Citizen Koch is a documentary by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who co-directed the Hurricane Katrina movie Trouble the Water. It was filmed during the battle between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and organized labor that culminated in the unsuccessful attempt to recall Walker, and an earlier version premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 2013. We’re now seeing Citizen Koch in commercial theaters more than a year after its debut at Sundance.
The film originally was to be titled Citizen Corp, focused on the aftermath of the Citizen’s United ruling that allowed nearly unlimited corporate spending on issue campaigns, and was intended for broadcast on PBS. But ITVS, the independent production company funded by public broadcasting money that supplies films for PBS’s Independent Lens series, pulled the plug on the project last year for mysterious reasons — or maybe for reasons that those involved would like to keep mysterious.
Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story, “A Word from Our Sponsor,” suggests that if you follow the (Koch brothers) money, it’s not so mysterious. It has roots in another controversy about an Alex Gibney film called Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, originally scheduled to air on PBS last November. It used as a narrative device one of the most expensive apartment buildings in Manhattan, 740 Park Avenue, a symbol of concentrated wealth, contrasting the lives of its residents with the lives of poor people who live in the Bronx, at the other end of Park Avenue. David Koch is among the residents of 740 Park Avenue. A large part of the Gibney film subjects David and Charles Koch to tough scrutiny. After a lot of back and forth, WNET broadcast Park Avenue uncensored, but after it aired, there were reverberations in New York and also on the West Coast, at the headquarters of ITVS.
Lessin and Deal say that they are registered with neither political party, but an early synopsis of their proposed film reflected the liberal view that the Citizens United ruling had endangered democracy by drowning out ordinary voters’ concerns in a surge of corporate cash. This stance is scarcely novel, but their narrative focus was original: working-class Republicans who felt betrayed by the Party’s attack on public-employee unions in Wisconsin. Virtually from the start, the Kochs had figured prominently in their proposal. On February 12, 2012, Lessin and Deal sent ITVS a six-minute preview that mentioned the Kochs multiple times as major contributors to conservative candidates and causes. At one point, the words “TWO BILLIONAIRE EXTREMISTS” appeared onscreen.
By April last year, a few months after Citizen Koch had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the $150,000 that was expected from ITVS evaporated. Apparently there had been no concern at ITVS about Citizen Koch until after the Gibney documentary was broadcast, but then all of a sudden ITVS officials became leery. A public-television official aware of the situation said Citizen Koch was a real problem because of the previous Gibney film. So Independent Lens canceled the film’s financing for fear of offending the billionaire Koch brothers, who have given $23 million to public broadcasting. David Koch had been on the board of WNET until he resigned abruptly last year following the Park Avenue broadcast.
Now the money is back, but from a new source. After ITVS told Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal that it was not going to finance the film or consider it for ‘Independent Lens,’ spurring accusations of self-censorship, the filmmakers set up a fund-raising drive on Kickstarter. Last week [April 2013], that drive passed the $150,000 mark, more than twice the original goal, in effect replacing all the money that ITVS had rescinded. Kickstarter said the number of backers — 3,400 — put Citizen Koch in the top 1 percent of all the campaigns the Web site has hosted.
PBS’s decision not to broadcast Citizen Koch is worrying because of reports that the Kochs are looking for opportunities to expand their media influence by buying several major American newspapers currently owned by the Tribune Company (the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and several others). When billionaires like the Koch brothers are not only increasing their already disproportionate influence in politics, but also trying to control how the media report on that influence, it highlights more than ever the importance of encouraging investigative journalism and independent reporting.
Instead, our political environment is increasingly influenced by the super rich (thanks to Citizens United), and a “public service broadcaster” (scare quotes intentional) refusing to broadcast a documentary that highlights this worrying trend — because they are afraid that some of those same super rich will be offended. This is a “public service” broadcaster?
Illustration: Koch Brothers Campaign Carnival from DonkeyHotey via Flickr.