The inside track on the world of corporate censorship

When Rebecca Thorning-Wine was offered the chance to work on a new film from a pair of Sundance Film Festival prize winners, she jumped at the opportunity, but as she explains, the shady world of corporate censorship took hold pretty quickly. 

According to an Open Net Initiative study from 2012, the United States showed no evidence of political or social filtering by the government to censor content on the Internet. With freedom of the press comes protection from government censorship. But what about corporate censorship? Corporate censorship is subtle and difficult to document and there are really no legal consequences, only PR ones – and that is if you are lucky. In a post Citizens United world, where corporations can give unlimited contributions to political campaigns, their interests have the ability to overshadow that of the individuals. CITIZEN KOCH, a documentary film that addresses these issues, was the victim of corporate censorship.

In the spring of 2013, I worked as an intern for two documentary filmmakers, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. Their first film, Trouble the Water, had won the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and was nominated for an academy award. At the time, I was hired to help with post-production on their second film CITIZEN KOCH, and to assist on their next project. However, there would be no next project during the time I was a member of the Bayside Production team, because the film fell victim to censorship.

Deal and Lessin had received a $150,000 grant from Independent Television Service (ITVS), a service that funds documentaries, many of which air on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), home to Big Bird, Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, and countless other shows in the tradition of educational television. PBS is a non-profit public broadcaster, and gets its funding from “viewers like you”. But it also gets its funding from “viewers” like David Koch, co-owner with his brother Charles, of Koch Industries (the second largest privately held company in America), and not surprisingly a storyline in CITIZEN KOCH.

The idea to make the film came to fruition after the directors took a trip to Wisconsin to get footage of thousands of people protesting newly elected Governor Scott Walker’s bill ‘to take the unions out at the knees’ and eliminate collective bargaining. The film follows this story as more than 900,000 Wisconsinites sign a petition to recall the Governor, and during the recall election Americans for Prosperity (AFP) began popping up everywhere. AFP claims to be “grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets on the local, state, and federal levels” and huge supporters of many a Tea Party candidate.

The film points out that AFP was founded by the Koch brothers but also spotlights James Bopp from the organization, “Citizens United”. Citizens United backed a court case to sue the US to allow unlimited and undisclosed funding by corporations for political advocacy. Bopp not only successfully shepherded the case through the Supreme Court, overturning previous case law, but is also on the Koch payroll as a Koch Industries lawyer.

When ITVS had first agreed to give funding to this film they were passionate about the project and thought that the story the filmmakers wanted to tell was vital information that the public needed to know. At this time the directors were using the working title, “Citizen Corp”. However, after finding out the name was already being used by a non-profit organization, they decided to change it to CITIZEN KOCH.

In November 2012 another ITVS-funded film by Alex Gibney, called PARK AVENUE: Money, Power and the American dream, was released on the PBS documentary series, Independent Lens. This film also documented the power of corporations in politics, and shed a particularly negative, but accurate, light on David Koch in particular. Neal Shapiro, the President of PBS was furious with ITVS, as David Koch was a trustee of PBS and had contributed $23 million dollars to public television. Shapiro felt so nervous about David Koch’s reaction to the film that he offered to allow him or one of his representatives, to make a comment on air after the viewing of the film, something unheard of on Public Television.  Koch declined. When Shapiro was questioned as to why he was giving David Koch this unique and unorthodox opportunity for a rebuttal, he said, “Because he’s a trustee. It’s a courtesy.”

As a result of this film, Koch had withdrawn his pledge to donate a six-figure contribution to the station. Ironically, David Koch supports candidates who want to cut federal funding for PBS in order to “reign in” government spending. In reality, this funding is only 1/10,000 of the federal budget.

Independent Lens’ series producer, Lois Vossen who was initially very interested in CITIZEN KOCH, is quoted on its website as saying: “We’re focused on working with diverse filmmakers, and bringing stories to underrepresented audiences. Independent Lens champions high-quality journalism along with point of view documentaries. Our goal is to help viewers better understand today’s complex world by taking them to places they wouldn’t otherwise see, and encounter people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.” No one at ITVS was challenging the quality of journalism or accuracy of either PARK AVENUE or CITIZEN KOCH. These films follow the stories of underrepresented audiences, and information vital to the U.S. electorate. Yet on my first day as an intern for Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, ITVS notified them “that they would not be moving forward with the project”.

A culmination of horror and shock had filled their Brooklyn studio as the news began to settle in. $150,000 was money they needed to finish their film to be able to continue on with distribution. The film had three years of Deal and Lessin’s blood sweat and tears. ITVS had applied self-censorship to prevent any further backlash. Jane Mayer was writing a story for the New Yorker on David Koch’s influence on PBS’s documentary films, and a week before the story broke, David Koch resigned from the board of trustees.  PBS did not vindicate the filmmakers by issuing an apology, but rather quietly accepted David Koch’s resignation.

Despite this tremendous loss in funding, Deal and Lessin did not let this kill their film. They started a project on Kick Starter, the world’s largest crowd funding platform, and raised just under $170,000. Over 300,000 people signed petitions gathered by groups like MoveOn, Credo Action, Working Families, and Demand Progress, demanding that CITIZEN KOCH be seen on PBS airways. Recently, the film had its New York premiere at The DOC NYC film festival. Although the film is still lacks a distributor, there is no doubt that Carl Deal and Tia Lessin have raised awareness to the issue of corporate spending in political campaigns. Yet their lack of distributor is evidence of the effect of corporate censorship.

 (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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