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PBS Ombudsman

David Koch and PBS: The Odd Couple

I was away this week — at the annual international gathering of news ombudsmen, held this year in Los Angeles — and so am a bit late in catching up with the saga that unfolded in the pages of the newest edition of The New Yorker magazine that is reflected in the headline on this column.

The headline and sub-headline on the magazine article are particularly artful in capturing what was to follow in The New Yorker's pages. It is titled "A Word From Our Sponsor . . . Public television's attempts to placate David Koch." Koch, as many people know, is, along with his brother Charles, the owner of Koch Industries, a huge energy and chemical conglomerate that is the second-largest, privately-held company in the U.S. It has made both brothers mega-billionaires.

Although a generally low-profile person, David Koch has become controversial in recent years because of his strong conservative and libertarian views, and substantial financial support for political action groups supporting those views. He is also one of the world's leading philanthropists.

Among the organizations he has helped support financially over the years is public television, to the tune of about $23 million, according to the article. In 1997, he began serving — and still serves — as a trustee of PBS-member station WGBH in Boston and in 2006 he joined the board of New York's PBS-member station WNET. He resigned from that position just last week, on May 16.

Both of these stations are major producing stations for many of the most important programs on PBS.

I've written about Koch's association with WGBH and its award-winning science series NOVA before and also wrote about a program last year titled "Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream" that focused in part on Koch and was part of PBS's Independent Lens series and aired on WNET.

Mayer and Koch; Read All About Them

The author of The New Yorker article is Jane Mayer, a well-known investigative reporter for the magazine who also wrote a lengthy piece about the Koch brothers in the same magazine on Aug. 30, 2010, titled "Covert Operations . . . The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama."

So the work of the industrialist and the reporter is not unfamiliar to either one. Indeed, David Koch, who has a substantial media counter-strike operation of his own, fired back at Mayer immediately after the magazine began a pre-publication circulation of the latest article.

The article is definitely worth reading and Mayer provided a service in bringing several controversial issues to light, although officials at the Independent Television Service (ITVS), New York's WNET and PBS disagree with how some of these episodes are characterized. Their comments are posted below.

Summarized in the very briefest form here, Mayer reported on the New York station's probably unprecedented offer — by its president, Neal Shapiro — to David Koch last year to respond with an on-screen written statement immediately following a critical portrait of him contained within the "Park Avenue" program that dealt with the huge disparity of wealth among New Yorkers living on different ends of that avenue. "Park Avenue" was distributed nationally by PBS as part of its regular and long-running investigative series, Independent Lens. Films for that series are provided by ITVS, which receives some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which oversees congressionally-authorized funding for public television.

Mayer also reported on the more recent decision — involving ITVS officials and some possible involvement of WNET, although that is not made clear in the article — to not move ahead with another film that was to be about the additional influence of money and Koch on politics after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. It was to be called "Citizen Koch."

Independent Lens, which, as I wrote when "Park Avenue" first aired, runs often edgy documentary and investigative programs supplied by ITVS and meant to put a face on important contemporary social issues that don't get much attention elsewhere. ITVS initially recommended the film Citizen Corps for funding. But it eventually withdrew its offer of a production agreement to acquire public television exhibition rights on April 15. The film was neither contracted nor funded, ITVS officials say.

The new film was initially titled "Citizen Corp," but the filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, apparently felt that could be confusing and changed it to "Citizen Koch." Mayer deals with the ITVS cancellation in her article based on some attributed quotes and some from unnamed officials. When I asked ITVS vice-president Lois Vossen for an on-the-record explanation she said: "ITVS began negotiations to fund the film Citizens Corp based on a written proposal. Cuts of the film did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS ceased negotiations." That is the same as an unnamed official told Mayer.

'Untrue' Say the Filmmakers

In the magazine article, the filmmakers blast the ITVS explanation as "untrue." Although they changed the title, they said: "The film we made is identical in premise and execution to the written and video proposals that ITVS green-lit last spring. ITVS backed out of the partnership because they came to fear the reaction our film would provoke. David Koch, whose political activities are featured in the film, happens to be a public-television funder and a trustee of both WNET and WGBH. This wasn't a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple. It's the very thing our film is about — public servants bowing to pressures, direct or indirect, from high-dollar donors."

The article produced a considerable outpouring of support for Mayer's work — and criticism of PBS decision-making — on various online blogs and commentaries, including FAIR, Think Progress, and Truthout and an especially devastating segment on the popular Stephen Colbert television program.

In addition, my office received some 200 emails. About 140 of them were from signers of a petition addressed to me that says: "Please fight censorship from the Koch brothers and air 'Citizen Koch.' Individuals like the Kochs should not have the power to censor public television just because of their personal wealth." The petition was organized by Christine Scherer of Ashland, Mass., who graduated from Binghamton University this month.

Whatever the good intentions of the petitioners to fight censorship, there is no evidence that David Koch interfered with or tried to censor these films. Indeed, the "Park Avenue" film is quite tough on Koch and the Mayer article reports that it was the station that got concerned and initiated the chance for him to offer a post-broadcast statement or take part in a follow-up discussion.

There is also no evidence in the Mayer article that Koch sought to censor the second film, "Citizen Koch," which was focused on the battle in Wisconsin over the Republican governor's effort to ban collective-bargaining by public-service unions and the Koch financial role in backing the governor. That film is also tough on Koch. Mayer reports that at one point, the words "TWO BILLIONAIRE EXTREMISTS" appeared on the screen.

My Thoughts

It is hard for me to assess the charges flying back and forth about what actually happened and the New Yorker piece. For one thing, the "Citizen Koch" film will not be distributed by PBS to its member stations, so we are talking here about a film that very few people have seen other than those who saw it debut in January at the Sundance film festival. I have not seen it yet.

More to the point, however, is that what we may be dealing with here may be a form of self-censorship in which officials at ITVS, and maybe at WNET and PBS itself, become wary of the impact of another PBS-distributed film critical of a hugely wealthy and politically active trustee of two key PBS stations who had already donated $23 million to public broadcasting and was reportedly considering a new, very large gift. Self-censorship is frequently impossible to prove because it suggests you know what is going on inside a person's head. But the unspoken influence of money — especially big money — can be thought-provoking inside organizations, especially public ones that are always scrounging and live within a unique and uncertain fund-raising environment.

Although some of Mayer's reporting about "Citizen Koch" is based on unnamed sources, the strength of the article does reflect the internal concerns that can or did, as the thrust of her article suggests, lead to intense internal pressures that come to equal self-censorship. The reporting and quotes throughout appear convincing. One unnamed public television official, referring to the "Citizen Koch" proposal, is quoted as saying that, "because of the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it. Never." Mayer had also reported that WNET's Shapiro was so livid about being blind-sided by ITVS's "Park Avenue" that he threatened not to carry its films in the future.

Did 'Advocacy' Play a Role?

The independent producers of both these documentary films — Alex Gibney, a 2008 Academy Award winner who made the "Park Avenue" film, and the Lessin and Deal combination who had previously won the top award at Sundance — are highly-regarded filmmakers.

But in the case of the "Citizen Koch" film, aside from the physical and financial presence of Koch on the two boards, another factor, unspoken, may also be involved in the decision-making.

Mayer touches on it in her article. Though the producers say they are registered with neither party, she writes, "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."

My search of the reviews I think could justifiably describe them as "mixed." The film is praised as a "well-made documentary" and "the editing is crisp" in a review in Film Geek Radio, in which the author says he agrees with the film's stance on finance reform. "But instead of simply following the money . . . Citizen Koch gets bogged down in using every opportunity to portray conservatives as simple-minded, ignorant fools." The Hollywood Reporter writes: "You don't have to get to the end credits-crawl to discern the political sentiments of the filmmakers." Screen Daily says there is too little fact-checking and asks, "Is there any substantive proof of how much corporate money has corrupted the American political system? After all, just a few months ago, the Koch brothers lost and Obama won." The Cap Times in Wisconsin says the film "unabashedly chooses sides" and the Salt Lake Tribune describes it as an "advocacy" film.

Elements of a Perfect Storm

For someone like me, who gets paid to watch PBS, Mayer's story also exists on another level, beyond the one specifically focused on how these two films were dealt with. It's a cliché, but the article seems to me to record sort of a "perfect storm" that more often than one might imagine descends upon this unusual broadcasting service.

First of all, you have to raise money. And there can be extremely wealthy people on the station boards who are also donors. And some of them, like David Koch, are in a class by themselves and certainly worthy of scrutiny as public figures by all kinds of media. Then you have PBS, which is a membership organization and distribution system, not a network. It has editorial guidelines but is prone to point out, especially when things go wrong, that it is dependent on its members and producers to screen things and that the stations are all independently owned and operated and make their own programming decisions. So fingers always seem to point someplace else.

As a result, there is nothing that you'd call, or at least I would call, an editor-in-chief at PBS because they don't actually produce anything. So you have, as the Mayer article reflects, an environment where the president of WNET, Neal Shapiro, gets surprised and suddenly concerned about the "Park Avenue" film, which he had not seen, just days before it was to go on the air. The concern was not just about Koch but about New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a leading Democrat, as well. To the credit of WNET, they aired the film but added those post-broadcast features that seemed to want to remove some of the sting.

My sense, admittedly in hindsight because I was unaware of this before Mayer reported on it, is that WNET and Shapiro should have let the aftermath of "Park Avenue" unfold naturally — and found a more considered way to deal with the criticism later — rather than reaching out to Koch and setting up what turned out to be an awkward post-broadcast session that seemed hasty and somewhat apologetic.

In the "Citizen Koch" episode, that, too, seemed to bubble up suddenly in the aftermath of "Park Avenue," with no one at PBS and WNET apparently knowing, if you believe that, that another film about Koch was in the works at ITVS. PBS can say, as they do, that these are matters for ITVS and WNET. But the headlines that explode from all the critical blogs and commentaries, not to mention the Colbert program, all say PBS in big letters and logos.

PBS, as Mayer also points out, has standards for "editorial integrity." They state, in part, that: "PBS and its member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources." In the article, a PBS spokesperson is asked if WNET's action were appropriate, and said, not surprisingly: "WNET is in the best position to respond to this query."

I have two problems with this. The first is that there is no evidence that Koch exerted improper influence. The magazine article suggested it was WNET's idea to add the post-broadcast features. But more importantly, I believe the guidelines, which are in the PBS manual of Editorial Standards and Policies, require both PBS and its member stations to comply. So PBS ought to weigh-in, as I read it, when some important issue is raised.

Responses from PBS and WNET

I asked Jan McNamara, senior director of corporate communications at PBS, about the circumstances surrounding both episodes and the guidelines. She said: "WNET followed the PBS guideline to 'shield the creative and editorial process' by airing the television version of Alex Gibney's film 'Park Avenue' in its entirety. The standards also state that 'each station makes different decisions about how to supplement PBS's programs.' As for 'Citizen Koch,' PBS had no direct involvement with ITVS' dealings with Ms. Lessin or Mr. Deal or ITVS' decisions about the film. It had not been submitted to PBS by ITVS."

Here is the exchange with WNET's Kellie Castruita Specter:

Q — Why did WNET allow Koch and Schumer to post rebuttal statements on air after the film, especially since Koch said he had not seen it and (a Koch spokesperson) had turned down a request to interview Koch by Gibney?

A — We did not call to ask for "rebuttal" statements about this film. We wanted our host to interview the two main characters as part of a locally-produced program after the film aired. When each declined to be interviewed, they instead gave us a brief statement which we read on the air. This is common practice in broadcast journalism. Although Mr. Koch hadn't seen the entire film on PBS, much of the substance of the film was already well-known from reviews of the film in newspapers and from an extended clip already posted on line. Indeed, by the time we called him on Monday as a courtesy to tell him about the documentary, he was well aware of it.

(Ombudsman's Note: Mayer's article reports that WNET chief Neal Shapiro offered Koch the opportunity to provide a written response.)

Q — Was the decision to run rebuttals immediately following the airing of the film "unprecedented," as is reported in the magazine article?

A — These were not rebuttals about the thesis of the film. They were brief statements which cited publicly available material which the filmmaker did not include: the senator's voting record and Mr. Koch's philanthropy. Most of the program was an in-depth examination of the issues raised in the documentary from all points of view.


Films like this — controversial and set in our own city — are rare but we have been consistent. We ran a roundtable discussion after the documentary "Torturing Democracy" in 2008 which was a provocative look at how the U.S. Gov't dealt with controversial interrogation methods after 9/11. Like "Park Avenue," which focused on New York City, "Torturing Democracy" had a particular resonance for our audience, so many of whom experienced 9/11 first-hand.

Q — Was the "Park Avenue" film reviewed before it aired by WNET officials, including Neal Shapiro? If so, when was that done?

A — We reviewed the film late Friday when the content was brought to our attention by an op-ed columnist. We typically rely on ITVS and PBS to screen for controversial topics and bring them to our attention.

Q — Was the introduction of the film changed as reported in the article, to now include the "controversial" and "provocative" descriptions?

A — We replaced the provided introduction with one that acknowledged the local context of the film, since the topic focused directly on New York City. The introduction stated that the documentary was the point of view of an award-winning filmmaker and that a local special would follow immediately after Independent Lens. We showed our changes to PBS and secured their approval. We did use the words "controversial" and "provocative" which we feel are both apt descriptions of the film and true to the original PBS introduction, which called the film a "treatise". The resulting audience response confirms this is indeed a controversial, provocative film.

Q — Did WNET officials request or exert pressure on ITVS to alter the approach or content of "Citizen Koch" in any way? If so, please explain.

A — No. No one at WNET knew anything about this documentary.

Q — Do you believe, in hindsight, that having such prominent, politically active and wealthy individuals as David Koch as trustees for a producing station is a good idea?

A — For the past fifty years, WNET has had an independent board of trustees with diverse political views and financial circumstances.

Q — Can you say anything generally about whether Koch was intending to make a large contribution to WNET but cancelled because of the "Park Avenue" film?

A — Unless expressly requested by a donor, our policy is that don't discuss donor contributions. We believe a similar policy is in place in many PBS stations and non-profits across the country.

Q — As you know, PBS Editorial Standards and Policies require that "PBS and its member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources." With respect to that, how do you explain offering Koch and Schumer the opportunity for a post-broadcast statement?

A — There was no pressure from anyone to air the roundtable discussion we produced. It was entirely WNET's decision and it was in response to a controversial film set in our own backyard which we felt cried out for more discussion and context. Our actions are consistent with the way in which we handle controversial films and our desire to find local angles on national stories.

Q — If there was pressure in some fashion on ITVS from WNET to not move ahead with Citizen Koch, how do you explain that? Did David Koch complain about the forthcoming film or was it the internal decisions of ITVS and WNET that led to the cancellation?

A — As we've stated above, no one at WNET knew anything about this film and never had any discussions about it with ITVS or any other entity.

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