How’s this for an irony: an independent documentary about the pernicious influence of high-dollar donors gets canceled by PBS due to the influence that a high-dollar donor has on PBS? The rich white man in this case is none other than David Koch, the multigajillionaire who along with his tycoon-harpooning brother, Charles, and their sprawling empire Koch Industries have brought you such popular hits as: cancer, climate denial, media conglomeration, fat cat plutocrats, conservative politics and tea party histrionics — not to mention mosquitoes, ticks, pestilence, boils, botulism, plagues, famine, flat tires, traffic jams, canker sores, migraines, Svengali-like manipulation, basic obfuscation, and general evil — all in the name of a shameless poweropoly the likes of which would make even Mr Burns envious. The documentary in question is Citizen Koch, which showcases the effects of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on the recall election of Scott Walker as well as the admirably quixotic presidential campaign of former Louisiana governor and congressman Buddy Roemer (whose central platform is campaign finance reform), all while following the lives of three Wisconsin state employees whose lifelong ties to the Republican Party are reconsidered in the aftermath of Act 10. The film was to air on PBS sometime this year on behalf of Independent Television Service (ITVS), the funding and distributing tributary of public television for independent films. But worried that there would be too much fallout — and lack of funding — ITVS backed out of its deal with the filmmakers, which unwittingly proves the whole point of what the film was about in the first place: the influence of money on public resources.
For the full story, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker consummately covers this story in her piece entitled “A Word from Our Sponsor,” which I highly recommend reading. The shorthand of it is as follows.
Last year PBS aired the documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, which explores the staggering disparities of wealth and power between the 1% and you and me and everyone else, particularly skewering David Koch. At the time, Koch was on the board of New York City’s public television station, WNET. (For the sake of reference here, consider also that since 1997 David Koch has been a trustee of Boston’s public broadcasting entity, WGBH. Koch has donated over $23 million to public television since the 1980s. And presently the Bros Koch are trying to buy out eight newspaper dailies owned by The Tribune Company, most notably including The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times.)
If you have not seen the film, you can see it for free right here:
After Park Avenue was aired David Koch rescinded his much ballyhooed offer of a “seven-figure donation — maybe more” to WNET. Understandably, this act of financial attrition left WNET licking its wounds. Talk about payback, retribution. WNET took out its wrath on ITVS for not giving it a better heads-up about the actuarial blowout that such a film as Park Avenue would have on some of its (WNET’s) board members. To wit, David Koch (though others on WNET’s board also reside at the same address on Park Ave in Manhattan). After all, ITVS is basically the governing body that gives the green light to such aspiring filmmakers. So how much power do those with power actually have? Well, it didn’t take all that long for ITVS to hem and haw on yet another hard-hitting documentary about the political spheres of influence of David Koch, never mind one with the man’s own name in the very title. After already partnering with the directors of Citizen Koch, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, ITVS pulled the plug on the project this past April — after working with the filmmakers since early 2012 and initially championing the project with much positive encouragement. Keeping the timeline in mind is telling: Park Avenue aired in November 2012, a good nine months after ITVS took on what would become Citizen Koch (originally titled “Citizen Corp”); five months later, ITVS had cut its ties with the filmmakers.
Naturally, ITVS issued a public statement about why it axed the film, but it would require an uncompelling level of gullibility to take them at their word. Far more credible is bowing down to pressure — which is understandable, if not altogther defensible. Remember during the presidential campaign last year when Big Bird was once again placed on the endangered species list? Public broadcasting has been the bete noire and the target of conservatives for decades now, not least because of its perceived liberal bias. (Indeed, never underestimate the sinister mesmerism of Sesame Street!) To air two documentaries about the influence of David Koch in one year might not err on the side of calculated caution. Then again, where else but public broadcasting would a person learn about such goings-on? And therein lies the paradox. PBS receives — wait, care to guess how much (or little)? — twelve percent of its funding from the federal government, i.e., taxpayers like you and me. 12%. The rest comes from private donations, i.e., people not at all like you or me or anyone we know or will ever meet. It is of course perfectly rational that someone like David Koch would be ill-inclined to give money to something that in turn promotes something else that puts him in a very unfavorable light, just as it is perfectly rational for PBS to solicit and accept donations from the wealthy elite who may or may not have a political motivation since its budget is continually reduced by Congress. But let’s be clear here: Republicans in Congress, most of whom also receive donations from the Bros Koch (most notably — and most bought off by the Kochs — Paul Ryan, President of the I ♥ Ayn Rand Club and former Vice President candidate of the United States of America).
To be sure, that Citizen Koch has become the victim of the very subject it exposes is a peculiar twist of fate. But that seeming whimsy of vested interests only underscores the imperative of a public broadcasting system that is actually public, and not the ransom-held hostage passed around by various captors with deep pockets and suspect agendas. Otherwise the media is simply one more commodity. And while this alone is nothing new, it is particularly sorrowing when the last bastion of an informed citizenry — public broadcasting — gets tainted with that glib and wretched truism of the everyday: money talks. If only it ever shut up and listened.
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Fortunately for me, and you, someone else has already begun a petition imploring PBS to air Citizen Koch. You can find it here, and I encourage you to sign it and pass it on to folks you know. Thanks, as ever.
PS — David Koch resigned from the board of WNET last month. But for a limited time this handsome tote bag thank you gift can be yours for being a member of PBS:
My thanks and debt (the good kind) to http://www.kerrywaghorn.com/caricatures_general_newsmakers.htm for the above drawing of David Koch.