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Conflict of Interest Rate: PBS Pension Program Funded by Anti-Retirement Billionaire

John Arnold PBS

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An investigative article, “The Wolf of Sesame Street” by David Sirota, reveals that the PBS series “Pension Peril” was secretly funded by billionaire power broker John Arnold.  The revelation stirs questions about the objectivity of the PBS news department.

“Pension Peril” seems to draw the same conclusions and prescriptions for the financial system that are being endorsed by billionaires such as Arnold.  Since PBS programming has a reputation for objectivity, viewers tend to take their word as gospel which makes a conflict of interest like this one even more dangerous.

Arnold has been outspoken about his libertarian, every-man-for-himself view of retirement and has secured the services of an army of political players to help him push his beliefs into the mainstream. Sirota explains:

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

Reuters’ Felix Salmon writes that the series reaches the same conclusions that Arnold and his peers have been endorsing for years.  “Pension Peril” is based on the following preconceived notions:

• Defined-contribution pensions are better than defined-benefit pensions;
• Funded pensions are better than unfunded pensions;
• Individual pensions are better than group pensions.

Salmon suggests the argument against group pensions is in reality an argument against the middle class and its stalwart professions.  Public servants, teachers included, often take jobs at lower wages knowing they will have quality pensions upon retirement.  Eliminating this system would effectively lower the quality of the pool of workers looking to fill these positions as many young Americans would likely choose different careers knowing the end result could be financial insecurity.

Salmon describes the benefits of pooled pensions:

In reality, big pooled pension funds are much more efficient — and generate much higher returns— than anything an individual is likely to be able to manage. And in the specific realm of public finance, the case for group-funded defined-benefit schemes is even stronger. That’s because public servants — police officers, elementary school teachers, you name it — tend to have much longer tenure at their jobs than, say, hot-shot fund managers. They are also willing to work for relatively low salaries precisely because they know that their pension benefits are good: that they don’t need to worry about how they’re going to make ends meet in retirement. That peace of mind is hugely valuable, and rarely factors into the calculations of the pension opponents, who seem to think that worrying about your individual retirement investments is a good thing.

Sirota claims the Arnold-PBS relationship is part of an unfortunate trend:

A billionaire political activist like Arnold exerting financial – and thus ideological – control over PBS news programming is the culmination of a larger campaign by ideological and corporate interests to politicize public broadcasting. As Pando’s Yasha Levine and others have documented, on National Public Radio that campaign has involved the radio network promoting politically skewed coverage of political front groups and corporate interests that are now permitted to finance NPR’s journalism. That trend shows no sign of abating under NPR’s new CEO, who came to the job after a career as a financial-industry lobbyist, Republican Party benefactor and board member of corporate-financed conservative think tanks.

On PBS, the campaign has been even more intense. During fights over funding for public broadcasting during the Bush era, one FCC official told the Washington Post that under withering pressure from conservative ideologues and corporate special interests, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting became “engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS.”

Could the network we grew up learning fairness, equality and modesty from begin teaching the hyperbolic dangers of socialism and the inherent evils of a protected workforce?

“Cookie Monster, why are you sad?”
“Because the federal government grew too quickly and now they regulate my cookie intake.”

“Count, tell me about the number 5.”
“The NLRB has 5! Five members! And they’re all union cronies!”

“Big Bird, why don’t you want to play today?”
“Because Obama.”

Read Sirota’s entire revelatory piece here.


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