How PBS is becoming the Plutocratic Broadcasting Service

By David Sirota , written on February 13, 2014

From The News Desk

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

Just a few hours after anti-pension billionaire John Arnold responded to Pando’s exclusive story about media corruption, public broadcasting officials have now issued their own response - and like Arnold, they are stonewalling. Meanwhile, new questions are being raised about the larger pattern this scandal seems to embody.

Taking the “public” out of PBS

In its response to proof that they violated PBS’s own rules about conflicts of interest, WNET officials said only that “we are scrupulous about our editorial objectivity.” For its part, after Reuters’ Felix Salmon said Pando's report “looks very bad for PBS (and) it’s also bad for Arnold,”  the Laura and John Arnold Foundation issued a second statement, this one claiming “we have nothing to hide” about the PBS arrangement. Yet, tellingly, the Arnold Foundation - like PBS - still refuses to release the full contract between itself and WNET.

WNET officials also once again refused to address questions about why they did not explicitly disclose Arnold’s funding of the pension programming. Pando previously reported that PBS only mentioned Arnold in a long list of funders at the beginning of a few PBS shows, but did not mention that Arnold was explicitly funding PBS’s pension series. In its new response, WNET pointed to just three generalized mentions as alleged proof that it disclosed their Arnold relationship. However, those officials had no comment about why they did not explicitly disclose to viewers the direct funding of the pension programming. They also did not address why they omitted any reference of Arnold in its promotional materials announcing the series.

PBS rules prohibit corporate, political or ideological interests from financing programming that directly involves those interests’ agendas. According to PBS’s website, the rules do this to prevent the entire frame of said programming from “pre-ordaining” conclusions and systemically skewing coverage in an ideological direction.

The “Pension Peril” series, funded by the anti-pension billionaire John Arnold, is a good example of how such skewing works to bias news coverage and suppress contextualizing facts. The individual public television journalists in the series may not knowingly be toeing Arnold’s ideological line when they conduct their “Pension Peril” reporting (indeed, Pando never suggested they were). However, as Pando noted in its original report, the core assumptions baked into the series as a whole - namely, that pensions are singularly creating peril and driving state and local budget crises - are highly ideological and are not substantiated by empirical data.

Those “Pension Peril” assumptions, which often end up protecting corporate subsidies and downplaying the idea of tax increases on the rich, have been reflected in PBS’s pension coverage. Those assumptions also not-so-coincidentally happen to be the very ones being promoted by the Arnold Foundation in state legislatures across the country. Indeed, despite corporate subsidies dwarfing pension shortfalls, the foundation insists in its pension material that the primary “way to create a sound, sustainable and fair retirement savings program is to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to police officers, firefighters, teachers and other public employees.

In its statement, WNET officials did not attempt to explain how their solicitation of Arnold for the "Pension Peril" series funding complies with PBS's own rules.

Putting the “plutocratic” into PBS

Revelations of a billionaire anti-pension activist being permitted to stealthily finance anti-pension content on the public airwaves evokes memories from a decade ago. That’s when the modern campaign to privatize - and plutocratize - public broadcasting first began.

Back in 2005, that campaign involved the scandal-plagued Bush-installed chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting launching a secret probe of PBS programs that evaluated how loyally those shows supported the Bush administration's agenda. Some of those shows were subsequently cancelled, and as the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documents, PBS's news coverage is shifting to the right. Meanwhile, in a report about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, FAIR documents:

In the midst of all of the attention to the CPB’s fight against liberal bias, the agency quietly announced a round of grantees for its “America at a Crossroads” project (6/27/05). Among the projects receiving CPB support are The Case for War, a film about neoconservative Richard Perle made by Perle’s longtime friend Brian Lapping; The Sound of the Guns, a film about former CIA director William Colby made by Colby’s son; Soldiers of the Future, which “will tell the story of Donald Rumsfeld’s recent efforts to transform America’s military”; Warriors, in which American Enterprise editor Karl Zinsmeister argues that the U.S. military “attracts a cross-section of citizens motivated by idealism and patriotism”; and Studying Hatred, a film by David Horowitz co-author Peter Collier.
FAIR notes that “a rival to Fox News Channel could be launched with the list of conservatives who have hosted or produced shows on public television” in recent years. According to the group, those include John McLaughlin, Peggy Noonan, Ben Wattenberg, Laura Ingraham and Larry Elder, Tony Brown, William Bennett, Milton Friedman, Fred Barnes and Tony Snow. Additionally, notes the group,  “Corporate and investment-oriented shows such as Wall Street Week, Adam Smith’s Money World, The Nightly Business Report and CEO Exchange have long been a staple of PBS programming.”

As Pando previously noted, PBS now airs programs like the “Free Markets Series” promoting right-wing voices and financed by a foundation funded by a billionaire Wall Street investor and run by a financier of right-wing political causes. According to American University, it is also scheduled to this year distribute “an extended slate of documentaries” from a right-wing Koch funded front group run by corporate and financial executives and staffed by a panoply of right-wing media voices. One of the programs is about "the evils of the welfare system."

A call for enforcement of PBS’s own rules

In response to Pando’s exclusive report on the Arnold-PBS connection, FAIR and others are calling for action to enforce the rules the public broadcasting system tells Congress it is following.

“Those who created the PBS system were explicit about one thing: Commercial conflicts of interest - from sponsors to corporate owners - affect the kind of journalism that a media outlet can produce,” said FAIR’s Peter Hart. “PBS sets a high bar for themselves; if we want independent, aggressive public broadcasting, then we must hold them to their own standards - especially when they fail to follow their own rules.”

University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney, who studies the tensions between money, politics and media, says one of the core problems is declining taxpayer funding for public broadcasting.

"Because the United States, unlike all other major democracies, fails to provide anywhere near sufficient funding for its public broadcasting system, the system relies upon foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals to bankroll much of the programming, including the news," he said. "These private funders have their own agendas, and their involvement is always a tension for maintaining the integrity of the journalism."

McChesney, a founder of the watchdog group Free Press, cited the Arnold-PBS relationship as proof that ideology is also at work in public television's editorial decisions.

"Let some billionaire bankroll a 'news' series about the dangers of pensions for working-class people for the economy, and PBS faces no great criticism from Capitol Hill, where such views are regarded by the millionaires who dominate Congress as perfectly logical," he said. "Let, say, Bruce Springsteen, offer the same amount of money to bankroll a series on how socialism might be a smart response to the economic crisis, and he probably won't get his telephone call returned by his PBS contact."

Wick Rowland, the former president and CEO of Colorado Public Television, predicts this trend will continue until legislators commit to much stronger financing of public broadcasting.

“There is going to be all kinds of mischief like this when we are telling the system we aren’t going to give it enough resources,” says Rowland, who was the longtime dean of the University of Colorado school of journalism.

He adds that there seems to be a bipartisan consensus to underfund public broadcasting not just because of the expense (which is comparatively tiny), but also because lawmakers fear the implications of a robust public media.

“There is a concern (among policymakers) that if public media becomes too strong and central as it is in other countries, then it becomes a dangerous force to them,” he said. “A strong public media would allow for some of the journalism and other work that public service broadcasting is supposed to do. But that kind of journalism disturbs the apple cart.”

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]