PBS Killed Wisconsin Uprising Documentary "Citizen Koch" To Appease Koch Brothers

"Citizen Koch," a documentary about money in politics focused on the Wisconsin uprising, was shunned by PBS for fear of offending billionaire industrialist David Koch, who has given $23 million to public television, according to Jane Mayer of the New YorkerThe dispute highlights the increasing role of private money in "public" television and raises even further concerns about the Kochs potentially purchasing eight major daily newspapers.

Citizen KochThe film from Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin documents how the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision helped pave the way for secret political spending by players like the Kochs, who contributed directly and indirectly to the election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2010 and came to his aid again when the battle broke out over his effort to limit collective bargaining. 

Originally slated to appear on PBS stations nationwide as part of the "Independent Lens" series, "Citizen Koch" had its funding pulled after David Koch was offended by another PBS documentary critical of the billionaire industrialists.

"People like the Kochs have worked for decades to undermine public funding for institutions like PBS," Deal told the Center for Media and Democracy. "When public dollars dry up, private dollars come in to make up for the shortfall."

And that private funding can conflict with PBS' "public" mission and its editorial integrity. The PBS distributor "backed out of the partnership because they came to fear the reaction our film would provoke," Deal and Lessin said in a statement. "David Koch, whose political activities are featured in the film, happens to be a public-television funder and a trustee of both [New York PBS member station] WNET and [Boston member station] WGBH. This wasn’t a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple.”

"Park Avenue" Documentary Raised Koch Hackles

In November of last year, the New York PBS affiliate WNET aired a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, "Park Avenue," that explored growing income inequality by contrasting the lives of residents in a luxury apartment building in Manhattan with individuals living on the other end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx. The film focuses on one of the apartment's wealthiest residents, David Koch, and does not paint a particularly positive image of the billionaire industrialist and his brother, Charles.

Koch is also a board trustee and major donor to WNET. And WNET's president called him before the documentary aired to alert Koch to the critical content -- and took the nearly unprecedented step of airing a disclaimer from Koch following the film calling it "disappointing and divisive." WNET also replaced the original introduction to the film, which had been narrated by actor Stanley Tucci, with one calling the film "controversial" and "provocative." 

“They tried to undercut the credibility of the film, and I had no opportunity to defend it,” the film's director Gibney told Mayer. "Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors?"

Independent Television Service (ITVS), an arm of PBS that funds and distributes independent films, had funded "Park Avenue," and aired it as part of ITVS' popular "Independent Lens" series that runs on dozens of PBS member stations. ITVS also funded "Citizen Koch" and it was also slated to be aired on the Independent Lens series. 

But "Citizen Koch" got caught in the blowback.

Fearing Koch Backlash, Funding Pulled on "Citizen Koch"

ITVS was excited about the "Citizen Koch" documentary before "Park Avenue" aired. In April 2012, the company informed Deal and Lessin their film would receive $150,000, and that “Everyone here at ITVS looks forward to working with you on your very exciting and promising program.”

But once "Park Avenue" aired, WNET blamed ITVS for impacting its relationship with David Koch and not providing advance notice of the film's contents. Mayer writes: 

"[WNET President Neal] 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."

ITVS got the message, and quickly changed its tune on "Citizen Koch."

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Lessin and Deal began receiving pressure from ITVS executives to change the title and de-emphasize the Kochs' political influence. One executive told the filmmakers the title was "extremely problematic" and that “we live in a world where we have to be aware that people with power have power.”

On a conference call in January, ITVS executives acknowledged the push-back from WNET over the "Park Avenue" film, and again urged the filmmakers to change the storyline. Sources told Mayer that what their message was "Get rid of the Koch story line ... Because of the whole thing with the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it."

"It is always a struggle for documentaries to get out there," Deal told CMD. "That's why PBS and ITVS are so important: they support independent filmmakers to say new things on the public airwaves." But because of funding pressures, "we won't have access to that audience now," he said. "We're disappointed."

PBS Reaction to "Citizen Koch" Proved the Film's Point: Money Talks

"Citizen Koch," which premiered at Sundance in January and competed for Best Documentary, followed the activism and struggles of former Republicans who felt betrayed by Walker's union-busting move (which he never mentioned on the campaign trail). The film documents the role of Koch-funded entities like Americans for Prosperity, which spent $10 million aiding Walker in his recall election. The film's final scene shows an Americans for Prosperity official making the incredible claim the group is "just like the Red Cross, just like any other nonprofit.”

In April of this year, one day after the film had its Dairy State premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival, ITVS informed Lessin and Deal it had "decided not to move forward with the project."

In a statement, the filmmakers said this is an ironic turn: “It’s the very thing our film is about—public servants bowing to pressures, direct or indirect, from high-dollar donors.”

ITVS wrote in a prepared statement: “ITVS commenced negotiations to fund the film ‘Citizen Corp’ based on a written proposal. Early cuts of the film did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS ceased negotiations.” The filmmakers disagreed. “The film we made is identical in premise and execution to the written and video proposals that ITVS green-lit last spring," they said in a statement.

"I don't believe there was a concerted conspiracy to keep 'Citizen Koch' off of public television, with David Koch as a ringleader," Deal told CMD. "Instead, Koch's presence and role in that world created an environment that was hostile to our message. And that was enough." 

Just before Mayer's New Yorker article was published, on May 16, David Koch resigned from WNET's board. The resignation was the result, a source told Mayer, "of his unwillingness to back a media organization that had so unsparingly covered its sponsor."

As has been widely reported, the Kochs are now considering a purchase of eight major daily newspapers currently owned by the Tribune Companies. And that has Deal worried. 

"For anybody who says the owner or funder of an outlet doesn't have an impact on what gets published, I hope they'll think again."

This article has been updated.

Want to see the film the Kochs don't want you to see? Visit the Citizen Koch website and organize a screening in your area. 


I think there's very much undue hostility towards David Koch as an individual for being so heavily involved in politics, even though he seems to oppose a lot of the particularly cruel policies of the far right. I don't see him as being that much different than any other philanthropist, and certainly there's as much to criticize about Bill Gates or Sheldon Adelson, for example. Why is this one guy being singled out so often?

You have got to be kidding me!! Bill and Melinda gates are using their foundation to try to eliminate polio from the planet and to support a wide variety of health initiatives. The only political fight I am aware of the gates family being engaged in was the 2010 voter initiative in WA state to create an income tax to minimize the damage of decreasing revenues in health and social services in their home state. Comparing them to David Koch is like comparing Mahatma Gandhi to Hitler.

Polio has already been dealt with. Bill Gates is trying to vaccinate people. From experience we know these vaccines are easily manipulated. If Koch is giving money to PBS that is simply a good investment. Gates believes in the United Nations depopulation agenda. Now Gandhi is great but did Hitler really start out trying to unite Europe or take it over. To defeat the Corporations which have no conscious you have to do it from within. I'ts simply a right wing Conspiracy and it's righty tighty leftly loosey. This is a highly educated lot commenting on this site and most colleges are supported and funded by the left liberals. And the top 1% are not the bad guys it's more like the 15% just under the top 1% that is delusional and being deluded in your mind leaves you open to well alien influences. We have to separate the mice from the men. Hitler was framed at the end by the satanists same as I believe this Koch man. One has to use discernment. What is obvious is not always what is real. Truth is hidden because it is so valuable like a treasure buried.

You don't know much about this guy or his evil brother. They own the Libertarians, Reason Foundation, Cato, Heritage, Americans for Prosperity, ALEC and half a dozen other far right groups. He gets singled out because his groups have done so damn much damage. Every one of the groups that he supports pushes an extreme right wing agenda based on AYN RAND's crackpot ideas. Their policies have caused the resegregation of a school in NC., horrible poverty in half a dozen states...the pipeline debacle and more.

I know you must need a boogeyman and all, but you have to realize that not all of those things are the same. The Cato Institute has long had a poor relationship with the Ayn Rand Institute, because they don't believe the same things. The people promoting Ayn Rand are the Wall Street and Silicon Valley types and wannabes with delusions of grandeur, who believe they are heroes holding up the world, and haven't yet figured out that Michael Douglas's character in a certain '80s movie directed by Oliver Stone was supposed to be the bad guy. I'm opposed to some basic tenets of libertarian philosophy, but as a whole, most libertarians are not that bad, compared to the people who still dominate the Republican Party. I'd prefer it to getting fundamentalist morality forced on me, a police state, or perpetual war to Americanize the world, to say the least. Seriously, you're taking this rich guy and his brother, and making them the supreme evil responsible for all of the ills the U.S. faces, when I'm sure they probably have more than a few views that a lot of you agree with. The collective decisions of the very wealthy as a class, perhaps, but one or two dudes are not the problem you're looking for.

are you kidding------ "I pledge allegiance to the dollar and the corporate states of America and to the greed for which it stands----"

Your words are dead on, the fact our country is headed down the wrong path- at the behest of delusional billionaires, Bankers, hedge fund managers, & rating agencies who don't go to jail. 400 ppm carbon in the air we breathe.I could go on & on. An inept Justice Department-Jamie Dimond, Lloyd Blankfein. Olny a Robespirre type movement can clean-up this mess. As the government is paralyzed by the magic dust of quid pro quo corruption and power from the 1% delusional, elite, plutocrats... It's an indictment that can be proved! But, let's trash the planet and do nothing. So sad, indeed.

when david koch or sheldon adelson appear on this list alongside bill gates and warren buffett, i'll consider them philanthropists. http://givingpledge.org/ that's like calling the koch brothers ENVIRONMENTALISTS. they can say they are philanthropists or environmentalists, but their actions belie those claims.

Davis Koch is, I believe, singled out because he has been for decades using his wealth to undermine democracy more than any other billionaire. He is different and highly dangerous because his wealth is so massive and such means, and the power and influence it buys, are a major threat to American democracy. Photographed frequently at New York social events, and accompanied by his trophy wife, he always registers a sly and sinister smile, a factor that exemplifies an individual who hides the dirty secrets of the human spirit.

My congratulations to PR Watch for exposing the insidious effects of the Koch brothers and Citizens United on public broadcasting. As a former employee of WGBH for more than 30 years, it was heartbreaking and infuriating to see the same Koch-supported union busting tactics used in Wisconsin applied to what was once PBS's strongly independent "flagship" station.