NOTE: After this post was published, The New York Times reported that PBS has returned a $3.5 million grant it had received from the right-wing Laura and John Arnold Foundation to produce a series of reports on what it called "The Pension Peril." The PBS decision was a response to reporting from David Sirota, a former fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, that is detailed below.
A few months ago a Campaign for America's Future report authored by writer David Sirota exposed the work of conservative financier John Arnold, who with the Pew Charitable Trusts has engaged in a campaign to dismantle public pension programs in states around the country.
Now, Sirota reports, Arnold is using his money to turn the Public Broadcasting Service into another megaphone for his campaign.
Sirota wrote this week that the Laura and John Arnold Foundation gave PBS flagship station WNET $3.5 million to finance a series of reports called "The Pension Peril."
Sirota noted in his initial report:
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.
Nonetheless, Sirota writes that it was WNET officials who approached the Arnold foundation with a funding request, fully aware of Arnold's ideological agenda.
In a Friday report on the Pando Daily website, Sirota writes that PBS officials have refused to release the full grant agreement between Arnold and the network. Network officials insist that the funding from Arnold does not give him editorial control of the pension series, but they have conceded that "the contract gives Arnold the right to cut off funding for the series for 'extraordinary circumstances.'"
Sirota responded that it would not take "extraordinary circumstances" to exert what he calls "de facto editorial influence." If the grant funding is distributed in installments, as such grants frequently are, that would give Arnold's foundation opportunities to pull the funding plug "if it does not like the ideological tenor of the PBS pension coverage it is financing."
A follow-up report includes a statement by a WNET official responding to a viewer complaint about the pension series that the series is designed to highlight “the massive shortfall for public employees’ retirement benefits.”
"The ideological presumption of a 'massive' shortfall that puts the country into 'peril' is precisely the biased perspective championed by the Arnold Foundation," Sirota notes. "It is forwarded by Arnold and now PBS without question, despite data proving it is, at best, overstated, if not outright inaccurate."
The PBS-Arnold scandal "raises serious questions about journalism, transparency and even the basic definition of news," Sirota writes. One of the biggest questions: "Should news organizations permit politically active billionaires – a k a those with, say, a vested self-interest in thwarting high-income tax increases to replenish pension shortfalls – to specifically fund 'news' programming about budget policies?"
And should PBS be allowed to hide the financial arrangements it strikes with donors to fund its public broadcasting?
Sirota will continue to probe John Arnold and "the plot against pensions" at Pando Daily.
This post has been updated with links to new reporting by Sirota.