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[Update 14th Feb 2014: Following Pando’s exposé, PBS has announced it will return John Arnold’s $3.5m donation.]

While public broadcasting officials won’t disclose the terms of their secret pension programming deal with anti-pension billionaire John Arnold, Pando has learned that those officials are telling viewers they will proceed with the Arnold-funded series as planned, and won’t commit to better disclosing the Arnold connection.

As important, those officials are reiterating that they will continue to use the series to specifically promote the ideological message of the multi-million-dollar legislative campaign that Arnold has been financing across the country. The campaign justifies slashing retirement benefits for police officers, firefighters, teachers and other public workers.

In an email to a viewer asking about why PBS appears to be violating its own conflict of interest rules, WNET’s Associate Director of Member and Viewer relations declares that “segments under the Pension Peril umbrella have and will continue to appear on national public affairs programs like PBS Newshour Weekend and local programs like MetroFocus.” WNET provides no new assurance that those segments will air with any explicit disclosure that anti-pension billionaire John Arnold is directly funding those segments.

Up until this point, the segments have not aired with such explicit disclosures. In its letter, PBS cites a video actually proving what Pando previously reported: that while PBS has occasionally mentioned Arnold in a list of general funders, it has refused to explicitly disclose to viewers that the pension segments are funded by Arnold. Such direct funding of issue-related content from a special interest appears to be prohibited by PBS rules, which may explain PBS’s refusal to explicitly disclose the Arnold connection.

Additionally, in the letter to viewer, the WNET official reiterates that the series is designed to highlight “the massive shortfall for public employees’ retirement benefits.” The ideological presumption of a “massive” shortfall that puts the country into “peril” is precisely the biased perspective championed by the Arnold Foundation. It is forwarded by Arnold and now PBS without question, despite data proving it is, at best, overstated, if not outright inaccurate. As Pando noted in its original report on the secret PBS-Arnold deal:

For example, the series’ title – Pension Peril - is the oft-repeated ideological buzzphrase ofanti-pension campaigners. It also inherently pre-ordains the Arnold Foundation’s conclusion that public pension shortfalls are an imminent emergency (“peril”), even thoughdata prove that is not the case. To the contrary, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes, the shortfalls are “less than 0.2 percent of projected gross state product over the next 30 years” and “even in the cases of the states with the largest shortfalls, the gap is less than 0.5 percent of projected state product.” That’s far less than the amount state and local governments are spending on corporate subsidies. As McClatchy Newspapers has noted: “There’s simply no evidence that state pensions are the current burden to public finances that their critics claim.”

Below is the full text of the letter WNET sent to a viewer. That viewer asked why PBS is not disclosing Arnold’s direct funding of the very pension programming that his political campaign has a vested interest in shaping.

Dear [REDACTED]:

Thank you for taking the time to write to us regarding the recent online article about The Pension Peril. We appreciate your concern and would like to offer some clarification.

The Pension Peril, launched in September 2013, is WNET’s latest two-year multi-platform public policy initiative , introducing millions of Americans to the implications and potential consequences of the massive shortfall for public employees’ retirement benefits. Segments under the Pension Peril umbrella have and will continue to appear on national public affairs programs like PBS Newshour Weekend and local programs like MetroFocus.

The Arnold Foundation is a supporter of this initiative, which has been clearly disclosed on the air on the three PBS NewsHour Weekend broadcasts (produced by WNET) that have included segments funded through this project. You can view the prominent placement of the on-air funding credits as they appeared here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1mvHSy7M5g#t=46

WNET has been an independent media organization for over 50 years and we are scrupulous about our editorial objectivity. Our standards demand that no funder can have editorial control. We do not consult with the Arnold Foundation – or any other underwriter – on our choice of stories and we offer reporting that is even-handed, transparent and thought-provoking.

WNET has complied, as it always does, with all PBS fundraising and editorial rules and with the FCC. Any inference to the contrary is false. We believe the quality and fairness of our work speaks for itself and we hope that you will tune in and decide for yourself if the programming we provide is worthy of your support.
Sincerely,

Colleen Martin
Associate Director, Member & Viewer Relations
WNET
825 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 110019
programming@wnet.org