In December the public TV station WNET in NYC announced it will be creating programs which will be picked up by many local PBS stations and segments of which will appear on The News Hour.
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.”
Oh no! This sounds awful! But what prompted you to do this, Mr. Shapiro?
Thereby hangs a slightly smelly tale.
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.
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 [Laura and John Arnold Foundation, henceforth LJAF] 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.
Worse, this programming was initiated by WNET and Arnold’s foundation was solicited to fund it.
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.
So let me get this straight. One of the flagship stations of our supposedly independent, non-partisan and objective Public Broadcasting System went actively hunting for funding to study a public employee pension “problem,” and it went to an advocate of blowing up the very concept of paying those employees pensions.
Presumably one of the possible models for reform will emphatically not be raising state taxes on citizens to help fund the promises made by local politicians on behalf of those citizens to those people who do the state government’s work. No, I expect the models to be heavy on cutting those pensions and switching new hires into 401(k) programs rather than defined-benefit retirement plans.
Like I said, this smells.