This interview originally appeared at The Progressive.
Oscar-nominated documentary filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin set out to discover how the unlimited political spending codified by Citizen United v. The FEC is altering democracy on the state level. What they learned instead was a bitter lesson about censorship when PBS refused to air their new movie.
I gave ’em a call.
Murphy: What the hell happened?
Lessin: I guess we barked up the wrong tree. We thought that public television was there to air divergent voices and to serve the public interest, and we found out that that’s not the case.
Deal: We started making a film looking at how the Citizens United decision was going to play out in the last election cycle. It was a new decision, nobody knew exactly how it was going to play out, and Wisconsin exploded just as we were getting under way.
So, we were following the drama in Wisconsin, and we’d been working for about a year before getting involved with ITVS—the Independent Television Service—which is a funding branch for PBS. They receive a budget of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to support the work of independent filmmakers.
They came in as production partners, green-lit our film for ITVS funding, and we worked with them back and forth over the course of six or eight months. Everything was great. They loved our approach to the film, they loved that we were featuring the voices and experiences of Republican voters in the heartland to tell this story, that we had a very much nonpartisan approach to this, which satisfied one of the major requirements of public broadcasting. And they liked what they saw when we showed them a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute rough cut in October. Fast-forward a month, we get the great news that we’re accepted to Sundance.
And then the shit hit the fan.
We tried to figure out what had happened between the time they cheered us on with our rough cut and the time we got into Sundance.
Lessin: We learned that David Koch—and it’s no secret, it’s on the WNET website—was a trustee and a major donor to WNET and WGBH, which are two flagship PBS stations. What we learned from the Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker is that WNET was anticipating a seven-figure donation from David Koch at that same time that Alex Gibney made a film called “Park Avenue” that contrasted David Koch’s lifestyle with folks who live on Park Avenue in the Bronx. WNET aired that film but they allowed David Koch, or Koch Industries, to add a disclaimer to their broadcast. And they also did something unusual, they organized a roundtable after the broadcast, this sort of counterprogramming, and they didn’t include the filmmaker. They were basically trying to mollify Koch after this very critical program.
In addition to that, WNET president Neal Shapiro came down hard on ITVS, the unit of public television that either funded or curated the Gibney film. So as a result of that threat that Shapiro made to ITVS, ITVS killed the funding for our film that they’d commissioned.
The first thing they did was call us up and told us we had to take “Koch” out of the title of the film, and we had to de-emphasize the Kochs in the film. Of course, they didn’t tell us why exactly. They also basically said they wouldn’t advocate for this film for national PBS broadcast unless we made the major, specified changes. In the end, they just pulled their support altogether.
Murphy: Oh, wow. You didn’t know about this until the New Yorker article came out?
Lessin: In multiple conversations with executives over at ITVS we were able to put some pieces together but, yes, there were revelations in Mayer’s article that we had no clue about: the Shapiro phone call, the machinations behind the scenes regarding the “Park Avenue” film, that Koch not only pulled his donation, but that he resigned from the board. His name disappeared from the website while that article was being written.
But we knew that the people at ITVS were scared shitless about something and someone. And we presumed, but we weren’t sure if it was Koch himself making phone calls. As the story showed, Koch didn’t even have to pick up the phone to essentially have a big impact over programming decisions over at public television. All he had to do was wave his wallet.
Murphy: Do you think the Kochs will have any influence at the Tribune Company if that sale goes through?
Lessin: Absolutely. If this was the kind of influence David Koch had by dint of just making contributions and being on the board of two stations, imagine if he actually owned all these regional newspapers.
Murphy: The ACLU said Citizens United was all about the First Amendment. Why do you two hate freeze-peach?
Deal: I don’t know. Why do we hate free speech, Tia?
Lessin: The point is that the decision, and as we show in the film, the Citizens United group is a rightwing political group, and they claim to be exercising free speech but what they’re really trying to do is to inject more corporate money, and money from the wealthiest among us to win elections. And that’s what “Hillary: The Movie” was all about. “Hillary: The Movie” was essentially a campaign ad, and they created the whole thing to shoot down campaign finance reform.
That’s what led us on this journey with this film. We were really trying to see what the Citizens United ruling was and how it impacted our local communities, and we thought the best way to do that was to see how it impacted the states. Twenty-two states, in the wake of Citizens United, lifted their ban on corporate contributions, and we went to one of those states with one of the most longstanding bans, and the best transparency there was around these kinds of donations. And since they rendered that decision, it nullified all that.
Deal: It’s almost like what happened with public television. Nobody told them what they had to do. They sort of self-censored because they were fearing a backlash. In Wisconsin and many of these other states after Citizens United came down, they just said, “Screw it. We’re going to stop enforcing our ban on corporate contributions and stop enforcing our disclosure rules because none of it means anything anyhow.” And people started doing that immediately all across the states.
So we kind of feel like, in the bigger picture, it’s really much more important to understand what’s happening at the state level. It’s hard to evaluate the impact of Citizens United had on the last federal election because everyone was outspending everyone else. But on the state level I think that the Democrats are having a much harder time competing with the presence of these outside groups. And the only stalwart the liberals have is organized labor. And they already can’t compete with the corporate money. One thing Tia and I learned reporting the story of the film: We came to understand what Scott Walker was up to in Wisconsin with his attacks on collective bargaining. It was a very cynical political strategy to kneecap the political opposition, to cut off one of their sources of funding.
Murphy: It’s kind of brilliant, in an evil sort of way.
Lessin: And you know, it’s too bad there’s no honesty about that. It’s so dishonest to cloak it as a financial crisis in the state of Wisconsin, when it’s about defunding the political voice of working people.
Another thing I’d say is that is sort of ironic is a film that looked at Citizens United—supposedly a decision about speech in America, and political speech in America—gets censored and shut down by public television. Our speech was curtailed, but also the speech of the people we capture in the film.
Deal: Republicans in the heartland.
Lessin: They can’t talk either, through our film because of the money of somebody like David Koch.
Murphy: As filmmakers could you speak to the power of propaganda, about crafting a narrative and making people believe something.
Lessin: We can talk about what we saw on the ground in Wisconsin. There were millions of dollars spent that Tim Phillips from Americans for Prosperity acknowledges was spent on behalf of Scott Walker and his so-called reforms. Americans for Prosperity was, of course, founded and bankrolled by the Kochs.
They’re all about trying to influence public opinion. Even if Scott Walker hadn’t won, they’re not only interested in supporting candidates, or defeating candidates, with these ads. They’re interesting in changing the public opinion about certain issues. Whether it’s climate change or minimum wage or privatizing education, there’s a very extreme rightwing agenda that’s deployed in these ads, and no matter who wins, the public loses because the terms of debate are totally skewed, especially at a time when investigative reporting is not funded, our best newspapers and broadcasters of investigative reporting aren’t dong that much anymore. The hard questions aren’t being asked, and these ads skate by, and people rely on them as a source of information. And they shouldn’t be. They’re pieces of propaganda.
We saw that in Wisconsin. There were just lies being broadcast. They don’t receive rigorous fact-checking, and they’re also a huge source of money for these television broadcasters, so you have to argue that the television broadcasters don’t have much of an interest in exposing the lies. I mean, CBS had a record year last year, revenue-wise. And a lot of that was the infusion of money from Super PACS. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Just look at the numbers.
Murphy: It’s not a wild conspiracy theory. So what’s next?
Lessin: We’re going to do everything that we can to call attention to this. We think that right now the possibility that the Kochs are going to buy these newspapers is a very scary one, and we need to talk about our experience to inform that conversation, to show what happens when people like the Kochs mix with the media. And if they do buy those papers, the role of PBS and public media is even more important because we need those outlets to be truth tellers, and we’re going to keep holding public television responsible. We’re going to encourage the public funding of media, so high-dollar donors don’t have that kind of influence. And we’re going to get out there in any way to fight against the censorship of the voices in our film.
Murphy: Will I be able to buy it online soon?
Lessin: Well, because we had this huge bit of funding pulled, you can’t buy it tomorrow, but it’s going to available in the fall. We’ll hopefully have it streaming at some point soon, maybe even have it going into theaters, but were currently scrambling to get this film out there.
Murphy: Has the smear campaign against you two already begun? The reason I bring it up was because I was in Robert Greenwald’s “Koch Brother’s Exposed,” and they really went after that guy. They devoted a website to him, there were ads all over the net. Be ready for that.
Lessin: I say: “Bring it on.” We’re documentary filmmakers—nonfiction storytellers. We documented what we saw happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere. We’re proud of the work we made. We think it’s a really important story. Bring it on, Charles and David Koch.