Enron Billionaire Funds Public TV "News" Series, Parroting his Opposition to Public Employee Pensions

Posted March 5, 2014

MP3 Interview with Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, conducted by Scott Harris


In an investigative piece titled, “The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS’s news division,” published on the news website Pando Daily, journalist David Sirota wrote about a Public Broadcasting Service news series titled, “The Pension Peril,” which advocated cuts to public employee pension benefits. The “Pension Peril” series, scheduled to be broadcast by PBS stations across the country over the course of two years, Sirota reveals, was secretly funded by former Enron company trader and billionaire, John Arnold.

Arnold, who had donated $3.5 million to PBS for the production of the Pension Peril series, is a passionate and longtime critic of public employee pensions. According to Sirota, Arnold has made large contributions through his foundation, to politicians, political action committees and thinktanks to advance his campaign “to slash public employee retirement benefits.” Disturbingly, the PBS series presented views critical of pension funds very similar to that of its funder, without revealing to the audience the source of its financial support.

However, just two days after Sirota’s investigative piece was published on Feb. 12, an embarrassed PBS management announced it would return the $3.5 million provided by John Arnold. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, who now serves as the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. Here he discusses the obvious conflicts of interest and ethical violations that occur when media outlets allow their funders to influence the content and political spin of their journalism.

JEFF COHEN: The funder of this, to the tune of $3.5 million, [was] a former Enron trader, a hedge fund manager named John Arnold. John Arnold has gone all over the country funding political efforts, ballot initiatives, think tanks, efficacy groups, that push toward the cutting of public workers’ pensions. He’s a monomaniac about it. Everyone in the world knows it. The great journalist, Matt Taibbi, referred to this guy as the next generation Koch brothers.

You know that there are many ways that you could balance state budgets — you could cut corporate subsidies, you could bring down the prison-industrial complex, you could raise taxes on the wealthy. But John Arnold and others have the ability to twist the debate so that the only idea that gets prominence in how to balance state budgets, is “cut the public workers’ pensions.” So John Arnold is famous for underwriting a whole social movement around that clause. And then public TV starts running a series of news segments called “The Pension Peril” and John Arnold has funded it for $3.5 million.

The money was ultimately returned, and the series has been put on hiatus because David Sirota exposed it! And it became a controversy. But I would argue that the funding of public affairs news, public affairs programs, documentaries, eight-part one-hour series, for years, for 15 years or so on public television, that corporations have underwritten programming that they have no business underwriting, and the results in the programming showed an unmistakable corporate bias — because the corporations paid for the programming.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jeff, in theory, is there not supposed to be a firewall between the fund-raising arm of a public media outlet like PBS and the news producers and news directors who make decisions about content?

JEFF COHEN: There’s no doubt that public TV has rules, but they’ve never been abided by. And the rules say ‘not only should an interested funder not be allowed to fund programs, but someone who has the “perception of interest” — you know, it’s not just about the reality of bias, they’re supposed to protect public television against the bailoptic, but the reality is, there’s no longer any optics at all at public TV because the corporations have been underwriting the programming for so many years, you know, no one even sees it any more. That’s the problem; people are blind to it.

I could give you example after example. Last year, NOVA had a show called “The Rise of Drones.” One of the funders was Lockheed Martin, a major drone manufacturer. Another show, about the food industry — big funder? Dow Chemical — you know, a GMO corporate food company. About ten years ago, there was this multi-part series called “Commanding Heights” on public television, extolling multinational capitalism. It was so biased that the Wall Street Journal was raving about how great it was, with an article headlined “PBS likes capitalism more than the commercial networks do!” Who funded that? BP, Federal Express, and Enron — until Enron was exposed as a graft operation and the Enron money was returned, but not the money to all the other corporations.

You can go on and on and on and on, and it’s part of the reason that public television in this country is so timid, is so bland, and will not take on the most powerful forces in our society — which just happen to be large corporations which are their underwriters.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Given the fact that public broadcasting is taxpayer funded, is there a way that we as citizens could put pressure on PBS or Congress to put back in place a firewall between these corporate funders and the content that comes across on taxpayer broadcasts?

JEFF COHEN: I think it’s less a congressional issue. People who donate to PBS should confront their local PBS stations, and say, “How come we don’t have a labor show every week? How come we don’t have an environmental show every week? You know, the money that I donate to you, I want some of it to go to local programming. And I want that programming to be different from the corporate-type programming that’s coming out of PBS in Washington and New York. And if you don’t offer some of that programming, I’m not going to fund you.”

Jeff Cohen is the author of five books including, “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” For more information on the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, visit ithaca.edu/rhp/independentmedia. Read David Sirota’s investigative piece on PBS, "Wolf of Sesame Street".

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