[Update: WNET / PBS has already extricated itself from this specific situation; see “PBS to return John Arnold’s $3.5 million, following Pando exposé” by David Sirota, PandoDaily, 2/14/14. The power of investigative journalism… but this should not be the end of public discussion over attacks on public employees’ pensions. For more background, see Felix Salmon, “How should John Arnold approach pension reform?,” Reuters, 2/16/14.]
By David Sirota, PandoDaily, February 12, 2014
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 “The 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 “The 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 pushing lawmakers 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. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).
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….
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n.b. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation disagrees. Read their text carefully in the light of David Sirota’s rebuttal in “Why won’t PBS release details of its $3.5m deal with a billionaire? Here’s a possible answer” at PandoDaily, 2/14/14,” and “In new letter, PBS promises to continue taking anti-pension billionaire’s money and echoing his message,” 2/14/14]