How a PBS film about David Koch got another PBS film cancelled

Note: This is Part 2 of a multi-part piece on David Koch and the two Koch-themed PBS films. Part 1 is here. In addition, this piece contains two comments on censorship — one on censorship at PBS and one on media censorship in general. Click either link to jump to that section.

Last time we addressed this subject, we looked at two PBS documentaries featuring GOP billionaire political activist David Koch.

One of the films got made and aired — Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, a film deeply critical of the hyper-rich of New York City. But it immediately raised a big stink among the hyper-rich themselves, who are deeply involved in the running of New York’s WNET. Oh oh.

The other film, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Citizen Koch, was in production but little-known outside of ITVS, the small arm of PBS that makes independent films for distribution to local PBS stations.

Both films were distributed or due to be distributed via ITVS. ITVS was also in agreement with Lessin and Deal to finance part of Citizen Koch when the explosion over Park Avenue occurred, though the deal was verbal and hadn’t been signed.

The first part of the story is here, and takes us through the airing of Park Avenue and the anger afterward. We’ll pick up where we left off, but first a reminder of the cast of characters, so you don’t need a scorecard:

▪ David Koch, worth $25 billion by himself, who has contributed $23 million to public television. Also a member of the Board of WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston.

Amy Goodman interviews GOP billionaire activist David Koch.

Amy Goodman interviews GOP billionaire activist David Koch.

▪ James Tisch, Chairman of the Board of WNET, CEO of Loews Corp, also a contributor of multiple millions to public television.

▪ Neal Shapiro, President of WNET. In effect, Shapiro works for Tisch. As we learned last time, he sometimes reports to Koch.

▪ ITVS, the Independent Television Service, the “small arm of public television that funds and distributes independent films” according to our main storyteller, Jane Mayer.

Lois Vossen, VP and senior series producer at ITVS. According to Jane Mayer, “Vossen’s job is to select films for ‘Independent Lens’ and then pitch the programs to PBS.”

Alex Gibney producer of Park Avenue, a film hyper-critical of New York’s hyper-rich, especially the residents of one building, 740 Park Avenue, where David Koch lives.

▪ Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, producers of Citizen Koch, a documentary still in production that focuses on Koch’s role in the Wisconsin uprising against Scott Walker.

As before, we’re producing this list in order of power, from most to least. Koch and Tisch control Shapiro. Shapiro as head of the largest PBS station, can run rough if he wants over ITVS. Vossen does what she has to for ITVS to remain viable. And the filmmakers are meat, small fry, “content producers” in a media world that Koch and Tisch ultimately control. The first part of this post has expanded descriptions of this cast of characters.

We closed our last episode this way (some paragraph tightening below):

Park Avenue aired, but with many consequences. There was a “roundtable” appended to the airing that didn’t include the filmmaker, showing that the subject needed special treatment because it was “controversial.” Koch “cancelled his plan to make a large [reputedly seven-figure] donation.”

And five days after airing, the film’s producer accidentally ran into Tisch’s relatives (a brother and sister-in-law) in a SoHo clothing store — and got a twenty-minute earful. Did [WNET president] Shapiro also get an earful?

ITVS certainly got an earful, from Shapiro. They heard no end of complaint from the president of WNET:

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.

… Gibney’s film, Park Avenue, did air, but ITVS is now sitting on another Koch-themed film, Citizen Koch, which they have just green-lighted — OK’d for production — and which only they know about.

What do you think is going to happen next?

Here’s what happened next. Again, our story comes from the excellent research and writing of Jane Mayer, in her eye-opening New Yorker article “A Word from Our Sponsor: Public Television’s attempt to placate David Koch“. Do click; the whole thing is a terrific read.

How a PBS film about David Koch got another PBS film cancelled

Alex Gibney’s film Park Avenue aired in New York in November 2012. Prior to that, the ITVS deal for Lessin and Deal’s film, provisionally called “Citizen Corp,” about money, politics, Citizens United, and the battle against Scott Walker in Wisconsin, was coming along very well. Mayer (my emphasis and reparagraphing everywhere; some New Yorker paragraphs are long):

In April, 2012 [many month prior to Park Avenue], ITVS recommended that [Lessin and Deal’s] 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. Arash Hoda, the production manager at ITVS, sent Lessin and Deal an upbeat e-mail about the contract, saying, “This looks good . . . moving forward.”

Notice that last — “just before ‘Park Avenue’ aired.” From at least April 2012 to November, everyone at ITVS was excited about Lessin and Deal’s new film.

Now the timeline gets interesting. Gibney’s Park Avenue film airs in November 2012. As a result, WNET president Shapiro has words with people at ITVS:

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.

A week after that dust-up between ITVS and WNET, Lessin and Deal’s film, still called “Citizen Corp” was accepted at Sundance 2013, to be held in January. At that point they changed the name to Citizen Koch.

Wisc. GOP Gov. Scott Walker tells all in real phone call with blogger posing as billionaire David KochLessin and Deal had provisionally called the film “Citizen Corp,” but they worried that the title made it sound like a film about a corpse. After Sundance officials pressed for a final title so that they could start promoting it, Lessin and Deal told ITVS that they had settled on “Citizen Koch.”

The new title reflected the evolution of the narrative: reporting had focussed increasingly on the pitched battle in Wisconsin over the efforts of Scott Walker, the Republican governor, to ban collective bargaining by public-sector-employee unions. As the Times reported, Koch Industries was among Walker’s primary financial backers in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Mayer’s article documents the degree to which the film was always about the Kochs. For example: “On February 12, 2012 [very early], Lessin and Deal sent ITVS a six-minute preview that mentioned the Kochs multiple times … At one point, the words ‘two billionaire extremists’ appeared onscreen.”

But that was then. Now it’s December 2012, Park Avenue has raised a fuss, the new Koch film has been renamed, Sundance is one month away, and there’s trouble in ITVS-land.

A television producer knowledgeable about ITVS said that “there had been no concern” until the Gibney documentary aired, and that few executives there had watched the rough cut. Suddenly, many ITVS officials seemed desperate to see it. Lessin and Deal were told to send a password-protected video link of the unfinished film to ITVS. Within days, the video had been played almost thirty times.

“It was a real problem, because of ‘Park Avenue,’ ” a public-television official aware of the situation said. “Because of the whole thing with the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it. Never.”

According to the television producer, it seemed like ITVS executives “didn’t want it to get to higher levels at PBS” that another Koch film was in the pipeline: “They were trying to hide things. They didn’t want ITVS’s name connected to it at Sundance.

“They were afraid of two things—that PBS would catch wind of it, and that Lessin and Deal would go to the press and say that PBS didn’t want them talking about David Koch.”

Because this accusation is critical, note the sourcing. The inner quote is from “a public-television official aware of the situation” who is also a “televison producer.” It’s an unnamed source, and that person is either wrong or not. The only other evidence for this interpretation is circumstantial. On the other hand, the array of damning circumstances is considerable, and Mayer marshals them, as you can see above with the sudden number of password-protected viewings among ITVS management.

And now the title quote, from ITVS VP Vossen, as recorded by the filmmakers:

Lessin and Deal took notes on their phone conversations with ITVS officials, which show that they were pushed to drop the Koch name from the title and to place less emphasis on the brothers’ political influence. …

Several times, Lessin and Deal asked ITVS officials if Koch’s trusteeship at WNET was a factor. During the phone meeting on December 7th, [Lois Vossen, the vice-president and senior series producer at ITVS] said, “I can absolutely assure you that ITVS does not want your film to be buried.” She said of the title, “I think you understand why it’s problematic. . . . We live in a world where we have to be aware that people with power have power.

“We have to be aware that people with power have power.”

Things fell apart from there. In April ITVS cuts the project loose. Lessin: “We were in shock. We had a deal.” They did indeed. Click here to reread the ITVS early-2012 commitment to the project. Reads like a deal to me, but only in that my-word-is-my-bond sense.

Self-censorship at PBS

I want to close with just two more points. The first is about self-censorship at PBS in this instance, and the second is about self-censorship in the media in general. Maher again, quoting Ruby Lerner, one of Lessin and Deal’s funders on a previous project:

Ruby Lerner, the president and the executive director of Creative Capital, which helped fund Lessin and Deal’s Katrina film, said that she regards the “self-censorship” practiced by public-television officials to be “a scarier thing” than the overt kind …

They seem to be putting themselves in the Koch brothers’ shoes and trying not to offend them.” Even on public television, she argued, patronage buys influence. “It raises issues about what public television means,” she said. “They are in the middle of so much funding pressure.”

Which brings us back to that pecking order I started with. Billionaires sit on the board at WNET. The president of WNET, an media professional, calls board member David Koch when it looks like Koch’s name will be trashed on his station … instead of calling his supposed boss, the board chairman to whom he presumably reports.

Does WNET’s Neal Shapiro report to David Koch? He acts like it.

Then Shapiro, a PBS employee, threatens another PBS arm (ITVS) with “a potentially mortal blow” over a second Koch-themed film. And ITVS, after some internal debate and negotiation with the filmmakers, cancels it after admitting to the filmmakers that the Koch aspect, already approved, was suddenly a problem for them.

Does ITVS report to David Koch? They act like it. The president of Creative Capital thinks so. The filmmakers think so (see below). Do you think so? Me, I think that if they don’t think so, they aren’t bright enough to hold any job I would hire them for. The filmmakers, in a prepared statement:

“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.”

I hope the film is completed; I’d like to see it in final form. I hope WNET never gets another dime except from a billionaire. Let them stew in it. But that’s me.

“Censorship” in the media in general

There’s a second major lesson here, and it’s not just about PBS. Notice that the higher up the food chain you go, the closer you get to Real Money. And the lower down you go, the closer you get to people who know how to keep their jobs. It’s a continuum and there are many in between.

Above the newspaper reporters are layers of managers and editors whose names you’ve never heard. They hire reporters, assign stories, kill stories, vet copy. At TV stations and networks, there are layers of managers, producers, writers and editors between the big boss (the billionaire owner of GE, for example) and the on-air “talent.” Managers and producers hire the “talent,” assign stories, kill stories, vet copy. Print media or air, it’s the same.

So when you ask — “Why doesn’t my favorite anchorwoman, news writer, columnist say this about that since the facts are so … obvious?” — perhaps the answer is either (a) because the talent knows that “that” isn’t a thought that can be said; or (b) the talent was hired by people who hire people who would never think “that” in the first place.

And (b) is more common than (a). When a play is well-cast, it’s already half-directed. Saves time.

At PBS it’s Koch at the top, Shapiro (who came from NBC News, by the way) in the middle, and the littles either knuckling under (ITVS) or getting canned (Lessin and Deal). By the way, Koch is a big contributor to Nova. At what point will Nova start questioning climate science? You can almost smell it coming.

At CNN, after decades of ideological inbreeding (only “cultural conservatives” and “new liberals” need apply) you get at most one or two “wild hairs” per decade among the well-coiffed right-thinking ones. And the wild hairs never last.

So take a guess, or a little thought experiment. Did anyone in management have to tell every single one of MSNBC’s evening hosts not to criticize Obama for anything-ever in the months before the election? Why not, do you think — ’cause everyone knows not to? Or because none of them ever thought of it? Your call.

Yep, me too. There’s an Ed Schultz story, all of it on-air, about him telling his radio audience he was going on TV that night and “not be a good soldier.” That night he was a good soldier.

(Leonard Cohen, by the way, from 1988, well after Reagan took office. A fine performance.)


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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