The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has bowed to pressure from the powerful Koch brothers and declined to show a documentary critical of the Kochs and the role of money in American politics. The documentary, titled Citizen Koch and directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, focuses on the Wisconsin uprising and the role played by big money interests such as the Koch's in Governor Scott Walker's 2010 election and his efforts to limit collective bargaining. As Jane Mayer of the New Yorker writes, the film was pulled by PBS for fear of offending the billionaire Koch brothers, who have given $23 million to public broadcasting.
This latest revelation serves to highlight the sorry state of public broadcasting in America. Public funding of institutions like PBS is dwindling, and is being increasingly replaced by "corporate sponsorships and donations of the rich," just as the need is growing for independent, investigative journalism to reveal the increasing influence of the rich in politics.
The decision to pull Citizen Koch, which was originally going to air on PBS stations around the country, came because "David Koch was offended by another PBS documentary critical of the billionaire industrialists." The documentary in question is Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, and it aired in November last year on New York PBS affiliate WNET. In the film, Gibney critically explored the growing income inequality in America by juxtaposing the lives of residents in the one of Manhattan's most expensive apartment buildings with the lives of those living at the other end of Park Avenue in the Bronx. Unsurprisingly, David Koch, one of the residents of Park Avenue, was not happy with the critical portrayal of him and his brother Charles.
So, rather than engage with the criticism or seek to do something constructive about them, David Koch did what mega-rich people with influence do: he attacked the film and tried to undermine its credibility. Neal Shapiro, the president of WNET, call Koch, who is a WNET board member and major donor (he is also a board member of WGBH, the Boston member station), before the film aired to warn him of its critical content. WNET then took what Brendan Fischer calls "the nearly unprecedented" step of airing a disclaimer from Koch Industries after the film which labelled it "disappointing and divisive." WNET also removed the original introduction to the film, replacing it with one which called it "controversial" and "provocative." Mayer writes that according to well-informed sources, before Gibney's film aired, Koch had been planning to give a massive donation, seven-figures if not more, to WNET. As Gibney said to Mayer, "They tried to undercut the credibility of the film, and I had no opportunity to defend it ... Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors? And why did the station allow Koch to offer a critique of a film he hadn't even seen?"
Independent Television Service (ITVS), the arm of PBS that funds and distributes independent films and funded Park Avenue, was initially excited about Citizen Koch, which it also funded. It decided to pull its funding of the film following Koch's reaction to Park Avenue. After Park Avenue, WNET blamed ITVS for affecting its relationship with David Koch and threatened not to carry ITVS films in the future. And ITVS got the message. Emails between Deal and Lessin and ITVS officials show how positive they were about the film ... until after Gibney's documentary aired. They then began pressuring the filmmakers to "drop the Koch name from the title and to place less emphasis on the brothers' political influence." While ITVS officials claim that their decision to cut funding of the film was due to editorial differences, Deal and Lessin said this is simply not true:
"The film we made is identical in premise and execution to the written and video proposals that ITVS green-lit last spring. ITVS backed out of the partnership because they came to fear the reaction our film would provoke. David Koch, whose political activities are featured in the film, happens to be a public-television funder and a trustee of both WNET and WGBH. This wasn't a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple."
PBS' decision to kill the documentary is even more worrying in light of reports that the Koch brothers are seeking to expand their media influence by buying several major American newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times. It is trends like this, where the mega rich are not only increasing their already disproportionate influence in politics, but also increasingly trying to control how it is reported, that show that more than ever, we need to encourage independent, investigative journalism.
Instead, not only do we have a political environment that is increasingly influenced by the mega-rich thanks to Citizens United and SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission, but we have now have a public service broadcaster that has declined to air a documentary telling the public about this worrying trend because of fears that some of those same mega-rich will get offended. Some public service that is.
For those of you who want to know more about the political influence of the Koch brothers, you can watch all of Robert Greenwald's crowdsourced documentary The Koch Brothers Exposed below: