR, and they dutifully started promoting Conservatives and marginalizing ‘liberals’ (normal people).

  3. Bill_Perdue says:

    PBS us the sane as Fox, NBC, CNN, CBS and all the rest. It’s run by people comfortable with the kind of capitalism that encourages and generates wars of aggression, rampant racism and immigrant bashing, homophobia, union busting, misogyny and bigotry.

  4. cole3244 says:

    america continues the drift right and the center is in the rear view mirror to never be seen again.

  5. jared says:

    I think*

  6. jared says:

    I people are referring to much more than the bankers when they say 1%. The term is used very broadly, I was just trying to narrow it down, to place blame exactly where it belongs. I guess it’s just semantics if 1% really only refers to the bankers.

  7. Badgerite says:

    PBS was never on the ‘edge’ in terms of news reporting. What they were and still are is the best cultural and educational resource on television. Some of the best and most ground breaking shows in television have been on PBS. And it worries me to see the Koch brothers name as sponsors of shows like Nova because I do not trust such interests to keep their moneyed, self interested mitts off of the content.

  8. lynchie says:

    Yeah we are going to drag him and his 5 kids onto the front lawn and then drive his cars over a cliff

  9. lynchie says:

    The 1% are the banks and wall street. They are the ones constantly saying SS is bankrupt but fail to acknowledge Clinton, Bush and Regan looted the SS trust fund and never paid it back. MyRA is a way people can set up a personal IRA account.

  10. chris10858 says:

    It seems to me that if PBS is nothing more than a right-wing media tool, then we on the Left should just go ahead and negotiate with Republicans to no longer fund it.

    Ok, Repubs… we’ll let you cutoff funding to PBS if you give us an extra $5 billion towards food stamps and heating assistance for the elderly.

  11. jomicur says:

    Seconded, enthusiastically. The writing was on the wall for the good old non-commercial PBS when they started running…commercials for their corporate sponsors at the beginning and end of each program. At first they were just acknowledgments of sponsorship, brief mentions, but they very quickly developed into mini-adverts. Between that and the never-ending money-begs, which seem to be predicated on a commitment to airing the blandest programs possible in hopes of never offending anyone or ruffling any corporate feathers, PBS sold what soul it had decades ago.

    I swear, these days PBS’s target demographic consists of corporate executives, their wives and mothers, to the exclusion of virtually everyone else (including their children).

  12. Naja pallida says:

    Let’s not kid ourselves, only a fraction of PBS funding has ever come from public sources and “viewers like you”. The majority of their budget has always been covered by corporate donors, or foundations run by corporate donors. The oil industry has been one of the major ones, but companies like Lockheed, Raytheon, Merck, Dow, Sprint, Merrill Lynch, etc, have all been contributors at varying times and for varying amounts. Who knows how much all that corporate cash has changed the concept of public broadcasting.

  13. Naja pallida says:

    Old tactic. This is what happened before we had labor laws and unionization. Work until you die, and when you do die, your family can’t even afford a proper burial.

  14. Naja pallida says:

    It is funny how whenever these kind of things happen, the executives and direct investors always seem to have no problem getting their money back, but somehow the contracted promises a company has made to the people who actually made it function are the first thing to be declared null and void.

  15. 2karmanot says:

    Yep, Ro-money should worry instead about the strength of his front gate.

  16. 2karmanot says:

    Good job Gaius! Oh yes, we in California remember well the ‘screw granny’ crowd. We are also the state that produces scumbag grifters like Darryl IIsa, he of felony and Congressional fame. As for PBS, it’s mismanagement and incompetent President have nearly obliterated its glory days. The entire year seems to be riding on ‘Downton Abby.’ The rest of the year offers reruns so old that one tends to concentrate of set design and other trifles. The news hour is liking watching varnish dry, and the costumes look like Sears and Roebuck’s fashion. The begathon is never ending, offering gimmicky hucksters of health and false hope an opportunity to hawk their CS’s books. and other paraphernalia. PBS is sinking fast. Once ‘Roku’ takes off it will probably ellipse PBS all together. Sad, really miis the old glory days.

  17. nicho says:

    It’s always been the banks, and most recently Obama

    Who are employees of the 1%.

  18. jared says:

    When it comes to pensions and retirement accounts, I think it’s unfair to broadly blame the 1%. It’s always been the banks, and most recently Obama (see MyRA), who have wanted to get their hands on that cash.

  19. Houndentenor says:

    I find the disregard of this all around (not just from judges) revolting. Pensions were negotiated as part of employment contracts. Having been at the table during one of those I know that the employees probably gave something up in lieu of these pensions and now they aren’t there. What that means for me is to get all the money you can up front because your employer (government or private) is going to fuck you over later on and it will be too late to do anything about it.

  20. Houndentenor says:

    Back in 2009, in my one of my last corporate jobs, I was working for investment bankers desperately trying to get their paws on state pension funds. Yanno because they did such a good job with those mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps. It made me want to puke just thinking about it.

  21. emjayay says:

    I don’t see why overpromised underfunded pensions are any problem. You just declare bankrupcy after extracting millions of dollars in management fees and (I think) there is some federal program to pay part of the pensions so you can just fob the whole thing off on the federal government.

    Just ask Mitt Romney how it’s done.

    It doesn’t hurt anyone that matters, only like he said the “47 percent….who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    So really, who cares?

  22. Indigo says:

    It’s the Golden Rule, the real one: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
    But we knew that . . . right?

  23. caphillprof says:

    I find Republican judges cavalier disregard for pension contract rights outrageous. Pensions supposedly were delayed compensation; which means governments are reneging on pay for time already worked. They won’t let a bank lose even 1 day of usurious interest; the working man can gfh.

  24. nicho says:

    There’s an old proverb: “Whose bread I eat, his praises I sing.”

    I knew PBS was doomed the minute they started telling us their programs were financed by “grants” from Archer Daniels Midland, The Petroleum Institute, General Electric, “and people like you.”

  25. gratuitous says:

    New tactic: Sucker them into working their entire careers with promises of job security and a penson for their retirement, then when they come looking for that promised deferred compensation, yank the rug out because now it’s too expensive (oh, and we “forgot” to fund the pensions), and you greedy public employees are trying to break the bank.

    Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t hate public employees, and their job-having ways? Besides, I had to wait in line for 20 minutes (20 minutes!) because they only had two people at the DMV. Oh, and my taxes are too high, and why can’t they hire more people when I want to go renew my license?

    We’ve got buy-in from a lot of likely sources, but also a couple you wouldn’t ordinarily suspect. PBS? Heard of ’em? Oh yeah, right here in my hip pocket.

    Shameful. All the way around.

  26. Silver_Witch says:

    Remember when PBS was a Public Service Station and NPR has really great stories that other media did not carry – now they are all owned by the wealthy – who don’t really care about you.

    Ohhh look a shiny bright thing over there!!! Gotta Run!

  27. Buford2k11 says:

    I was wrong the other day about NPR…It was PBS that I was thinking about…sorry…

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