The documentary "Citizen Koch" had two high-profile screenings at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April. But it likely won't be coming to a public television station near you.
On the day after those screenings, the filmmakers found out that their public television backers were pulling the funding, possibly to placate billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
In an illuminating new article in this week's New Yorker that posted online Monday, Jane Mayer chronicles how the documentary from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin became collateral damage in a squabble between the Koch brothers and PBS over a different documentary. "Citizen Koch" looks at the effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for unlimited contributions from billionaires like the Kochs, on politics in Wisconsin.
Charles and David Koch didn't put pressure on PBS to kill "Citizen Koch." They didn't have to.
Mayer's article details the controversial airing in November of a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, "Park Avenue," which compared the residents of a luxury apartment building on New York's Park Avenue to the poor residents living at the other end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx. David Koch lives in the luxury apartment building featured in the film, and is also a board trustee and donor to PBS' New York station, WNET.
According to Mayer, WNET President Neal Shapiro called Koch before the documentary aired to give him a heads-up about the film's critical content. The station allowed Koch Industries to air a disclaimer following the film that called it "disappointing and divisive."
"Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors?" Gibney said to Mayer. "And why did the station allow Koch to offer a critique of a film he hadn't even seen. Money. Money talks." Gibney added that the interference doesn't give him much confidence in the Koch's brothers plan to buy Tribune newspapers.
In the end, Mayer wrote, Koch was so offended that he cancelled plans to make a seven-figure donation to WNET. Shapiro was sharply critical of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), an arm of PBS that funds and distributes independent films like "Park Avenue," for not giving him an earlier warning of the film's contents.
Another film ITVS was funding was "Citizen Koch." According to Lessin and Deal, the relationship between them and ITVS was relatively smooth – until the Gibney documentary aired. "It was a real problem, because of 'Park Avenue,'" one unidentified public television official told Mayer. "Because of the whole thing with the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it."
Lessin and Deal said that after that, the filmmakers began to get pressure from ITVS to change the title of the film and de-emphasize the brothers' political influence in the film.
On April 15 – the day after the film played at the Wisconsin Film Festival – the filmmakers found out that ITVS would no longer fund the project, which basically kills its chances of airing on PBS. In another connection to Wisconsin, the chair of the ITVS board is Garry Denny, who also serves as director of programming for Wisconsin Public Television.
ITVS said in a prepared statement that it pulled out because the film didn't reflect the original proposal, which Lessin and Deal denied.
"ITVS backed out of the partnership because they came to fear the reaction that our film would provoke," the filmmakers said in a prepared statement. "David Koch, whose political activities are featured in the film, happens to be a public-television funder and a trustee of both WNET and (Boston PBS station) WGBH.
"This wasn't a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple."
The filmmakers said in Madison in April that they are planning to partner with state and federal organizations to get the film seen around the country in advance of the 2014 elections.