Last fall, Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker who won an Academy Accolade in 2008 for an exposé of ache at a U.S. aggressive abject in Afghanistan, completed a blur alleged “Park Avenue: Money, Ability and the American Dream.” It was appointed to air on PBS on November 12th. The cine had been produced independently, in allotment with abutment from the Gates Foundation. “Park Avenue” is a acicular analysis of the growing bread-and-butter asperity in America and a brainwork on the generally self-justifying mind-set of “the one per cent.” As a anecdotal device, Gibney focusses on one of the best big-ticket accommodation barrio in Manhattan—740 Park Avenue—portraying it as an adumbration of concentrated abundance and allegory the lives of its citizenry with those of poor bodies active at the added end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx.
Among the wealthiest association of 740 Park is David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who, with his brother Charles, owns Koch Industries, a huge energy-and-chemical conglomerate. The Koch brothers are accustomed for their acerb bourgeois backroom and for their efforts to accounts a arrangement of advancement groups whose ambition is to move the country to the right. David Koch is a above philanthropist, accidental to cultural and medical institutions that accommodate Lincoln Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In the nineteen-eighties, he began accretion his accommodating contributions to the media, altruistic twenty-three amateur dollars to accessible television over the years. In 1997, he began confined as a trustee of Boston’s public-broadcasting operation, WGBH, and in 2006 he abutting the lath of New York’s public-television outlet, WNET. Contempo account letters acquire adapted that the Koch brothers are because affairs eight circadian newspapers endemic by the Tribune Company, one of the country’s better media empires, adopting apropos that its publications—which accommodate the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times—might camber account advantage to serve the interests of their new owners, either through controlling mandates or through self-censorship. Clarence Page, a advanced Tribune columnist, afresh said that the Kochs appeared absorbed on application a media aggregation “as a agent for their political voice.”
“Park Avenue” includes a able account of the Koch brothers, cogent the history of their ancestors aggregation and chronicling their abounding donations to universities and anticipate tanks. It appearance comments from allies like Tim Phillips, the admiral of the Kochs’ basic advancement group, Americans for Prosperity, and from activists in the Tea Party, including Representative Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, who allotment the Kochs’ action to aerial taxes and regulation. (It additionally contains a few quotes from me; in 2010, I wrote an commodity about the Kochs for this magazine, acquainted that they were allotment abundant of the action to Admiral Barack Obama by agilely subsidizing an arrangement of advancement groups.)
A ample allotment of the film, however, capacity the Kochs to boxy scrutiny. “Nobody’s money talks louder than David Koch’s,” the narrator, Gibney, says, anecdotic him as a “right-wing oil tycoon” whose aggregation had to pay what was afresh “the better civilian amends in the E.P.A.’s history” for its role in added than thirty oil spills in 2000. At one point, a above doorman—his face active in shadow, to bottle his anonymity—says that aback he “started at 740” his accepting was that “come about to Christmastime I’m activity to get a thousand from anniversary resident. You know, because they are multibillionaires. But it’s not that way.” He continues, “These guys are businessmen. They apperceive what the activity amount is—they’re not activity to accord you annihilation added than that. The cheapest actuality over all was David Koch. We would amount up his trucks—two vans, usually—every weekend, for the Hamptons . . . assorted guys, in and out, in and out, abundant bags. We would never get a tip from Mr. Koch. We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch. Fifty-dollar analysis for Christmas, too—yeah, I mean, a check! At atomic you could accord us cash.”
For decades, federal allotment for accessible broadcasting has been dwindling, and the government’s addition now makes up alone twelve per cent of PBS’s funds. Affiliates such as WNET are about actually abased on gifts, some of which are sizable: in 2010, WNET accustomed fifteen amateur dollars from James Tisch, the C.E.O. of Loews Corporation, and his wife, Merryl. (James Tisch is now the administrator of WNET’s board.) In New York City, such benefactors accordingly alive in abundant buildings. Indeed, several ancestors of WNET lath associates alive at 740 Park.
In a contempo buzz interview, Neal Shapiro, the admiral of WNET, said that he grew anxious about the film, which he had not yet watched, afterwards Ira Stoll, a bourgeois writer, lambasted it in the Post. On the Friday afore the film’s Monday airdate, Stoll, whose Web site, Approaching of Capitalism, has frequently dedicated the Kochs, wrote, “If the base has any sense, it will use the time until afresh to amend its accommodation to air the program.” He added, “If it doesn’t, its advisers and donors, some of whom alive on Park Avenue, may appetite to accede whether they appetite to abide acknowledging an academy that blame them so viciously.” The analyst for the Times was added positive, writing, “There is affluence actuality to about-face you into a Wall Street occupier,” and observing, “If you were still on the fence about whether to abhor the superrich, this blur will about actually accomplish a cynic out of you.”
That Friday, Shapiro initially said, he alleged Koch at his appointment and told him that the Gibney blur “was activity to be controversial,” noting, “You’re activity to be a big allotment of this thing.” Shapiro offered to appearance him the trailer, and added that he hoped to align “some array of on-air roundtable altercation of it, to accommodate added believability of view.” It could air anon afterwards the documentary. (Shapiro told me, “We did this afterwards Ken Burns’s blur on baseball, too. We like to acquire a bounded angle.”) Shapiro asked Koch, “Do you appetite to be involved?” He additionally offered Koch the befalling to accommodate a accounting response, which the base could air afterwards the show.
According to Shapiro, Koch, who rarely speaks in public, anesthetized on the roundtable offer, saying, “I may aloof appetite to booty it in and watch it, and anatomy an opinion.” He agreed to anticipate about accidental a accounting response.
Shapiro acknowledges that his alarm to Koch was unusual. Although abounding arresting New Yorkers are portrayed in “Park Avenue,” he said that he “only aloof alleged David Koch. He’s on our board. He’s the better basic character. No one else, aloof David Koch. Because he’s a trustee. It’s a courtesy.” Shapiro, who abutting WNET six years ago, from NBC News, added, “I can’t bethink accomplishing annihilation like this—I can’t bethink addition documentary centered about New York and key bodies in the city, and such arguable topics.”
PBS has standards for “editorial integrity,” and its guidelines accompaniment that “member stations are amenable for careful the artistic and beat processes from political burden or abnormal access from funders or added sources.” A PBS spokesperson, aback asked if it advised WNET’s accomplishments appropriate, said, “WNET is in the best position to acknowledge to this query,” acquainted that affiliate stations are autonomous.
Every so often, it becomes accustomed that a account aperture has adapted its advantage in adjustment not to affront a sponsor. In 1998, ABC News, which is endemic by Disney, annulled a address on the hiring of bedevilled pedophiles at Disney World. Canicule earlier, Michael Eisner, Disney’s administrator at the time, had told NPR, “I would adopt ABC not to awning Disney.” In Brill’s Content, a address on the adventure said that it accurate “the examination public’s affliction fears about amassed buying of above account outlets.”
PBS has continued been a political ambition of conservatives. During the aftermost Presidential campaign, aback Mitt Romney recommended eliminating government allotment for accessible broadcasting, he echoed critics such as Newt Gingrich, who, in 1995, alleged accessible television élitist—a “little head for the rich.” Conservatives acquire said that the WNET host Bill Moyers exhibits a “very blatant left-wing bias,” and acquire adapted that characters on “Sesame Street” and “Arthur” indoctrinate accouchement with left-wing values, such as accepting of homosexuality. Aback Koch abutting the boards of WGBH and WNET, it seemed to mark an brainy inroad, enabling him to apply access over a arrangement with a arresting account operation. Meanwhile, the affiliate stations, by accepting Koch as a trustee, were inoculating themselves adjoin accuse of advanced bias, and accession themselves to acquire abundant new donations.
In fact, according to a abreast source, WNET was about to commence on an aggressive basic campaign, and afore Gibney’s blur aired Koch had been planning to accomplish a actual ample gift. “It was activity to be a seven-figure donation—maybe more,” the antecedent said. Shapiro denies that Koch’s advancement was a motive for his buzz call.
Several canicule afterwards our interview, Shapiro e-mailed me to say, “I now anticipate my timeline was off. . . . I allegedly misspoke.” He said that he had not alleged David Koch until the Monday that the Gibney documentary was to air. Shapiro added that he afresh his allurement to Koch to accompany the roundtable on Monday afternoon. Shapiro’s calendar is puzzling, accustomed that WNET taped the roundtable that Monday at 11 A.M. The added participants had been arrive the above-mentioned Friday. Gibney, clashing Koch, was not asked to accompany the roundtable, which featured Jeff Madrick, a advanced adolescent at the Roosevelt Institute, and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a bourgeois adolescent at the Manhattan Institute; they discussed assets asperity in ample terms. The moderator, who acclaimed that Koch was a trustee, afresh mentioned that Koch’s altruistic contributions totalled a billion dollars.
Shortly afore “Park Avenue” aired, Melissa Cohlmia, the arch agent for Koch Industries, beatific WNET a two-paragraph account criticizing the blur as “disappointing and divisive.” Cohlmia acknowledges, however, that neither she nor Koch had watched it. WNET aired the statement, unedited, anon afterwards the film. Cohlmia said that she based the appraisal on the trailer.
The weekend afore “Park Avenue” aired, Gibney said, it was bright that “something awe-inspiring had happened.” Shapiro alleged him at home. “He was actual upset,” Gibney said. “They were cerebration of affairs the program.” Gibney was told that the best acute botheration was Charles Schumer, the Democratic agent from New York. Schumer’s agents had alleged WNET, arguing that “Park Avenue” falsely accused the Agent of acknowledging tax loopholes for hedge-fund managers. Gibney accurate his analysis and stood by his interpretation. Nevertheless, Shapiro told him that he planned to acquiesce Schumer to add a acknowledgment afterwards the broadcast. But, Gibney noted, “Shapiro told me annihilation about the Kochs.”
Gibney gives acclamation to Shapiro and WNET for airing his blur uncensored. He is disappointed, though, that the base gave Koch and Schumer the aftermost word. “They approved to attenuate the believability of the film, and I had no befalling to avert it,” he said. Moreover, WNET replaced the addition to “Park Avenue,” which was delivered by the amateur Stanley Tucci, with one calling the blur “controversial” and “provocative.” Gibney acclaimed that he had asked to account the Kochs while authoritative “Park Avenue,” but they had refused. Cohlmia initially denied this, but afterwards Gibney’s appointment provided me with the accordant e-mails she accustomed that she had been contacted.
Shapiro emphasized that, by assuming the Gibney film, he had fabricated “the adapted call.” Still, spokespeople at WNET and PBS conceded that the accommodation to run the rebuttals was unprecedented. Indeed, it was like appending Letters to the Editor to a front-page article. Gibney asked me, “Why is WNET alms Mr. Koch appropriate favors? And why did the base acquiesce Koch to action a appraisal of a blur he hadn’t alike seen? Money. Money talks.” He added that the Kochs’ alertness to affair a abnegation afterwards seeing the blur “does not accord me abundant aplomb about how they ability run the Tribune’s newspapers.”
Despite WNET’s hasty accomplishment to abate David Koch, “Park Avenue” allegedly so affronted him that he annulled his plan to accomplish a ample donation. Cohlmia banned to affirm or abjure this, as did Shapiro. “We do not altercate the capacity of ability fabricated by our donors,” he said, abacus that he and Koch didn’t altercate the blur afterwards it aired.
Shapiro said that, in the end, he was adequate with the journalistic standards of “Park Avenue,” and acclaimed that he’d heard abounding absolute comments from viewers, as able-bodied as abrogating ones. (The advertisement accustomed aerial ratings for a PBS documentary.) But he said he acquainted blindsided by the Absolute Television Service—the baby arm of accessible television that funds and distributes absolute films—for not giving him acceptable beforehand admonishing of the documentary’s contents. ITVS, which is based in San Francisco and was founded some twenty years ago by absolute filmmakers, prides itself on its attrition to alfresco pressure. Its authorization is to advertise adamant filmmakers who “take artistic risks, beforehand issues and represent believability of appearance not usually apparent on accessible or bartering television.” “Park Avenue” was allotment of its accustomed alternation “Independent Lens,” which is aired by dozens of PBS affiliate stations.
Shapiro accustomed that, in his conversations with ITVS admiral about “Park Avenue,” he was so ashen that he threatened not to backpack its films in the future. The New York city breadth is the better admirers for accessible television, so the blackmail airish a potentially bitter draft to ITVS. Several months earlier, it had succeeded in captivation on to a arresting aperture on WNET alone afterwards a accessible lobbying advance by absolute filmmakers.
Five canicule afterwards “Park Avenue” aired, a ambassador at Gibney’s firm, Jigsaw Productions, was arcade in a accouterment abundance in SoHo at the aforementioned time as two added customers: Thomas and Alice Tisch, who alive at 740 Park. They are the brother and sister-in-law of James Tisch. The ambassador recalls that, afterwards the Tisches heard her acknowledgment to addition chump area she worked, they denounced what they alleged the film’s damaging address adjoin the rich. They went on for twenty minutes, admonishing that such abhorrent attitudes could advance abounding affluent New Yorkers to move to Florida, area the taxes are lower, and arguing that neighbors of endemic who spent millions of dollars on parties helped waiters and caterers.
There were reverberations on the West Coast, too, at the address of ITVS. “Neal Shapiro was on a binge adjoin ITVS,” a public-television controlling said. In an accomplishment to appease him, ITVS beatific him a box of candy. “It was delicious,” Shapiro told me.
A anniversary later, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, admired documentary filmmakers who were alive on a activity with ITVS, aggregate some acceptable account with their funders: their film, which was about the access of money on American backroom afterwards the Supreme Court’s 2010 accommodation in the Citizens United case, had been accustomed by the Sundance Blur Festival and would attempt for Best Documentary.
Lessin and Accord had provisionally alleged the blur “Citizen Corp,” but they abashed that the appellation fabricated it complete like a blur about a corpse. Afterwards Sundance admiral apprenticed for a final appellation so that they could alpha announcement it, Lessin and Accord told ITVS that they had acclimatized on “Citizen Koch.”
The new appellation reflected the change of the narrative: advertisement had focussed more on the pitched action in Wisconsin over the efforts of Scott Walker, the Republican governor, to ban aggregate acceding by public-sector-employee unions. As the Times reported, Koch Industries was amid Walker’s primary banking backers in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Lessin and Accord had accustomed boundless acclamation for their 2008 blur about Hurricane Katrina, “Trouble the Water,” which won the Sundance Blur Festival’s Grand Jury award. They had been nominated for an Academy Accolade and had been producers on two films fabricated by the accelerating activist Michael Moore, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine”; Lessin had formed with Martin Scorsese on documentaries about Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Lessin and Accord say that they are registered with neither political party, but an aboriginal abridgment of their proposed blur reflected the advanced appearance that the Citizens United cardinal had endangered capitalism by drowning out accustomed voters’ apropos in a billow of accumulated cash. This attitude is hardly novel, but their anecdotal focus was original: banal Republicans who acquainted betrayed by the Party’s advance on public-employee unions in Wisconsin. Virtually from the start, the Kochs had ample acutely in their proposal. On February 12, 2012, Lessin and Accord beatific ITVS a six-minute examination that mentioned the Kochs assorted times as above contributors to bourgeois candidates and causes. At one point, the words “TWO BILLIONAIRE EXTREMISTS” appeared onscreen.
Lessin and Accord kept accurate annal of their exchanges with ITVS officials, and it seems that the accord was about bland until Gibney’s documentary aired. In April, 2012, ITVS recommended that the blur acquire a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in funding. “Please acquire this as acceptance and congratulations,” the ITVS notification said. It went on, “Everyone actuality at ITVS looks advanced to alive with you on your actual agitative and able program.” A few weeks later, ITVS beatific a multipage arrangement to the filmmakers, and negotiations seemed abutting to a resolution aloof afore “Park Avenue” aired. Arash Hoda, the assembly administrator at ITVS, beatific Lessin and Accord an upbeat e-mail about the contract, saying, “This looks acceptable . . . affective forward.”
Claire Aguilar, afresh the vice-president of programming at ITVS, was analogously auspicious afterwards watching a two-and-a-half-hour asperous cut address the appellation “Citizen Koch.” She beatific the filmmakers an e-mail that said, “Great asperous cut—thank you for administration it.” She said that she wasn’t crazy about the new title, but she wasn’t adamantly against to it, either.
A television ambassador abreast about ITVS said that “there had been no concern” until the Gibney documentary aired, and that few admiral there had watched the asperous cut. Suddenly, abounding ITVS admiral seemed atrocious to see it. Lessin and Accord were told to accelerate a password-protected video articulation of the amateurish blur to ITVS. Within days, the video had been played about thirty times. “It was a absolute problem, because of ‘Park Avenue,’ ” a public-television official acquainted of the bearings said. “Because of the accomplished affair with the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it. Never.”
According to the television producer, it seemed like ITVS admiral “didn’t appetite it to get to college levels at PBS” that addition Koch blur was in the pipeline: “They were aggravating to adumbrate things. They didn’t appetite ITVS’s name affiliated to it at Sundance. They were abashed of two things—that PBS would bolt wind of it, and that Lessin and Accord would go to the columnist and say that PBS didn’t appetite them talking about David Koch.”
Lessin and Accord took addendum on their buzz conversations with ITVS officials, which appearance that they were pushed to bead the Koch name from the appellation and to abode beneath accent on the brothers’ political influence. On December 7th, the filmmakers’ addendum indicate, Lois Vossen, the vice-president and chief alternation ambassador at ITVS, warned Lessin and Accord that the appellation “Citizen Koch” was “extraordinarily problematic.” Vossen’s job is to baddest films for “Independent Lens” and afresh angle the programs to PBS. She told Lessin and Accord that the new appellation would accomplish it awfully adamantine for her to best the blur at PBS, saying, “I would say I feel as admitting I would acquire both easily angry abaft my back, and allegedly aqueduct band over my mouth.” (Vossen, accomplished for comment, said that she was aloof accepting off a even and would try to alarm back. She never did.)
The letters from ITVS admiral grew confusing. Aguilar afresh accustomed the blur as “great,” and said, “I anticipate you’ve preserved the acrimony of the film, which I love.” Added officials, though, kept advancement the filmmakers to change the title, add abrogating actual about Democrats, and annul an aperture arrangement that showed Sarah Palin speaking at a assemblage sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ basic advancement group. Several times, Lessin and Accord asked ITVS admiral if Koch’s aegis at WNET was a factor. During the buzz affair on December 7th, Vossen said, “I can actually assure you that ITVS does not appetite your blur to be buried.” She said of the title, “I anticipate you accept why it’s problematic. . . . We alive in a apple area we acquire to be acquainted that bodies with ability acquire power.”
During a appointment alarm on January 14th, Jim Sommers, the chief vice-president of agreeable for ITVS, accustomed to Lessin and Accord that, afterwards Gibney’s blur aired, there was “one base that gave us a lot of push-back about it.” Was the base in New York? He said, “Ha, ha, ha, that ability be it.” According to the television producer, “They kept application words like ‘balance,’ but what they absolutely meant was ‘Get rid of the Koch adventure line.’ ”
Lessin said of ITVS staffers, “These are acceptable people. Our faculty was that there was article bigger than them activity on. They weren’t actuality beeline with us.” Accord said, “They’re not declared to be amoeba bureaucrats. ITVS was set up by filmmakers to acquire a articulation in the public-broadcasting universe. Their mission account basically says, ‘Be brave, be independent.’ We never anticipation they’d aback down.”
Ruby Lerner, the admiral and the controlling administrator of Artistic Capital, which helped armamentarium Lessin and Deal’s Katrina film, said that she commendations the “self-censorship” accomplished by public-television admiral to be “a scarier thing” than the apparent kind: “They assume to be putting themselves in the Koch brothers’ shoes and aggravating not to affront them.” Alike on accessible television, she argued, advancement buys influence. “It raises issues about what accessible television means,” she said. “They are in the average of so abundant allotment pressure.”
Michael Moore remembers Lessin and Accord fondly: Lessin got arrested while alive with him on a documentary about activity issues at Disney World, and Accord begin book footage of Paul Wolfowitz accepting his beard slicked bottomward by an aide, afterwards Wolfowitz agreeably argument on his own comb. (The bit appeared in “Fahrenheit 9/11.”) Moore said that he’s not afraid that the two ran into obstacles in accessible television, accustomed Koch’s trustee role, adding, “The words ‘chilling effect’ came anon to mind.”
In January, the blur débuted at Sundance, area it was respectfully reviewed. A analyzer at Variety argued that “Citizen Koch,” still in amateurish form, had too abounding artifice strands, but assured that it “vividly displayed” the “warping effect” of the Citizens United decision.
Lessin and Accord began to doubtable that ITVS was boring out negotiations. But they kept alteration the film, afterward addendum that ITVS had accustomed them. Accord said, “Although we fabricated abounding changes, they never looked at the new cut. They aloof affectionate of stopped.” On April 15th, ITVS notified Lessin and Accord that it had “decided not to move advanced with the project.” Lessin said, “We were in shock. We had a deal.”
ITVS admiral accredit their accommodation to growing beat differences. They issued a able statement: “ITVS commenced negotiations to armamentarium the blur ‘Citizen Corp’ based on a accounting proposal. Aboriginal cuts of the blur did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS accomplished negotiations.”
Lessin and Accord said that this is untrue. Although they had afflicted the title, they said, in a collective statement, “The blur we fabricated is identical in apriorism and beheading to the accounting and video proposals that ITVS green-lit aftermost spring. ITVS backed out of the affiliation because they came to abhorrence the acknowledgment our blur 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 bootless agreement or a alteration of visions; it was censorship, authentic and simple.” The filmmakers accede this an acrid turn: “It’s the actual affair our blur is about—public agents accedence to pressures, absolute or indirect, from high-dollar donors.”
In the end, the assorted attempts to allay David Koch were allegedly insufficient. On Thursday, May 16th, WNET’s lath of admiral agilely accustomed his resignation. It was the result, an cabal said, of his abhorrence to aback a media alignment that had so unsparingly covered its sponsor. ♦
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