Here is a quick weekend update on an important development about media coverage of issues connected to school reform. This time the topic is so-called news coverage of public pensions, the kind of pensions school teachers pay into throughout their careers. Attacks on teachers’ fringe benefits including pensions are central to the political agenda of the corporate school deformers.
On Wednesday, David Sirota published an in depth investigation exposing that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) sought out a $3.5 million grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation to sponsor a long running series that began last fall, “The Pension Peril.” Sirota reported that PBS kept the grant a secret, never announcing the sponsor as the segments were aired.
Nobody mentioned that the series was being paid for by “former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering… 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.”
In this instance Sirota’s exposure brought a happy ending. Last night the NY Times reported, WNET to Return $3.5 Million Grant for Pension Series. According to the newspaper’s report, “In the absence of the funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the project, called “Pension Peril,” will go on hiatus, although WNET will continue to report on the topic.” PBS and WNET claim they have discontinued the series “in order to eliminate any perception on the part of the public, our viewers and donors that the foundation’s interests influenced the editorial integrity of the reporting for this program.”
I urge you to read David Sirota’s fascinating investigative piece. While I have been very much aware of sponsorship by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of NBC’s Education Nation series and have watched carefully to discern the ways Gates Foundation policies on public education influence the choice of panelists, for example, with a dearth of public school teachers and an abundance of their critics, at least NBC News has been transparent about the sponsorship. I guess that’s something.