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Saturday, December 20, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Tensions Over Pensions

Hold the presses, if there are any of them left operating. Late this afternoon, just after this column was written, member-station WNET in New York and PBS issued a statement resolving the controversy that is discussed below. The joint statement is important, surprising, costly and, in my view, a very positive development. So, unlike a major news story, the major news here is at the bottom.

So, As I Was Saying Before News Interrupted. . .

Two storms blew through PBS in the past two days. One came from above on Thursday, shutting down much of the Washington area (including PBS headquarters) and New York. The other came the day before from an unlikely corner and stirred up the place. It came in the form of a lengthy article posted online at PandoDaily by David Sirota titled: "The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS's news division."

The headline is clever and timely, playing off the Oscar-nominated film "The Wolf of Wall Street," although the article has nothing to do with the esteemed, and independent, "Sesame Street" children's series, and PBS actually doesn't have a "news division."

I have other quarrels with some of the language and characterizations used in the article, but the most important thing about it is that it is important. It shines a light, once again, on what seems to me to be ethical compromises in funding arrangements and lack of real transparency for viewers caused, in part, by the complicated funding demands needed to support public broadcasting, and in part by managers who make some questionable decisions.

Fortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Although I write critically about one thing or another that goes wrong in a vast public broadcasting service, PBS and its stations in the broadest sense adhere to very high standards. My job is to call them on it when they slip, even if they do not agree.

Getting Right to It

Sirota's article was picked up and headlined by many major websites and produced a heavy flow of critical email to me and other PBS destinations. Here's how he started it:

"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 'The 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 'The 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 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."

I have written a number of times over several years about questionable financial support that has attracted my attention and that of some viewers on drones, Dow Chemical, George Shultz, Las Vegas and Koch/PBS. I would urge those interested in this issue to read the PandoDaily article because there are a lot of elements to it.

Some Perspective

But I also think it is important, at least at this stage, to point out a couple of things to readers of this column that jumped out at me as needing some clarifying. First, there is absolutely no question that the issue of un-funded and under-funded liabilities in many states is a very big one and that government pension obligations is a big part of it. So this is a worthy subject.

Second is to state that I am not an expert on this issue but the segments of this series that I saw on television and online did not convey a message of bias to me as a viewer. However I'm open to the idea that for those following this very closely there was a detectable message, as Sirota says, and that there are other potential spending cuts that are better than the pension category and that are not discussed in the series.

Third, it seems to me, in looking into this just a day or two after it unfolded, that this is more an issue of what the New York station, the well-known Channel Thirteen, did than what PBS or even the PBS NewsHour did. PBS does not produce television programs. It distributes programs produced by member stations, all of which are independent, or by independent filmmakers. The PBS NewsHour is produced at WETA just outside Washington, D.C. For all of its almost 40-year history, the NewsHour has been a five weekday-night program. In September of last year, it added a Saturday and Sunday night weekend edition. That program comes under the PBS NewsHour rubric but it is produced by WNET in New York and, as far as I can tell, none of the "Pension Peril" segments have been aired by the weeknight NewsHour.

Finally, Sirota writes: "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 main "wave of damning revelations" that Sirota refers to is the article in The New Yorker magazine by Jane Mayer last year about the Koch brothers that I also wrote about.

This is indeed troubling, but as I wrote earlier there is no actual evidence that the Koch brothers sought to interfere editorially, and the same may be true of the Arnold Foundation. But as I also said at the time, and repeat now, there is clearly a danger of hard-to-prove self-censorship by PBS-related producers somewhere along the line when large funders with political agendas wind up as big-money supporters of public broadcasting.

The Two Biggies

So, this brings me to the two issues where I felt WNET (and PBS if they were part of this) went seriously wrong.

One is that the decision to accept a grant of $3.5 million from the Arnold Foundation, with a stated interest in "public employee benefits reform," flunks PBS's own "perception test," which is part of the service's Funding Standards and Practices. This is long but worth reading. It says, in part: " . . . where a clear and direct connection between the products, services or other interests of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program would be likely to lead a significant portion of the public to conclude that the program has been influenced by that funder . . . the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder's actual compliance with the editorial control provisions."

The other is what I would say is a common-sense failure not to be far more transparent to the viewers about who funded this particular and well-publicized series of segments on the PBS NewsHour Weekend. WNET argues that in all three segments thus far, the Arnold Foundation is listed as a supporter. But they are listed along with all other supporters of the program and not listed or identified anywhere as sole funders of this very specific series dealing with "Pension Peril." The foundation is never mentioned in the press release that accompanied launch of the series, and there is only one line at the end of one online transcript of one segment that mentions where the funding comes from.

The irony here is that because the foundation financial support for this specific series is virtually impossible for an average viewer to find if you depend on WNET to let you know, or unless you happen to know something about the foundation and spot its name in the longer list of Weekend program sponsors, you wouldn't really know they are flunking the perception test.

In all the previous columns I've written about this kind of issue, it was viewers who took offense because the funding and the subject matter were apparent either on-screen or in the text and you could voice your opinion about that. In this case, nobody really knew until Sirota wrote about it.

In a statement issued yesterday in response to the controversy about the handling of these segments, Oregon Public Broadcasting said, in part: "Our view is that while the Arnold Foundation was listed as a funder of PBS NewsHour Weekend, WNET should also have clearly disclosed the foundation's specific funding of the Pension Peril series." Other station managers made the same point to me privately.

Okay, here is the block-buster new statement by WNET and PBS:

WNET AND PBS STATEMENT

Over the past few days, PBS and WNET have been in close consultation regarding the funding for Pension Peril, a WNET initiative that aired in part on the PBS NewsHour Weekend; it looked at the critical issue of the economic sustainability of public pensions. These segments were funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the country, which has interests in many areas including criminal justice, K-12 education and public accountability.

Concerns have been raised about the funding of these segments because pension reform is one area of focus for the Arnold Foundation. While PBS stands by WNET's reporting in this series, in order to eliminate any perception on the part of the public, our viewers, and donors that the Foundation's interests influenced the editorial integrity of the reporting for this program, WNET has decided to forego the Arnold Foundation support and will return the gift.

"We made a mistake, pure and simple," said Stephen Segaller, Vice President of Programming at WNET. "The PBS NewsHour Weekend is a new production and while we thought we were following the guidelines and the correct vetting processes, we were incorrect. WNET sought the Arnold Foundation funding because of our belief that public pensions is an important issue. The Arnold Foundation did not direct or prescribe our reporting, never attempted to do so, and is not responsible for our mistake."

WNET believes that the topic of public pensions is a matter of journalistic importance and will continue to report on it as it has in the past.

PBS and WNET are grateful for the support of the foundations, corporations and individual members of public television stations that together make our mission-driven service possible. With the help of our many stakeholders, we look forward to continuing to provide the public with outstanding content found nowhere else in American media.


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