This story is actually two stories. It’s the story of how one PBS film, critical of David Koch, got another PBS film, also critical of David Koch, cancelled. It’s also a story of how the rich control all corporate media (which now includes PBS) — through minions who “get it” and don’t have to be told what to do.
That’s a lot of story, so we’ll look at it in pieces, starting with the PBS chain of command in New York and the first of two films that got that caused a lot of trouble at WNET. We’ll talk about the second film in a follow-up.
A look at the PBS food chain
Some background on PBS, and then a list of PBS players starting in New York, where the story begins.
First, know that when PBS was established in 1967, all of its funding came via the federal government. The government funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and CPB funded the various stations. Reagan changed all that, and during his administration the process of forcing CPB and PBS into the arms of corporate and billionaire backers began.
Today, the federal government contributes only 12% of public broadcasting’s costs. The rest comes from wealthy donors, corporations, and other non-governmental contributors. No better way to bring something (or someone) under control than to make them financially dependent, right?
Now a list of players in the story that follows, starting at PBS in New York:
▪ David Koch, a man worth $25 billion according to Forbes Magazine. He has contributed $23 million to public television since the 1980s. Small change for him, I know, but big bucks to cash-starved PBS. Koch is also a member of the Board of Directors of WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston.
▪ James Tisch, CEO of Loews Corp and himself a contributor of multiple millions to public television, including $15 million in one year to WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York. Tisch is now Chairman of the Board of WNET (!).
▪ Neal Shapiro, President of WNET. In effect, Tisch is Shapiro’s boss.
▪ ITVS, the Independent Television Service, the “small arm of public television that funds and distributes independent films” according to our main storyteller, Jane Mayer. She adds:
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. Its mandate is to showcase opinionated filmmakers who “take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial television.”
ITVS produces a show called Independent Lens, a showcase show which you may have seen on any number of PBS affiliates.
Notice the hierarchy, low to high. ITVS, the lowest, produces shows that must be picked up by local stations like WNET, which with its New York market represents its most important “customer.” WNET is run by a guy (Shapiro) who reports to a billionaire (Tisch), the board chairman and a PBS contributor, who has an even bigger billionaire and PBS contributor (Koch) on his board. Tisch and Koch are “royalty” in New York.
The cast at ITVS and the two teams of filmmakers
ITVS was involved in the production of two films. One, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, was made independently, but with help from ITVS, and aired via ITVS on PBS stations including WNET. Air date in New York was November 2012.
The other film, Citizen Koch, about the effect of the Citizens United decision on elections throughout the country, but especially in Wisconsin, was less far along. It was also being produced independently, also with the help of ITVS, along with an ITVS promise of funding. In essence, access to PBS by both filmmakers was via ITVS.
So just four more main characters and we’re done:
▪ At ITVS, the player to note is Lois Vossen, vice-president 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.” Obviously, Vossen’s support is critical to any of the filmmakers.
▪ And finally, the filmmakers themselves. Alex Gibney produced the film that got aired, Park Avenue, a film deeply critical of the hyper-rich of New York City. Its focused on the rich by looking at the residents of one building, 740 Park Avenue, David Koch’s address and also the address of a number of Tisch’s relatives.
▪ Tia Lessin and Carl Deal are the team behind Citizen Koch, a documentary in production — a rough cut would eventually be shown at the Sundance Festival — with financial backing and TV distribution being negotiated with ITVS. Both Lessin and Deal are well regarded. Their earlier film had won a major award at Sundance, and both had worked with Michael Moore. Lessin had also worked with Martin Scorsese.
Get the picture? It’s basically a pyramid, with billionaires Koch and Tisch at the top, Shapiro “running” WNET, ITVS dependent on big stations like WNET for distribution, and filmmakers like Gibney, Lessin and Deal dependent on ITVS.
One more thing to note — All of this reporting is via a stunning piece of journalism in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer. The piece is very well done. Because of its length, I’m going to excerpt more than just a little of it, but in fairness you should read the original. Again, an excellent piece of work, meticulously researched.
How one PBS film got a big-money PBS contribution cancelled
Now that you understand the food chain, the story tells itself. Alex Gibney produces a film, Park Avenue, that tells the story of the rich and the rest, by contrasting one building that houses the hyper-wealthy on Park Avenue, with life in the Bronx. Mayer (my emphasis and much reparagraphing):
Last fall, Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker who won an Academy Award in 2008 for an exposé of torture at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, completed a film called “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.” It was scheduled to air on PBS on November 12th. The movie had been produced independently, in part with support from the Gates Foundation.
“Park Avenue” is a pointed exploration of the growing economic inequality in America and a meditation on the often self-justifying mind-set of “the one per cent.” As a narrative device, Gibney focusses on one of the most expensive apartment buildings in Manhattan—740 Park Avenue—portraying it as an emblem of concentrated wealth and contrasting the lives of its inhabitants with those of poor people living at the other end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx.
Among the wealthiest residents of 740 Park is David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who, with his brother Charles, owns Koch Industries, a huge energy-and-chemical conglomerate. … 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. Recent news reports have suggested that the Koch brothers are considering buying eight daily newspapers owned by the Tribune Company, one of the country’s largest media empires … Clarence Page, a liberal Tribune columnist, recently said that the Kochs appeared intent on using a media company “as a vehicle for their political voice.”
“Park Avenue” includes a multifaceted portrait of the Koch brothers, telling the history of their family company and chronicling their many donations to universities and think tanks. … A large part of the film … subjects the Kochs to tough scrutiny. “Nobody’s money talks louder than David Koch’s,” the narrator, Gibney, says[.]
As noted above, Tisch, WNET’s benefactor and chairman, has relatives in 740 Park Avenue, and David Koch also lives there. Everything is fine with the film so far. It’s due to air on a Monday in November, and no one takes note of the content through the previous Friday. Then:
In a recent phone interview, Neal Shapiro, the president of WNET, said that he grew concerned about the film, which he had not yet watched, after Ira Stoll, a conservative writer, lambasted it in the Post.
So Shapiro, who works for Tisch, sees a tear-down review of the film in the New York Post, which contains these sentences (Stoll writing, as quoted by Mayer):
“If the station [WNET] has any sense, it will use the time until then to reconsider its decision to air the program. … If it doesn’t, its trustees and donors, some of whom live on Park Avenue, may want to consider whether they want to continue supporting an institution that insults them so viciously.”
Stop here for a moment. Shapiro sees a problem if the documentary airs the following Monday. Pretend you’re Shapiro. You pick up the phone.
Whom do you call? Tisch? Shapiro called … David Koch:
That Friday, 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.”
Notice that Shapiro offered to show Koch “the trailer.” I suspect the trailer is the only piece of film the conservative New York Post reviewer saw as well.
Shapiro acknowledges that his call to Koch was unusual. Although many prominent New Yorkers are portrayed in “Park Avenue,” he said that he “only just called David Koch.”
Shapiro works for James Tisch. Why not call Tisch? From the outside, it looks like Shapiro thinks he works for David Koch.
What happened to the film “Park Avenue”?
Because the film was due to air in just a few days, there wasn’t much anyone could do. Shapiro tried to do early damage control with Koch, whom he described as “the biggest main character” and “‘a trustee … on our board.” All of this is complicated by the fact that:
according to a well-informed source, WNET was about to embark on an ambitious capital campaign, and before Gibney’s film aired Koch had been planning to make a very large gift. “It was going to be a seven-figure donation—maybe more,” the source said. Shapiro denies that Koch’s patronage was a motive for his phone call.
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 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 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.
Several months earlier, it [ITVS] had succeeded in holding on to a prominent slot on WNET only after a public lobbying campaign by independent filmmakers.
I’m going to pause here and pick up the story in the next installment. 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? Stay tuned.
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