WNET will return foundation grant for Pension Peril series

By Mike Janssen

WNET will return a $3.5 million grant it received for a series of reports on public pensions after facing questions about the funder’s involvement with the issue.

In a joint statement, PBS and WNET announced Friday that the grant to support the Pension Peril series would go back to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, whose co-founder John Arnold has supported efforts to reduce public pensions. “While PBS stands by WNET’s reporting in this 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, WNET has decided to forego the Arnold Foundation support and will return the gift,” the statement said.

The statement continued:

“We made a mistake, pure and simple,” said Stephen Segaller, Vice President of Programming at WNET. “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 is 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.”

In an email to leaders of public TV stations obtained by Current, WNET President Neal Shapiro wrote:

As we have dealt with this, I have come to learn there was a misunderstanding about how my team communicated with PBS and that is why this issue wasn’t dealt with earlier. I regret any issues this may have caused for your station. I want to assure you I understand how serious this is. Our process is being corrected and this will not happen again.

Earlier this week, a PandoDaily article by writer David Sirota called attention to the funding arrangement and questioned the impartiality of WNET’s reports, which have aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend. WNET initially defended the funding, and Oregon Public Broadcasting asked WNET for assurance that the Arnold Foundation had no improper editorial influence.

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