David Koch & PBS self-censorship

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.

David Koch (source: NTD video, YouTube)

David Koch (source: NTD video, YouTube)

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.

David KochAmong 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.


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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33 Responses to “David Koch & PBS self-censorship”

  1. GaiusPublius says:

    Thanks, Dwight. I’m going to look into this. The info came from the New Yorker article and from a piece by Thom Hartmann. Will check this out. Thx.


  2. Dwight says:

    So it’s your preference that NPR, accepting all dollars into a news budget and spending those dollars on all of its news, not accept any corporation’s money and so not have funds to report on genetically modified foods or seed or much of anything else. You would rather that the average 10% of Americans who now donate, maybe continue to donate to NPR with the resulting quality of news stories starved by the absence of any corporate funds.
    Until Americans start financially supporting the organizations they want for the purposes they want, then funding has to fall to someone or just not have any progressive source of news. Try to think through what you are writing here.

  3. condew says:

    I suppose kickstarter could be a way to still get the films made, but if PBS won’t show them, I don’t see a way around that.

  4. Explorer51 says:

    Dwight, don’t confuse people with facts! The most egregious part of “reporting” like this is the absolute incorrect positioning of PBS and its member stations; the notion that WNET, literally one member station, is constantly referred to in this and other badly researched articles as the decision making entity for public TV is totally ludicrous. As with many right wing outlets, the ridiculous disregard for facts to get to a specious conclusion is unfortunately evident here as well. Clearly, conspiracy theories are the thing now and we lefties need them too.

  5. Dwight says:

    Continuing to cede control of public institutions by withdrawing funding is no cure for preserving them. It is the same as not voting which in the last few major elections has ceded state governments and the Congress to the far right. The Tea Party and the GOP succeeded because only 16% of the democrats voted and were beat by the 19% vote of the right wing. It is by the 99% not taking personal responsibility that the 1% are allowed to take control.

  6. Dwight says:

    Only 7% of Americans make a personal contribution to their local public TV station in the first place. If public stations had to depend on that they would have gone out of existence many years ago except for those who were and still are funded by their states for educational product delivered to schools.

  7. Dwight says:

    Every audience segment regardless of age or choice of music preference has a right to enjoy their music. That is why public stations have just about any and all kinds of music programs for every age of its audiences. If Welk is not your choice, tune in for any of the other choices whether via “In Performance At The White House” or local choral groups, or Doo Wop or jazz.

  8. Dwight says:

    “First, know that when PBS was established in 1967, all of its funding came
    via the federal government.”
    Not true. PBS is a creation of the stations as a member services organization that
    is funded primarily by dues and fees paid by the local stations, which have
    been on the air starting in 1952. CPB has never come close to funding even 50%
    of the stations or PBS. Please do your
    Local stations are not dependent on PBS or any major producing station, like WNET,
    for their program selection. Each station is licensed by the FCC to be independent and responsible to its local community and can not be bound by any other entity to broadcast, or not broadcast any
    Access to the PBS schedule can be by direct choice by PBS but more likely through any
    local station with decisions by PBS based on the quality of the proposed
    There about 175 local noncommercial educational station licensees operating about 350 stations and each is at the top of its public media pyramid. Not PBS, not CPB, not any other station can be at the top of a local station. Each has its own board and each raises its own money. The American broadcast media was designed not to be top down or controlled outside its community of residence. Even commercial stations appear to be top down but in fact are performing by contract with a network supplier.
    “… the Kochs appeared intent on using a media company “as a vehicle for their political voice.”
    All media owners use their media as their voice for whatever they want to say. They are called editorials or Op-Ed by the printed press. In broadcast, the media licensees determine who their voice is going to be whether for editorials or program commentary, for example, Charlie Rose or Bill Moyers or Tavis Smiley.

  9. karmanot says:

    But Ms. Piggy went to the dark side after Kermit jilted her for Jane Fonda.

  10. ComradeRutherford says:

    That’a why Stephen Colbert said the other day: “for a donation of $75 you get a tote bag. For $23M you get PBS’s balls.”

  11. pappyvet says:

    With a onea and a twoa and dont mind the guys behind the curtain,we’ll tell you what to believe.

  12. pappyvet says:

    We thought we were rid of the Dukes and Barons after the Revolution,well they’re back and with the same ego and the same goal.

  13. karmanot says:

    Bill Moyers is still there….thankfully

  14. karmanot says:

    I always wondered what was going on behind the scenes. Ever since PBS started running marathons of Lawrence Welk ( some of them so old they’re in sepia) I knew the goose was cooked.

  15. cole3244 says:

    as the propaganda machine expands our freedoms and democracy shrink, and they say capitalism is the only way, to what is the question.

  16. Naja pallida says:

    They should have given up the pretense of looking out for the public’s interest a long time ago. All the way back to the 70s, PBS has been basically corporate controlled. With large donations from companies like Exxon. Whenever I hear their line “and viewers like you”, I just feel ill.

    Goes well with the CBO study just released that shows two-thirds of charitable giving goes to the rich, and only about a third goes to the poor. So many tax deductible charitable donations are simply poorly disguised bribes, or ways of laundering money, or ways to avoid paying taxes. They have nothing to do with philanthropy.

  17. lynchie says:

    Remember when you could get a liberal arts degree. Music, acting, dance where viewed as important. Now its sports and how to screw the last dime out of the rubes.

  18. lynchie says:

    It is mass media. Mass Brainwashing.

  19. Houndentenor says:

    I suspect it’s the only thing keeping them afloat. Most of the performances I’ve even been in were funded by oil or big tobacco or some other equally heinous conglomerate. Without that blood money, there’s be almost no arts in the US. That ‘s just the sad reality.

  20. BeccaM says:

    The Plutocratic Broadcast System. Brought to you by rich bastards who demand and receive editorial control over PBS content, and subsidized in part by suckers viewers like you.

    Lesson learned? Money always comes with strings attached. It used to be, before Reagan, that money’s strings were for public broadcast stations to be non-commercial and to provide information and educational programming. With most of that money now replaced by donations from foundations, corporations, and rich donors, of course the programming will change to suit their priorities.

  21. MyrddinWilt says:

    Hmm, could this be why PBS decided not to take up Rebecca Watson’s skepticism show despite getting the best audience reviews of the three pilots?


  22. lynchie says:

    Well anyone who does not think the 1%/Corporations own everything in the entertainment/news media is kidding themselves. It is all filtered, censored, pasteurized for our viewing and listening pleasure. It is all about keeping the rubes happy with thoughts of winning American Idol, idolizing Kardashian whores, none of what we see daily on the tv is necessarily true, it can’t be or most would finally realize we were bred as consumers, that is our only role in America. We buy, buy, buy so profits roll up to the masters.

  23. Steve W says:

    So what your saying is that we really have no more mass media. It all paid for by ????

  24. sonoitabear says:

    I can still do my small part to “starve the beast”

  25. milli2 says:

    Just like NPR “objectively” reporting on genetically modified food while being sponsored by Monsanto.

  26. GaiusPublius says:

    Won’t cause a change, sonoitabear, though do carry through on the non-contribution. As the story shows, the corporate oligarchs sit on their boards and occupy their president’s offices.


  27. nicho says:

    They’re not named the Petroleum Broadcasting System for nothing.

  28. Bill_Perdue says:

    PBS is not as bad as Fox or MSNBC. They have a few more cultural pretensions but basically they’re just another right wing propaganda outlet.

  29. Damn!! They got to Big Bird!!!

  30. confusion says:

    Will not contribute a dime until PBS and NPR rid themselves of oil and finance loot.

  31. nicho says:

    Well, if you remember that the Koch family money came from their relationship with Stalin, none of this should surprise you. They learned at the feet of a master.

  32. sonoitabear says:

    I’ve decided i will not be donating to PBS this year unless they grow a pair and ignore the corporate oligarchs and the sycophantic Kochsuckers…

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