WNET Returns Arnold Foundation Grant for Series on Pension Funds

New York City public broadcasting station WNET has announced that it will return a $3.5 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in support of a television series on the economic sustainability of public pension funds.

Concerns were raised last week about the Arnold Foundation being the sole sponsor of the "Pension Peril" series, which began airing on the PBS NewsHour Weekend program in late 2013. PBS rules prohibit funding for programming from any funder who "has asserted, or has the right to assert, editorial control over a program" or who is "pre-ordaining the conclusion the viewer should draw from the materials presented." An article on the Web site PandoDaily pointed out that  John Arnold, a former hedge fund manager, has backed efforts to persuade municipalities to slash public employee pension benefits, a theme echoed in the segments that have aired.

While a spokesperson for the foundation told PandoDaily that PBS executives approached it "with the proposal for the series, having become aware of LJAF's interest" in shaping public pension policy, the foundation said in a statement that "LJAF has never sought to influence in any way the content of the series, its programming schedule, or any other editorial matter. Our grant to WNET was made with the explicit understanding that WNET would provide fully independent reporting."

Initially, WNET officials had defended the grant. Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming at WNET, told the New York Times that the station believed the funding did not violate PBS's "perception" rule, because the foundation's goals of encouraging public discussion were separate from the Arnolds' desire for public pension reform. In a joint statement with PBS on Friday, however, WNET said that while PBS stands by WNET's reporting in this series, the station would return the gift "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."

"We made a mistake, pure and simple," Segaller said in the joint statement. "The PBS NewsHour Weekend is a new production and, while we thought we were following the guidelines and the correct vetting processes, we were incorrect. WNET sought the Arnold Foundation funding because of our belief that public pensions [are] an important issue. The Arnold Foundation did not direct or prescribe our reporting, never attempted to do so, and is not responsible for our mistake."