The public television show Worldfocus recently received a $1 million dollar grant to produce "reports examining how other countries have dealt with the challenges facing the United States, like healthcare and Social Security" (New York Times, 2/3/09) from a foundation with a track record of misinformation and fearmongering on these very issues.
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation and its founder, Pete Peterson, have long played a critical role (Extra!, 3-4/97) in promoting the myths that Social Security is on the verge of bankruptcy (Extra!, 7-8/95, 1-2/05) and that universal healthcare is unaffordable.
The foundation was a major backer of IOUSA, a recent documentary urging a balanced budget and attacking Social Security and Medicare spending that was criticized for inaccuracies and for offering economic advice that would be disastrous if followed during a severe downturn. The foundation recently placed misleading full-page ads in several newspapers warning of a looming $57 trillion federal deficit (Center for Economic and Policy Research, 10/08).
According to the Worldfocus website, the show was launched by New York station WNET with the intention of responding "to the mainstream media's diminished coverage of international news." The show includes work from other news organizations, including Al Jazeera English, and seems to provide a wider than usual array of perspectives on international issues, though that's an admittedly low bar (e.g., "Are You on the NewsHour's Guestlist?" Extra!, 9-10/06).
Intentions aside, however, Worldfocus faces the same pressures and constraints as all programs in the nominally public TV system. The head of the Peterson Foundation, David Walker, earnestly claimed (New York Times, 2/3/09) that Worldfocus would maintain "total control over the content." But if the source of funding had no impact on content, there would be no point to public broadcasting; it was the very real concern that commercial sponsorship influences programming that led to the creation of public broadcasting in the first place.
If Worldfocus were going to seriously debunk the Peterson Foundation's sky-is-falling rhetoric, it seems unlikely their grant would be renewed; that would be a major consideration in any economic climate. And WNET chief executive Neil Shapiro says of his station (New York Times, 2/3/09), "There are huge financial pressures facing this place."
Over the years, FAIR has documented a conflict-of-interest double standard in public television, where shows produced or funded by public-interest advocates or labor unions are rejected on grounds of a conflict of interest, while those involving corporate or conservative interests get a green light (FAIR press release, 4/3/02). If it hopes to be worthy of the name "public," WNET has to enforce a single standard on such conflicts.
ACTION: Please call on WNET to reject a grant to cover Social Security and other issues from a foundation with a pronounced political bias on those issues.
You can post copies of your letters to WNET on FAIR's blog.
Corrected version: February 12, 2009