Viral Video: Why did PBS distance itself from "Citizen Koch"?

Rumor was the network spiked the documentary to avoid offending major donor David Koch. But the film is hardly a takedown of the two Koch brothers.
Rumor was the network spiked the documentary to avoid offending major donor David Koch. But the film is hardly a takedown of the two Koch brothers.

Citizen Koch is the movie PBS does not want you to see. Billed as an exposé about the Machiavellian tactics of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, the documentary’s major source of funding was supposed to come from ITVS, which provides money and production support for independent documentary filmmakers. ITVS claims to be independent too, but it has long been joined at the hip to the national PBS network. Filmmakers hoping to get funding from ITVS must clear several hurdles involving pitching and refining their movie’s focus, provide extensive accounting information for the life of the film, and keep their film’s subject matter in line with ITVS and PBS guidelines.

Apparently, in the case of Citizen Koch, those guidelines included not offending a major PBS donor, David Koch (below). He has given around $23 million to the network and its affiliates. One of those affiliates, WNET in New York, provided a seat for Koch on its board and he is a trustee of WGBH in Boston, long the flagship station for PBS. Once word got around that Citizen Koch was headed for its PBS debut, ITVS pulled much of its funding for the documentary, leaving the filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, high and dry. They turned to Kickstarter to raise the $170,000 they needed to complete the movie, and then had to find new ways to distribute it.

Crosscut archive image.The film is now available online, buoyed by the unintentional publicity from the PBS brouhaha. The irony is that Lessin and Deal’s film is hardly a takedown of the Kochs or the organization they founded, Americans For Prosperity. Those looking for juicy details about these shadowy necromancers of conservative funding will be seriously disappointed and more than a little confused. Citizen Koch spends much of its time covering Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Koch-funded battle against pro-labor organizers in 2011; peeking into the lives of a few front-line union members disillusioned by the Republican party they once supported; and, in a bizarre but entertaining side trip, traveling around with former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer on his quixotic, anti-corporation, 2012 run for president.

Citizen Koch is, frankly, a superficial and fairly forgettable documentary. It isn’t something PBS should be frightened of, and it hardly seems offensive to the Koch brothers, who probably flick these gnat-like controversies off their plate of minor annoyances every day. ITVS officials claims they refused to air the movie because they didn’t think much of it either, but that seems unlikely. The two main PBS outlets for documentaries, P.O.V. and Independent Lens, routinely show less-than-stellar work, and it’s hard to believe they’d turn down a film they’ve already poured tens of thousands of dollars into.

Anyone who doubts that taxpayer-funded PBS is not influenced by both politics and money need only read the incisive article in the September issue of Harpers magazine, which includes the first-person perspective of local filmmaker and teacher, B.J. Bullert, whose encounters with the network have taught her that PBS practices what she calls “anticipatory avoidance”, divorcing itself early on from any film likely to rile its deep-pocketed board, major donors or even its conservative minor donors. This explains why when searching through the prime-time schedule of your local PBS station, you’ll often find little more than endless episodes of Antiques Road Show.

For more Viral Video nuggets, go here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.