The selling of the ‘PBS soul’

Public broadcasting’s funding mechanism is, perhaps, the most grassroots of media funding. But it is a fine line that stations walk when it comes to grants.

The question to ask in evaluating funding vs. content is whether a news outfit would be doing a story or series without the grant, or whether the grant inspired particular coverage?

Last week, New York public TV station WNET returned a $3.5 million grant to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, after PandoDaily’s David Sirota pointed out that Mr. 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.”

The grant funded a major documentary on public pensions and retirement plans.

Now, Sirota is back with five lessons this should teach public broadcasters:

The relative speed with which public broadcasting officials responded highlights a key upside of public media, or at least the PBS image being tied to the core idea of a public media. Though public broadcasting is increasingly being taken over by for-profit corporate interests, its overall brand is that of a public institution. This, in fact, is precisely why ideological billionaires like John Arnold want their propaganda on PBS – it launders their special-interest agenda and presents it as public-minded.

Sirota criticizes the public TV station for only acknowledging the “perception” of a problem with the way the project was funded. The Arnold Foundation money was the only funding for the project.

Of course, public broadcasting officials continue to insist that because Arnold allegedly exerted no direct editorial control over the content, this may look bad, but it is not nefarious. Yet, not only have they still not released the contract to let the public actually see if that’s true in the editorial-control language in the agreement, they also fail to acknowledge the way editorial control really works in these matters.

As I documented in a series of Harper’s magazine reports on newspaper moguls skewing coverage, editorial control rarely comes from direct orders. Typically, it comes from the overall frame, angle and assumptions being put in place to satisfy the obvious desires of financier in question. The same principle holds true in television matters.

In the Los Angeles Times this week, Michael Hiltzik sees something more than a perception problem, too. He says PBS sold its soul.

In another such case, a PBS unit that funded independent documentaries canceled a film about the Koch Brothers last year, fearing the reaction of one of its major donors, David Koch.

That underscores the cynicism of the steady withdrawal of public funding from PBS since the Reagan administration. It’s another example of the old story of big government getting off the horse, so big business and the wealthy can saddle up. As David Sirota, the author of the PandoDaily expose, wrote in its aftermath, PBS doesn’t stand for “Public Broadcasting Service” anymore. As it becomes more addicted to big-bucks donors, it risks becoming the Plutocrat Broadcasting Service.