The Documentary ‘Citizen Koch’ Regains Money
By BRIAN STELTER
New York Times
August 12, 2013
One year ago, the filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal thought they had hit the public television jackpot. ITVS, an arm of public television that finances independent documentaries, had signaled interest in subsidizing and broadcasting a film about the influence of big-dollar donors on elections. At the time, Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal were calling their documentary “Citizen Corp,” and they were expecting $150,000 from ITVS to help them finish producing it.
Then a few things happened. Last fall, the film was renamed “Citizen Koch,” a reference to Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialists who are major supporters of conservative causes. Around the same time, ITVS (through its “Independent Lens” series) gave the premiere of a film called “Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream,” which was critical of David Koch and other rich New Yorkers. That film caused heartburn at WNET, the powerhouse PBS station in New York, where Mr. Koch was a benefactor and board member. By April, a few months after “Citizen Koch” had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the $150,000 expected from ITVS had evaporated.
Now the money is back, but from a new source. After ITVS told Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal that it was not going to finance the film or consider it for “Independent Lens,” spurring accusations of self-censorship, the filmmakers set up a fund-raising drive on Kickstarter. Last week, that drive passed the $150,000 mark, more than twice the original goal, in effect replacing all the money that ITVS had rescinded. Kickstarter said the number of backers — 3,400 — put “Citizen Koch” in the top 1 percent of all the campaigns the Web site has hosted.
But the filmmakers still do not know how the documentary will be distributed, beyond the DVDs they have pledged to send their Kickstarter supporters. They have looked at streaming services like Netflix; there have been conversations about a theatrical release, too. But PBS stations (by virtue of their being beamed over the public airwaves) are among the preferred ways for documentaries to reach audiences, and the best route to the stations — through ITVS — appears blocked.
On Tuesday, a coalition of progressive groups, including New York’s liberal Working Families Party, said they would deliver a petition with more than 300,000 signatures to WNET’s offices, calling on PBS to show the film. PBS, for its part, says it is not involved; any decisions rest with ITVS, which has a board that selects films for “Independent Lens,” which is then carried by stations.
ITVS declined to answer questions about the film. The organization has not responded to a nine-page letter sent six weeks ago by a First Amendment lawyer retained by Ms. Lessin and Mr. Deal. That letter, unpublicized until now, called on the organization to investigate what happened with “Citizen Koch” and to institute reforms.
“Do you think ITVS will reverse itself?” Ms. Lessin said in an interview. “They haven’t given any indication they will.”
Mr. Deal said: “We’re holding out hope. Our door is open.”
In a statement last spring, ITVS characterized what happened as a mundane editorial choice: “ITVS began negotiations to fund the film ‘Citizen Corp’ based on a written proposal. Cuts of the film did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS ceased negotiations.”
The filmmakers say that is not true. The film, they assert, was always intended to focus on the 2012 Wisconsin recall election, in which the incumbent Republican governor, Scott Walker, was supported by the Kochs and other wealthy conservatives. “We didn’t insert them in the film — they inserted themselves into the film we were making,” Mr. Deal said.
The filmmakers meticulously documented — and, in May, shared with The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer — their back-and-forth with ITVS officials, which show that in December, weeks after the “Park Avenue” film (by the widely respected documentarian Alex Gibney) was televised, ITVS officials bristled at the addition of the Koch name in the title and demanded that it be changed. (One called the title “extraordinarily problematic,” they say.)
The WNET president, Neal Shapiro, meanwhile, was furious with ITVS for not giving him notice about the content of “Park Avenue” — so much so that, according to The New Yorker, he “threatened not to carry its films in the future.”
There is no straight line from Mr. Koch to ITVS’s change toward “Citizen Koch;” the PBS ombudsman Michael Getler said flatly in May that “there is no evidence that David Koch interfered with or tried to censor these films.” That same month, Mr. Koch resigned from the board of WNET; when asked why on Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Koch did not respond to a request for comment.
But “Citizen Koch” has clearly benefited from fears about corporate influence over public television and, in particular, over ITVS, which has historically prided itself on its independence. “Donors’ money shouldn’t be dictating programming or editorial choices,” Ms. Lessin said.
For progressive groups, some of which view outsize political spending by Mr. Koch and his brother as a grave threat to democracy, the issues surrounding the film play into a larger, more distressing plotline involving the family’s media interests. Last month, Charles Koch confirmed speculation that he and David Koch might be interested in buying the Tribune Company’s newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, in the future.
“The Koch brothers try to purchase cultural respectability on the one hand, even as they advance a hard-right economic agenda,” said Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, which has not previously organized its members around media issues. He said the party was “flabbergasted” by the response to its petition to PBS, which MoveOn, Credo and other advocacy groups also promoted.
Mr. Cantor said he has not seen the film yet. Neither has Mr. Shapiro of WNET, who suggested in a telephone conversation on Monday that invective aimed toward his station is misplaced.
“We have a history of running controversial films; we don’t shy away from them,” he said, also pointing out that programs like “NewsHour” and “Frontline” have repeatedly examined the intersection of money and politics. But WNET does not schedule documentaries on its own; ITVS does.
For now, what the filmmakers have are fresh funds, thanks to the Web. And one more thing that filmmakers everywhere cherish: persuasive evidence, via the fund-raising drive and the petition, that thousands of people want to watch what they have produced.