On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.
However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “Pension Peril” is secretly funded by 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.
The Wolf of Sesame Street
In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushinglawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.
Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts.
To the contrary, the Arnold Foundation spokesperson tells Pando that it was PBS officials who first initiated contact with Arnold in the Spring of 2013. She says those officials actively solicited Arnold to finance the broadcaster’s proposal for a new pension-focused series. According to the spokesperson, they solicited Arnold’s support based specifically on their knowledge of his push to slash pension benefits for public employees.
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.
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 $3.5 million, which is earmarked for “educat(ing) the public about public employees’ retirement benefits,” is one of the foundation’s largest single disclosed expenditures. WNET spokesperson 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.
With PBS’s “Pension Peril” series echoing many of the same pension-cutting themes that the Arnold Foundation is promoting in the legislative arena, and with the series not explicitly disclosing the Arnold financing to PBS viewers, the foundation’s spokesperson says her organization is happy with the segments airing on stations throughout the country. However, she says the foundation reserves “the ability to stop funding” the series at any time “in the event of extraordinary circumstances.”
The news of PBS actively soliciting financing from billionaire political activists – and custom tailoring original program proposals for those financiers – follows a wave of damning revelations about the influence of super-wealthy political interests over public broadcasting. Thanks to collusion with PBS executives, those monied interests are increasingly permitted to launder their ideological and self-serving messages through the seeming objectivity of public television.
The stealth Arnold-PBS connection, however, 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.