PBS: Bought and Paid For

Strapped for cash, the public station took money from an anti-pension crusader. Then it promoted pension cuts.

David Sirota

Desperate for funding, PBS let itself become a vehicle for the wealthy to advance an anti-pension agenda. (Matthew Hurst/Flickr / Creative Commons)

In a world of screaming cable television hosts and partisan media outlets, PBS is supposed to be the last refuge for honest news. This is ostensibly why taxpayers still contribute money to the public broadcasting system. That money is appropriated to try to guarantee that there remains at least one forum for unvarnished facts, even if such facts offend those with money and power.

Starved for public resources, these outlets are increasingly trying to get their programming funded with money from corporations and wealthy political activists—and that kind of cash comes with ideological expectations.

The problem, though, is that because our government spends so little on public media as compared to many other industrialized countries, our most prominent public media outlets are becoming instruments for special interests to launder their ideological agenda through a seemingly objective brand. Starved for public resources, these outlets are increasingly trying to get their programming funded with money from corporations and wealthy political activists — and that kind of cash comes with ideological expectations. 

Case in point is the Public Broadcasting Service, as evidenced by the major report we published this week at PandoDaily. In that story, we meticulously documented how PBS’s flagship affiliate, WNET of New York, solicited funding from former Enron trader John Arnold. The $3.5 million Arnold contributed was earmarked for a Pension Peril” series now airing in PBS NewsHour broadcasts on stations throughout the country.

If that was the entire story, it might not be much of a story. However, at the same time the billionaire Arnold is funding PBS’s pension-related coverage, he is also sponsoring the nationwide legislative push to slash public employee pension benefits. Indeed, with his massive contributions to Super PACs, think tanks and local front groups, Arnold is financing a national movement to convince legislators to, in the words of his foundation, stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public workers. 

This is likely why the Arnold-backed PBS pension series has loyally echoed the billionaire’s anti-pension themes. Knowing its benefactor’s message, PBS has echoed the Arnold foundation by promoting cuts to public workers’ retirement benefits as the primary solution to state budget problems. PBS has done this in its Pension Peril” segments without mentioning that pension fund shortfalls are dwarfed by the amount state and local governments are spending on taxpayer-funded corporate subsidies. PBS has also done it without explicitly disclosing its connection to Arnold.

For example, as our PandoDaily report documented, WNET did not mention Arnold in its press release announcing the PBS series. Likewise, while PBS did mention the Arnold Foundation in a long list of funders at the beginning of its news programs, it did not tell viewers that the foundation was specifically funding the pension series, much less that Arnold is concurrently leading a legislative push for retirement benefit cuts. Even in the series’ report promoting a pension-cutting ballot initiative in California, PBS did not mention that the series’ own benefactor, Arnold, is a major financial backer of the measure.

All of this, no doubt, is great for Arnold. In exchange for a few million dollars, he has been able to package his political agenda as objective news and then promote it to millions of unsuspecting PBS viewers. 

It is not, though, great for those viewers. PBS’s behavior, which appears to violate its own disclosure and conflict-of-interest rules, effectively turns the network into just another outlet whose journalism is stealthily shaped by monied puppet masters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To preserve some modicum of independent journalism, Congress could simply provide the same amount of resources for public media as other advanced democracies do. Congress could then bar PBS from accepting corporate and special interest funding. 

If it doesn’t, though, then we will get what we now have: a PBS that increasingly removes the public” from its mission and becomes the Plutocratic Broadcasting Service.

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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