Jeff Cohen: PBS show “Pension Peril”, funded by a billionaire with interest in shaping public pension policy, follows a trend of public broadcasters growing increasingly dependent on corporate funds
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, has come under scrutiny recently for its corporate funding and how it affects its broadcasts. One glaring example happened last year, when PBS pulled a documentary critical of then PBS board member and trustee billionaire David Koch and his involvement in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2010 election.
Now there’s been another conflict of interest. PBS received $3.5 million from a former Enron trader and billionaire, John Arnold, to fund a series of documentaries about the “pension peril”. An investigative piece in PandoDaily found that Arnold is, quote, “actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.”
PBS has since returned the grant.
With us to discuss all of this is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithica College, and he’s the founder of the media watchdog FAIR.
Thank you for joining us, Jeff.
JEFF COHEN, FOUNDER, FAIRNESS & ACCURACY IN REPORTING: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Jeff, first off, what do we know about what happened between PBS and John Arnold?
COHEN: Unfortunately, what happened is too typical, that a corporate funder, a person with an axe to grind and a lot of money, was able to underwrite a program, a series that he has a direct interest in. John Arnold is someone who’s passionate about cutting state and local government employee pensions. You know, there’s many different ways of balancing the state budgets. You could raise taxes on the rich, you could reduce the size of the prison-industrial complex, you could stop corporate subsidies. But John Arnold has gone all over the country funding think tanks, funding ballot initiatives, funding superPACs, all with one–he’s got one monomania, which is cut public employees’ pensions.
So the fact that public TV–in this case, their flagship station, WNET, Channel 13, in New York City–the fact that WNET would take $3.5 million for a series of segments about pension–and it’s called Pension Peril, which is, of course, John Arnold’s view, that pensions are what needs to be cut if we’re going to balance state budgets. So why NET would take this kind of money in violation of their own guidelines is the question. And the answer is: public TV has done this repeatedly.
You know, there was a three-part documentary glowing about former secretary of state George Schultz, and it was funded by Charles Schwab, a corporation whose board he sat on, and Bechtel, a company that he was the CEO of and whose board he sat on. They had a documentary about James Reston, the New York Times columnist, that columnist everyone reads, a special documentary, and it was funded by The New York Times. They’ve had a many-parts series on the oil industry, where the main on-air person was a major consultant to the big oil companies, and it was sponsored in part by Paine Webber, a company with major oil interests. They do this all the time.
And that’s the problem with public TV–it’s become so corporate. And the corporate dollars determine what programs get on the air and what programs don’t. Keep in mind, when average people donate $20 or $50 or $100, we don’t get to determine, hey, I’d like to have a program about labor unions or I’d like to have a program about the environmental movement or what’s wrong with fracking. All the individuals who donate to public TV are donating to keep the lighting on, you know, keep the utilities paid, keep the staff there. But the corporations only come into it when they can say, hey, I want this program on the air. And that’s how public television has been so deformed over the years.
DESVARIEUX: Jeff, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. If there aren’t public funds available, why shouldn’t corporate funders step in? And, in essence, what choice do they really have?
COHEN: Well, the problem with American television news and public affairs is that so much television news and public affairs programming is owned by big corporations, large conglomerates that are basically entertainment conglomerates. So what we really need in this country is public broadcasting that’s not corporate, public broadcasting that has its own insulated funding.
You’re right. Our country gets very little tax dollars for public broadcasting. I can give you some of the figures, and they’re shocking. In Canada, per person, the amount of tax dollars per person that goes to public broadcasting is $30. In France it’s $50. In United Kingdom it’s $90 per person, tax money that goes to public broadcasting. In Norway, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, it’s somewhere around $120, $130 per person of tax money that goes to public broadcasting. What is it in our country? Three dollars and seventy-five cents per person tax money goes to public broadcasting. In that vacuum, you’re absolutely correct. Corporations have been allowed to fill it.
But one way your question is wrong is that while public television executives have allowed their rules to repeatedly be broken when corporations come in and allowed to fund programming that they have a direct interest in the subject matter, they have a strict rule at public broadcasting that labor unions cannot fund programming about workers or about the workplace.
In fact, there was once a documentary, a great one, called Out at Work. It was about discrimination on the job against gay employees. And public TV explicitly rejected it because it was partly funded by a couple of labor unions and a lesbian rights group. So they wouldn’t accept a program on discrimination in the workplace, because labor unions were involved. And when public TV executives were confronted, they admitted that they will not accept any money from labor unions to fund programming about workers or the workplace. But they continuously accept money from big corporations to do programming or segments or specials about the subjects that those corporations have a direct interest in.
So if they wanted to have different money coming in, they would be more accepting of certain nonprofit groups and certain labor unions. But they’re absolutely not. Public TV executives have chosen to favor big corporations in their programming.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, Jeff. Let’s switch gears a little bit. And I know at FAIR you assess mainstream media, and not only in terms of what is being covered and how, but what is not being reported.
There has been a rising tide of public outcry against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Obama has been trying to fast-track it and all of that. But you don’t really see that much coverage of the issue in the mainstream press, especially on television. Can you just speak to why the mainstream has missed this story and speak to what their record is on covering the TPP?
COHEN: Well, they haven’t covered it. The Media Matters organization has done work on this. So has FAIR. I mean, when media monitors have looked at the coverage–Media Matters just put out a new study. They looked at six months of television coverage, and they found–and that’s up till January 31 of this year, about six months up till January 31 of this year–there was no mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on CBS Evening News, ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News. There was one mention during that six months of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on public television’s NewsHour, and that was a very positive reference, which, again, doesn’t surprise me.
On cable news, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could be really deadly–you know, it’s one of these many so-called free trade pacts that’s written by corporations for corporations, negotiated in secret. It will undermine labor. It will undermine public health regulations. It will undermine environmental laws. On cable TV, the only show that’s talked about it a lot is Ed Schultz on MSNBC. Otherwise, it’s been virtually ignored on cable news. And they go 24/7.
So, I mean, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will be so bad for the environment, so bad for public health and safety, so bad for workers and labor unions, so good for giant multinational corporations, you just don’t get coverage in the mainstream media. So if you want to learn about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thank God that there’s something that’s really been growing in this country, and that’s called fully independent news media, like The Real News Network, like Democracy Now!, like Common Dreams. If it weren’t for internet and independent media and video projects, TV projects like The Real News, there wouldn’t be any information, because it’s in the interests of these giant corporations to have no news about something like Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would potentially be very, very controversial.
So even with President Obama pushing to fast-track it–he wants to get this through fast, and Congress will only be able to vote it up or down with no debate, no amendments, no real debate, no amendments–that just doesn’t get covered in mainstream television news. And that’s by design. It’s not an accident that these corporate giveaways get so little coverage in a media system like ours that’s so dominated by a handful of giant conglomerates. That’s why I wish we had independent public broadcasting. We don’t. It’s why Real News Network and all these other truly independent channels of information are so crucial.
DESVARIEUX: Alright, Jeff Cohen. We appreciate the shout-out. Thank you so much for joining us.
COHEN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.