(See Update/Clarification at end) Gosh, we’re pretty sure no one saw this coming! As federal money has become a smaller portion of its overall funding, public broadcasting has become increasingly reliant on private donors. A lot of those donors are “viewers like you,” giving a few bucks to get a totebag and a sense of having done the right thing. (God knows we pledge so that if we get picked to play the Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz, we can say we’re a member of Boise State Public Radio.) But another sizeable chunk of funding comes from people with very deep pockets, like, let’s say, David Koch, who has given about $23 million to public television over the years, and who also, from 2006 until last week, served on the board of New York’s PBS affiliate, WNET. Oh, but then back on November 12, 2012, WNET went and aired a PBS documentary by Alex Gibney called “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,” [warning: autoplay video link] which looked at income inequality in U.S. Amercia by contrasting some of the richest people on that street, residents of a luxury apartment building at 740 Park Avenue, with the lives of some of the poorest people on Park Avenue, way out in the Bronx.
Clever narrative device!
Except for one teensy problem: One of the people living in 740 Park Avenue is David Koch, who refused to be interviewed for the film, and did not actually see it, but didn’t like what he heard about its depiction of him as both a heavy hitter in right wing politics and as a cheapskate who usually stiffed the doorman.
As Jane Mayer details in a New Yorker piece this week, Koch got the word on this unflattering portrayal from a pretty reliable source: A phone call from WNET president Neal Shapiro, who also had not yet seen the film but was very, VERY worried that it might be upsetting to the filthy rich guy — and bigass donor — on the station’s board. Shapiro offered to let Koch appear on a panel discussion of the film, to air immediately afterward, or if he’d prefer, Koch could provide a written statement. You know, Shapiro said, “as a courtesy.” Such a thoughtful fellow! Shapiro did not invite filmmaker Alex Gibney or any of the irrelevant Bronx-dwellers from the wrong end of Park Avenue to be on the panel, because are you kidding?
Mayer gives Shapiro and WNET this much credit: At least they didn’t pull the film or ask Gibney to alter its content. They merely attempted to placate a VIP donor by following the broadcast with a two-paragraph statement from a Koch Industries spokesandroid who called the film “disappointing and divisive” — although she acknowledged to Mayer that she also had not seen the film, just the trailer. Oh, and the roundtable panel, albeit without any actual Kochs. And they replaced the PBS-produced intro to the film with a WNET intro describing “Park Avenue” as “controversial” and “provocative.” But otherwise, no changes.
Mayer notes that all of this was just a tad bit unusual:
spokespeople at WNET and PBS conceded that the decision to run the rebuttals was unprecedented. Indeed, it was like appending Letters to the Editor to a front-page article. Gibney asked me, “Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors? And why did the station allow Koch to offer a critique of a film he hadn’t even seen? Money. Money talks.”
WNET president Neal Shapiro also went to bat for David Koch with the Independent Television Service (ITVS), the production company that funds and produces the Independent Lens series that “Park Avenue” was part of. He gave them a good yelling at, and admits that he “threatened not to carry its films in the future.” But that’s not all! There was grievous butthurt from other residents of 740 Park Avenue, including some nice people who ranted for 20 minutes to a producer for Gibney’s production company, telling him that maybe if WNET doesn’t give its Very Important Funders the deference that they deserve, then maybe they’ll all just leave New York for Florida, and how would you and your little artsy-fartsy film club pals like THAT, hmmmm?
Mayer also looks at how Big Kochdollars appear to have played a key role in killing off another project that had initially been greenlit by ITVS, a film with the working title Citizen Koch. A rough cut of the film got good reviews at Sundance this year, but you are not going to see it on PBS. It is dead now.
Oh, and WNET’s attempts to soothe David Koch with disclaimers and blowjobs also came to naught. He cancelled plans to make a “seven figure” donation to WNET and, last week, resigned from the WNET board. One of Koch’s pet nonprofits, Americans For Prosperity, continues to call for an end to government funding of public broadcasting, because Freedom. And maybe because if public broadcasting is mostly funded by, you know, the actual public, then how can big donors call the shots the way they are entitled to by God? We look forward to the debut of the newly retooled documentary series, Independent Lens (Until Koch Industries Objects).
Haha, and people thought Mitt Romney had something against Big Bird.
Update & Clarification: We received a nice email from Brooke Medansky regarding the PBS/Independent Lens kibosh on the Citizen Koch film:
I saw your story covering the recent news about PBS and David Koch. I work with the filmmakers from Citizen Koch and just wanted to reach out to you about the specific comments about the film being dead. Would you be willing to clarify in your piece that the film is finished and exists, but will not be airing on PBS (it’s killed for airing on PBS technically) and is currently looking for alternative distribution to get it to an audience.
Thanks so much for your help.
Wonkette regrets the error, and hopes that this film gets a distributor toot sweet.