Charges that a public TV reporting initiative about pensions is ethically compromised by its funding sources led to a fiery exchange today between the funder in question and reporter and columnist David Sirota, who leveled the claims in an article for the Silicon Valley news site PandoDaily.
Sirota pointed out in his story that The Pension Peril, a two-year reporting initiative produced by New York's WNET, receives most of its funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Co-founder John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and former trader for Enron, has contributed to political campaigns urging state lawmakers to reduce pension benefits for public employees, according to Sirota. WNET largely neglects to disclose the relationship, Sirota wrote, though he did turn up a reference on a Pension Peril report's web page.
According to WNET, The Pension Peril has so far delivered reports for two shows that it produces: PBS NewsHour Weekend, which PBS distributes nationally, and Long Island Business Report, which airs on WNET's Long Island outlet. The reporting project examines "the deficit in funding for public employees’ retirement benefits," according to a news release from the station.
The Arnold Foundation has funded dozens of nonprofits in a variety of disciplines over the past two years.
Sirota initially wrote that an Arnold Foundation spokesperson told him "PBS executives" approached the foundation in spring 2013 “with the proposal for the series, having become aware of [the foundation's] interest.” The foundation gave WNET $3.5 million for “educat(ing) the public about public employees’ retirement benefits," with a provision granting it the right to rescind the funding under "extraordinary circumstances."
Sirota describes the funder relationship as a violation of PBS standards. Though PBS's producer guidelines state that "public television does not prevent funders that have conceived ideas for new programs from acting as a catalyst to see their ideas realized on television," they add that PBS does not allow a funder to "pre-ordain the conclusion the viewer should draw from the materials presented." The title of the series and segments that have aired suggest that Pension Peril aims to depict public pensions in a negative light, Sirota argued.
PBS rules also stipulate that funding should be "deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder’s actual compliance with the editorial control provisions" in instances where the funder has a "clear and direct connection" with the topic area, Sirota noted.
A WNET spokesperson told Sirota that the station follows PBS rules. In a response issued Wednesday, the Arnold Foundation said that WNET approached the foundation about the funding, not PBS, as Sirota reported. The foundation was “pleased to support [WNET’s] coverage of a critical issue regarding the fiscal health of our cities and states,” according to the statement.
The statement continues:
From the outset, LJAF has respected and encouraged WNET’s full editorial autonomy. LJAF has never sought to influence in any way the content of the series, its programming schedule or any other editorial matter. Our grant to WNET was made with the explicit understanding that WNET would provide fully independent reporting. There are no provisions in the LJAF/WNET grant agreement relating to editorial content.
The foundation also said that the grant was awarded to “educate millions of Americans on the implications of looming debt and the tough choices ahead as these unfunded liabilities threaten to crowd out funding for education, public safety and other essential public services.”
In his article, Sirota argued that the series has overstated the burden of pension payouts on state and local governments and that the governments could afford the payouts if they reduced subsidies to corporations.
Arnold's statement prompted a response from Sirota, who revised his characterization of the "PBS officials" who approached the Arnold Foundation to "WNET officials acting on behalf of the PBS system."
Even if the Arnold Foundation did not seek to dictate coverage, Sirota wrote, "the question remains: why are both the Foundation and WNET still refusing to release the full terms of $3.5 million agreement?"