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Why Private Interests Are Dangerous for Public Television

By Michael Lumpkin

For decades both documentary filmmakers and lovers of the documentary art form have relied on the Public Broadcasting Service to provide a forum where the best nonfiction work can reach the audience it deserves. PBS has become our nation's electronic commons—a space relatively free of commerce and commercialism, where diverse American voices can be heard over the for-profit media's roar.

But despite its vital role in our cultural life, PBS has always had the same perennial problem: how to pay the bills. Public funding was supposed to keep it independent, impartial and commercial free. But Congress has cut that funding again and again. Pledge breaks and tote bags can only carry a station so far. So a big donation from a major philanthropist can seem like a lifeline. The question becomes, does the lifeline come with strings?

In a recent New Yorker article, Jane Mayer lays out the case that when it comes to donations from conservative billionaire philanthropist David Koch, the answer is yes. Mayer reveals Koch's role on the boards of the PBS network's two flagship stations: WGBH-Boston and Thirteen/WNET-New York. She also takes a hard look at WNET President Neal Shapiro's efforts to placate Koch when a documentary critical of the Koch family, Alex Gibney's Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, aired on the PBS/Independent Television Service (ITVS) series, Independent Lens.

According to Mayer, Shapiro threatened to ban Independent Lens from the WNET schedule—a move that could be fatal to ITVS, given that New York is the largest media market in the country. He also rewrote the film’s introduction and staged a round table discussion after it aired to soften its impact. But despite Shapiro’s efforts, Koch eventually resigned from the WNET board—a move his critics applauded but which cost the station a promised seven-figure donation to its capital campaign.

There’s little doubt that filmmakers and fans of documentaries and PBS should be troubled by these revelations. Mayer makes a convincing case that at best Shapiro violated PBS’s vital commitment to “shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.”

Mayer also reports that Shapiro’s flare-up may have had an impact on a second film project as well: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's upcoming Citizen Koch, a fiscally sponsored project of the IDA, and a recipient of a grant from IDA's Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund. An uncompromising look at the impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision unleashing unlimited corporate money into politics, Citizen Koch focuses in part on the roles played by David Koch and his brother Charles in underwriting conservative causes and politicians.

Deal and Lessin told Mayer they submitted written and video proposals for the project, then called Citizen Corp, to ITVS and received a positive response. The filmmakers and ITVS entered negotiations for a license to broadcast the film on PBS. But five months after Gibney's Park Avenue aired, the negotiations ended without a contract.

According to an ITVS statement released today, it had "initially recommended the film Citizen Corp for production licensing based on a written proposal. Early cuts of the film, including the Sundance version, did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS eventually withdrew its offer of a production agreement to acquire public television exhibition rights."

Deal and Lessin are certain that fear of Koch was to blame. "This wasn’t a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple," they insist. "It’s the very thing our film is about—public servants bowing to pressures, direct or indirect, from high-dollar donors.

"After much thought, we decided to go public with our experience hoping that, like the film itself, it will spark conversation about how power wielded by high-dollar political donors like Charles and David Koch distorts the public dialogue."

This is the real lesson in Mayer's exposé. That PBS, our invaluable electronic commons, is under siege from interests devoted to profit and power, whose brand of philanthropy is defined not so much by altruism but by control. As long as it remains underfunded by Congress, PBS will be susceptible to pressures from wealthy activists like Koch.

Fortunately, there are two things we can do right now to start turning things around.

First, those who create content for PBS, and those who support them, must come together to develop strategies and tactics to deal with similar situations in the future, and to make sure that we continue to hold PBS to its own high standards.

Second, we need to free PBS and its affiliates from dependence on private donors by doing everything we can to ensure they get the full public funding necessary.

Only a combination of revitalized public funding and strict adherence to existing PBS standards for private donations will prevent conflicts of interest such as the ones that swirled around Koch and WNET. Only then will PBS be preserved as the diverse, impartial and commercial-free forum it has been for decades, and can continue to be for decades to come—if we commit ourselves to keeping it alive.

So call your congressperson, call your senator, call the President, and tell them to fund PBS. And support filmmaker advocacy by becoming a member of IDA.

Further reading:
Jane Mayer: A Word from Our Sponsor: Public television’s attempts to placate David Koch
Statement about "A Word From Our Sponsor," by Carl Deal & Tia Lessin
ITVS responds to New Yorker article on Park Avenue and Citizen Koch