The Wolf Of Sesame Street Responds To Pando – Much Bark, No Bite, Still Stonewalling

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]

By David Sirota | Pando

With Pando’s exclusive “Wolf of Sesame Street” investigation triggering widespread outrage towards PBS and the Arnold Foundation, and now being picked up by major media outlets, including two hours as the top story on the Huffington Post, the wolf himself is responding – albeit more with bark than bite.

In a statement issued to reporters and tweeted out by John Arnold, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that is secretly financing the PBS network’s “Pension Peril” series claims Pando’s report “failed to accurately convey (the) information” the foundation provided to us (note: public broadcasting officials have yet to issue any response whatsoever). However, quite notably, the Arnold Foundation statement doesn’t identify a single factual flaw in our original story, nor does it identify any specific way we did not “accurately” convey its response to our questions. Moreover, in continuing to stonewall Pando’s request for all relevant information, the statement actually serves to reinforce the problems that arise when public institutions do business in secret with private special-interests like a billionaire political activist.

As we reported, and the Arnold Foundation’s statement confirms, WNET officials acting on behalf of the PBS system (heretofore “PBS officials”) initiated contact with Mr. Arnold. As an Arnold Foundation spokesperson told us prior to publication, and as the Arnold Foundation’s new statement in response to our reporting doubly confirms, those public broadcasting officials came to Arnold “with the proposal for the series, having become aware of LJAF’s interest” in the pension issue. The type of “interest” is quite clear from the Arnold Foundation’s website. As we reported, the foundation’s legislative goal is to convince policymakers “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

As we also reported, and as the Arnold Foundation’s new statement confirms, the Arnold Foundation denies it has any editorial control over the “Pension Peril” series now airing on PBS stations without explicit disclosure of their financial ties to Mr. Arnold. What the statement leaves out is what we reported: the Arnold Foundation told us that it reserves “the ability to stop funding” the series at any time “in the event of extraordinary circumstances.” Such a loosely defined term – “extraordinary circumstances” – seems to give the foundation latitude to cut off funding if it does not like the ideological tenor of PBS’s pension coverage. That, by extension, would appear to represent de facto editorial influence, at the very least.

But here’s where it gets interesting: the Arnold Foundation’s new statement insists that under the formal agreement cemented with public broadcasting officials, public television stations would be permitted to “provide fully independent reporting.” The Arnold Foundation also now says “there are no provisions in the LJAF/WNET grant agreement relating to editorial content.” And the foundation in its statement goes on to disclose more explicit terms of the contract it signed with public broadcasting officials.

What’s revealing is that when Pando specifically asked both the Arnold Foundation and public broadcasting officials to let us review the explicit terms of the agreement, both of the organizations categorically refused our request. They did this, even though the agreement is with a taxpayer financed and therefore ostensibly public institution that watchdog groups insist is subject to basic Freedom of Information Act regulations.

Now, though, as our report today prompts much more serious public scrutiny of the deal, the Arnold Foundation is suddenly selectively disclosing some of the granular terms of the agreement, and implying it let us see those terms before publication, when it did not.

Of course, it is worth noting that while the Arnold Foundation is now abruptly disclosing some terms of the agreement which it previously refused to reveal, both the foundation and public broadcasting officials are still not letting Pando or the general public view the entire agreement. The agreement may, in fact, be written in exactly the way the Arnold Foundation suggests – and even if it was, that does not negate the de facto editorial influence or all the potential violations of PBS and FCC rules. However, the question remains: why are both the Foundation and WNET still refusing to release the full terms of $3.5 million agreement?

That is one of the many queries still unanswered from our original report on the wolf of Sesame Street.

A Statement About Laura And John Arnold Foundation’s Support For WNET: here.

WNET Statement Regarding Pension Initiative: here.

Laura and John Arnold Foundation Solution Paper: here.