A two-year investigative series devoted to examining the merits of cutting pensions for public employees was quietly funded by a billionaire engaging in a multi-pronged campaign promoting the tactic, Pando Daily reported on Wednesday.
According to Pando, a spokesperson for the series, Pension Peril, confirmed that the “lead funder” for the show’s production is former Enron trader John Arnold, head of the Arnold Foundation. The group bills itself as trying to remedy the “untenable” state of employee pensions by “educating lawmakers and the public about the nature of the problem,” contacting both political figures and action committees to enlist their support in their campaign to reduce pension benefits.
However, Pando reported, the relationship between PBS, affiliate WNET-TV — which launched the series late last year — and the foundation may violate PBS conflict-of-interest rules. A foundation spokesperson said the network initiated contact with Arnold’s group and pitched the series.
The Arnold Foundation subsequently contributed $3.5 million to WNET for the show to be produced. The spokesperson said the funding may be pulled at any time “in the event of extraordinary circumstances,” but denied that Arnold’s group maintained editorial control over the series.
But Pando reported that several of the show’s segments have neglected to include information that might contradict Arnold’s aims. A report describing the pension situation in New York City as “unsustainable,” for instance, did not mention the $4 billion a year the city makes thanks to economic development subsidies.
PBS states on its website that it uses a “perception test” to gauge whether a funding source is appropriate for a program.
“In general, the perception test will be applied most vigorously to current affairs programs and programs that address controversial issues,” the network states. “In these cases, when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder’s actual compliance with the editorial control provisions of this policy.”
[Image via PBS official Facebook page]