by Brian Washington
PBS is known for enriching educational shows such as Sesame Street and objective, quality news programming like The NewsHour. However, if you tuned in to your local PBS station recently, you may have wondered, “When did PBS become an advocate for eliminating retirement security for educators, nurses, firefighters, and other public employees who have spent their lives serving their communities?”
Take Action ›
Keep up to date on all the latest education and political news with our weekly Education Votes email. Click here ›
This is the question those who have come to rely on PBS for objective news and information are asking following the debut last week of a new series titled “The Pension Peril.” As David Sirota recently blogged in an exclusive report, the program, which appeared on hundreds of PBS stations nationwide, promotes the incorrect narrative that public employee pensions are causing state budget shortfalls and need to be drastically cut.
However, Sirota’s report also dropped a major bombshell — that the series was funded by one of the nation’s leading and wealthiest anti-pension activists, John Arnold, a former hedge fund manager who heads up the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The Arnold Foundation gave PBS’ flagship station WNET-TV in New York $3.5 million to produce the series.
The good news is, after Sirota’s story was picked up by the New York Times, WNET, feeling the pressure from outraged viewers, returned the Arnold Foundation’s money and put the series on hiatus. PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, who describes his position as an “independent internal critic with PBS,” called the article important.
It shines a light, once again, on what seems to me to be ethical compromises in funding arrangements and a lack of real transparency for viewers caused, in part, by the complicated funding demands needed to support public broadcasting, and in part by managers who make some questionable decisions.
Many believe the grant to PBS is part of a concerted campaign launched by Arnold and his foundation to get states and municipalities to switch from modest pensions for public service workers to 401K plans. While switching teachers, librarians, police officers and other public service workers to 401Ks would make Arnold and his hedge fund buddies lots of money, the benefits are not that great for educators, who, in many cases, have contributed up to ten percent of their salaries towards their pensions and are not eligible for Social Security. Also, 401K plans are risky and can lose thousands of dollars in the stock market in a single day.
There is no one more interested in the solvency of public pensions systems than the dedicated workers who rely on them. Making sure these pensions are, and remain, solvent is an issue that public employees and our elected officials should work on together. However, everyone—including the politicians who oversee these plans—must do their part. The responsibility cannot rest on the backs of public service workers alone.