If you think public television exists to offer challenging, independent news and public affairs shows that bring us the stories the commercial media too often ignore, free of the influence of big sponsors and corporate owners… well, this hasn't been a good week.
On Monday came word that PBS viewers will get something new on Friday nights: More Charlie Rose. As Elizabeth Jensen reported (New York Times, 5/20/13), PBS will be offering a new show called Charlie Rose Weekend, that "will cull the best of his late-night program" along with some new material. The show will take the place of Need to Know, which some might recall was PBS's replacement for the generally excellent program Now, which it cancelled in 2009. The show's first host was then-Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, as sure a sign as any that the show would probably not be doing the kind of independent journalism viewers had come to expect from Now.
So PBS has gone from Now to Need to Know to… Charlie Rose clips? Talk about sliding downhill.
But that wasn't the most explosive public TV news. Also breaking this week was Jane Mayer's investigation (New Yorker, 5/27/13) into the influence of right-wing billionaire David Koch over PBS, particularly New York station WNET. The trouble started when documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney produced a film called Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream. It zeroed in on one address: 740 Park Avenue, and the very wealthy folks who live there. One of them is Koch. The film is pretty critical, and that appeared likely to pose some problems. You see, David Koch is a major funder of WNET as well as Boston's WGBH, and he sits on the board of both. (Mayer also notes that "several relatives of WNET board members live at 740 Park," suggesting that there could have been some sensitivities about the film outside of Koch).
WNET president Neil Shapiro "grew concerned" about the film once it started coming under criticism from a right-wing journalist, and called Koch to tip him off about the upcoming broadcast, offering him a chance to appear on a post-broadcast roundtable where he could, presumably, defend the interests of the super-rich. He declined, but WNET aired a brief response from Koch after the broadcast last fall–interesting, especially considering he had not watched it. WNET also gave Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer time for a response.
But at least that piece aired. The film Citizen Koch would evidently not be so lucky.
Gibney's film came to WNET via the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which helps fund the work of documentary filmmakers and gets them national distribution via the series Independent Lens.
WNET's Shapiro was reportedly livid that ITVS did not give them enough warning about Park Avenue, and he apparently wouldn't let that happen again. So when word began to circulate that Citizen Koch, a documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, was being produced with the help of ITVS, which gave the filmmakers $150,000, the Park Avenue experience was making people in public TV nervous; as one source told Mayer: "Because of the whole thing with the Koch brothers, ITVS knew WNET would never air it. Never." While some at ITVS were sending encouraging messages, Mayer reports:
Other officials, though, kept urging the filmmakers to change the title, add negative material about Democrats and delete an opening sequence that showed Sarah Palin speaking at a rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs' main advocacy group.
In April, ITVS sent word that they decided not to move forward with the project. The filmmakers issued this response:
The film we made is identical in premise and execution to the written and video proposals that ITVS green-lit last spring. ITVS backed out of the partnership because they came to fear the reaction our film 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 failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple.