Not even a week after Buzzfeed’s relationship with the Koch Brothers is exposed do we learn that a near civil war erupted in public television over documentaries that focused on Charles and David Koch. In an expose written by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker it is revealed that two public television affiliated documentaries prominently featuring the Koch family came under pressure to be censored and edited due to fear that Charles and David Koch, major donors to public media, would withdraw support.
One film by Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney, Park Aveneue: Money, Power & The American Dream, received unprecedented scrutiny and was almost pulled while another, Citizen Koch, was subject to such extensive editing by public television representatives that the film ultimately collapsed.
The drama over the documentaries was caused by efforts by WNET a major public television station and program provider in the New York Area.
Neal Shapiro, the president of WNET, said that he grew concerned about the [Park Avenue] film, which he had not yet watched, after Ira Stoll, a conservative writer, lambasted it in the Post...
Shapiro initially said, he called Koch at his office and told him that the Gibney film “was going to be controversial,” noting, “You’re going to be a big part of this thing.” Shapiro offered to show him the trailer, and added that he hoped to arrange “some sort of on-air roundtable discussion of it, to provide other points of view.” It could air immediately after the documentary.
Why the special treatment of a subject by the documentary film, especially after Koch had refused to cooperate with the film? There’s this thing, maybe you have heard of it, called money.
David Koch is a major philanthropist, contributing to cultural and medical institutions that include Lincoln Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In the nineteen-eighties, he began expanding his charitable contributions to the media, donating twenty-three million dollars to public television over the years. In 1997, he began serving as a trustee of Boston’s public-broadcasting operation, WGBH, and in 2006 he joined the board of New York’s public-television outlet, WNET.
Despite the uneasiness the film aired but was followed by a roundtable discussion of the film that included a representative of Koch funded Manhattan Institute but did not include the filmmaker to offer a defense of the film.
Nonetheless, Park Avenue received much better treatment than the other Koch film which attempted to come after.
ITVS, which is based in San Francisco and was founded some twenty years ago by independent filmmakers, prides itself on its resistance to outside pressure…
Shapiro acknowledged that, in his conversations with ITVS officials about “Park Avenue,” he was so livid that he threatened not to carry its films in the future. The New York metropolitan area is the largest audience for public television, so the threat posed a potentially mortal blow to ITVS.
Did ITVS get the message? Tia Lessin and Carl Deal told ITVS they were making a documentary about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and how it was influencing the Wisconsin protests against Governor Scott Walker taking away union rights. The filmmakers told ITVS they were going to call their film “Citizen Koch.”
Before the Park Avenue drama ITVS loved the Citizen Koch documentary.
In April, 2012, ITVS recommended that the film receive a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in funding. “Please accept this as confirmation and congratulations,” the ITVS notification said. It went on, “Everyone here at ITVS looks forward to working with you on your very exciting and promising program.” A few weeks later, ITVS sent a multipage contract to the filmmakers, and negotiations seemed close to a resolution just before “Park Avenue” aired.
After the Park Avenue drama ITVS changed its tune.
During a conference call on January 14th, Jim Sommers, the senior vice-president of content for ITVS, acknowledged to Lessin and Deal that, after Gibney’s film aired, there was “one station that gave us a lot of push-back about it.” Was the station in New York? He said, “Ha, ha, ha, that might be it.” According to the television producer, “They kept using words like ‘balance,’ but what they really meant was ‘Get rid of the Koch story line.’ ”
Not surprisingly the film project died, never to air on WNET. In Hollywood and the commercial film business there is something called development hell. There can be many contributing factors for a project to be sent to hell, chief among them is money problems but often content rewrites and edits lead to the stagnation. So apparently the non-commercial world is going to get a nice taste of Hollywood dysfunction thanks to edits and rewrites by public television executives obsessing over donor sensitivities. But is that public television or just a different commercial venture where the advertisers are rich individuals and their foundations instead of mass market consumer companies? How many edits does it take?
What may be worse is the larger media’s cowering in the face of Koch power. The writer of the expose, Jane Mayer, already got a nice taste of blowback after writing a previous story on the Koch Brothers. And with the duo in the running to buy the Tribune Company they may be getting much more of a pass. So maybe these conflicts over stories and films on the Koch Brothers will be a thing of the past, because they will never have a chance of being published in the first place.