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Tuesday, 28 May 2013 11:33

NYC PBS President Freaks Out Over Documentary Critical of Koch Brothers, Offers David Koch Unprecedented Rebuttal

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MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

pbsThom Hartmann recently wrote an extremely widely read article on how the Public Broadcasting Service has evolved into a sometimes self-censored television network, in large part because major donors represent the 1% who would be the subject of discussion when it comes to economic concentration in the hands of a few.

Hartmann entitled his commentary, "The Corporate Dictatorship of PBS and NPR." The primary example Hartmann offers of how critical analysis necessary for formulating public policy is de facto censored concerns how PBS dropped the funding of a documentary called "Citizen Koch."

As Hartmann details,

Public broadcasting institutions now rely more and more on corporate and billionaire cash to operate, which is probably why PBS and NPR now filter what they play on their airwaves, so that they don’t anger their wealthy backers.

This is where the documentary “Citizen Koch” comes in.

“Citizen Koch” is a documentary about money and politics, focusing heavily on the uprising that took place in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012.

It talks about how the Citizens United decision paved the way for secretive political spending by major players, including the Koch Brothers.

As Brendan Fischer over at the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch points out, the documentary was originally supposed to air on PBS stations nationwide, but its funding was abruptly cut off when, it appears, David Koch was offended.

But why would PBS care if David Koch didn’t like one of their documentaries?

Because, according to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, David Koch has donated upwards of $23 million to public television. And when you donate $23 million dollars to public television, you get more than just a tote bag or a coffee mug – you get to dictate the on-air programming.

This brings us to the PBS WNET affiliate in NYC, where David Koch recently sat on the board.  He was also rumored to be readying a "seven-figure" gift to the Big Apple Public Broadcasting station.

Enter Alex Gibney, who won a 2008 Academy Award for "Taxi To the Dark Side" – his meticulous and compelling exposure of the death by torture of an innocent Afghan taxi driver due to sanctioned torture in Afghanistan.  Gibney filmed a documentary for WNET, "Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream" that focused on one of the wealthiest residential buildings in New York City: 740 Park Avenue.

According to Jane Mayer, who had written about the Kochs before in a celebrated New Yorker article in 2010, it would be difficult to do a film about 740 Park Avenue without examining the Koch empire that created their wealth, as well as their political activities. What did WNET President Neal Shapiro do when he realized that "Park Avenue" might offend David Koch? Why, he called him and offered him a rebuttal, a roundtable discussion, a written response: anything that would appease a 1% donor who was on the board of the station (Koch has since quit) and was about to give a bundle to WNET.

In Jane Meyer's New Yorker article she interviews Shapiro:

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. He’s on our board. He’s the biggest main character. No one else, just David Koch. Because he’s a trustee. It’s a courtesy.” Shapiro, who joined WNET six years ago, from NBC News, added, “I can’t remember doing anything like this—I can’t remember another documentary centered around New York and key people in the city, and such controversial topics.

”PBS has standards for “editorial integrity,” and its guidelines state that “member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” A PBS spokesperson, when asked if it considered WNET’s actions appropriate, said, “WNET is in the best position to respond to this query,” noting that member stations are autonomous.

It gets more poitically compromised, involving the senior senator from New York, as Meyer describes it:

The weekend before “Park Avenue” aired, Gibney said, it was clear that “something weird had happened.” Shapiro called him at home. “He was very upset,” Gibney said. “They were thinking of pulling the program.” Gibney was told that the most pressing problem was Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. Schumer’s staff had called WNET, arguing that “Park Avenue” falsely accused the Senator of supporting tax loopholes for hedge-fund managers. Gibney double-checked his research and stood by his interpretation. Nevertheless, Shapiro told him that he planned to allow Schumer to add a response after the broadcast. But, Gibney noted, “Shapiro told me nothing about the Kochs.”

In his Truthout article, Thom Hartmann concentrated on the complete public television funding shutdown on "Citizen Koch" (made by separate filmmakers), which did go on to independently premiere at Sundance. But the WNET battle over "Park Avenue" clearly intimidated, according to Meyer's New Yorker Piece, other documentary makers in terms of what appeared to be a growing PBS bias to protect wealthy donors and board members from on-air criticism.  

With the new "austerity," it is ominous that PBS may turn into the Plutocrat Broadcasting System, because the wealthy will increasingly become the source of dollars to run the network and affiliates.

Or maybe it will just be called the Park Avenue Broadcasting System.

Update: It has been brought to our attention that decisions and actions of individual PBS affiliates do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of other PBS affiliates or the national PBS organization.

(Photo: Melanie.Phung)