The Wolf of Sesame Street. Public TV signs a deal with the devil on pension reporting.

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By David Sirota. Read the entire article here.

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 politiciansSuper PACsballot initiative effortsthink 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 operativesincluding 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.

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.

6 thoughts on “The Wolf of Sesame Street. Public TV signs a deal with the devil on pension reporting.

  1. We Are One, but We Are Many!!

    Let’s have MANY calls, e-mails and comments to WTTW 11, WYCC 20, and to PBS national to express our disappointment in their violation of their own policies!

    If someone has or can obtain the phone numbers and e-mails of the higher management of these places please post them here.

    I am especially disappointed in WYCC which I thought was affiliated with the Chicago City Colleges (a public Illinois community college district 508). We must hold them to a high level of integrity and responsibility. Illinois is their state and they should be reporting factual information on the underpayments and pension holidays, and the pension protection clause in the Illinois constitution. They should also be reporting about how teachers in Illinois have no social security, saving the state about 6 1/2 percent of wages. Had the state even put in only 6 1/2% of wages into the TRS, there would be no problem now.
    Even the schools down the street right across the border in Indiana pay social security in addition to a teacher pension system. Any comparison of percentages of wages put into pensions MUST include that information, or it is a distorted, inaccurate comparison!
    A distorted report advocating a political positions on pensions would violate use of public funds and equipment for political purposes. I would suggest they either do a factual report or refuse to broadcast it at all.

  2. I had been a loyal supporter of WTTW over the last several years,but have noticed a marked change in the last two years. Where there are less controversial programs and more British television and “soft” programing. A big supporter of Public Television has been the Koch brothers. I, too, have stopped my financial support of the station.

    When our pension issue came to the forefront they did a very poor job presenting any case for the teachers and state employees.

  3. Fred,

    I called WTTW to inquire as to whether “Pension Peril” is part of its up and coming programming. The person I talked with indicated that “Pension Peril” is not on the schedule of programs at this point.

    Phil Parks

    Sent from my iPhone

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