Tia Lessin and Carl Deal are the filmmakers behind Citizen Koch, a documentary originally slated to air on PBS until the Koch brothers intimidated our only publicly-funded TV network into not showing it.
A 35 minute episode of The Good Fight investigates how Citizen Koch came into being and how it was almost strangled by the Kochtopus. Read on for the highlights, or skip to the bottom for some actions you can take to fight those tentacles.
When Tia and Carl first started investigating the Kochs, they figured, as I would have, that the two oil barons were symptomatic of the problem of money in politics. It turns out that the Kochs are not only the tip of the iceberg, they are the iceberg.
Together, Charles and David Koch are worth $80 billion, more than Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or any other American. During the 2011-12 election cycle, thanks to Citizens United, the Kochs were able to spend a staggering half billion dollars to buy elections, suppress voter rights, and protect Republicorp interests. In 2004, they founded two groups with patriotic-sounding names: Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks. The Kochs put up the first Tea Party web site and with the help of Fox "news", endlessly pumped up the importance of the Tea Party, essentially financing it and guiding it to channel public anger away from Wall Street criminals and towards "big government" (which wasn't hard since government didn't do anything to punish Wall Street criminals, but that's another matter).
When an incredible 100,000 people in Wisconsin rallied to try to recall governor Scott Walker after he spearheaded a bill to remove collective bargaining rights from government labor unions, AFP was there shoveling money into ads supporting Walker, buying signs for Tea Party protesters to hold, moving Tea Party groups around in fancy buses, and so on. In the end, the huge grassroots movement to recall Walker failed, drowned out by the Kochtopus network. Their Americans For Prosperity president spoke to their crowd, sending a message to be heard by all the local Republicorp governors and mayors in our country, that when they do the right thing for business interests instead of voters, AFP will "have your back".
That's huge. State and city governments often have more power than the federal government to affect our daily lives, to make voting difficult or impossible, to let that fracking well go up near your house, to kill local unions and reduce wages, and so on. Don't believe unions create income equality? Check out these crazy graphs from the front page. The Kochs have more than enough money to create a network that buys up local offices that people don't pay as much attention to so the Kochtopus can have its way and tell us it's all in our best interests.
But the Kochs do more than buy elections and swing public opinion through anonymous spending and patriotic-sounding groups: They organize the super wealthy. At least once a year, billionaires fly in to meet in secret talks hosted by the Kochs. I was there protesting one such meeting a few years ago, and it was spooky seeing one of the Kochs staring down at us banefully from a high balcony with rows of police blocking the resort entrance. When Tia booked a reservation in one of these resorts during a billionaires meeting, she was soon followed by hotel and Koch security, questioned, and thrown out, despite being a paid guest.
When Tia and Carl needed money to finish the film, they showed footage to ITVS (Independant Television Services, an organization that helps get PBS programming produced), and after a couple months ITVS promised them $150k to finish the movie and show it on national public broadcasting networks. As the film was nearing completion, with a preview already shown at Sundance Film Festival, an ITVS rep
called and asked to see the Sundance version. Tia and Carl sent them a link, expecting it to be seen by a couple people at ITVS, but suddenly it had 20, then 30 hits. A little later, ITVS calls back and says "the title is problematic" and the documentary is "unbroadcastable on public television".
After 15 seconds of googling, Tia discovered that David Koch is a board trustee of WNET and WGBH, two of the flagship PBS stations. They pushed ITVS as to whether the Kochs were responsible for this decision and got "The climate at public television stations right now would make it very hard to get your film broadcast". Not much later, ITVS didn't bother to call, they simply emailed that they had revoked their $150k funding offer and their PBS broadcasting deal, leaving Tia and Carl in deep debt.
Carl and Tia went public, partnering with independent investigator Jane Mayor who found that the Kochs had given $23 million to PBS. With more digging, it was discovered that not much earlier, the New York PBS station had aired a documentary critical of the Kochs, and in retaliation, the Kochs pulled a 7 figure "gift" that the station had been counting on. So the station, the biggest one in the country, called ITVS and said they would refuse to air anything produced by ITVS if they sent through anything else critical of the Kochs. So, the Kochs funded public media consistently until they were criticized, then pulled funding, creating a climate of fear in institutions that were supposed to be accountable only to the public. Institutions funded by public taxes and public donations. The only such institutions we have left in a TV landscape otherwise owned by only a handful of umbrella corporations. Wow.
The story of this was published in The New Yorker, and it made people angry. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report said, "I guess for a donation of $75 you get the PBS tote bag, and for $23 million, you get PBS's nutsack." Working through Kickstarter, Carl and Tia set a goal of $75k to finish the film, and through the donations of 3500 people, they achieved double that goal.
But getting this film seen by people is still going to take a lot of work by the public. Tia and Carl have partnered with Tugg, a service that gets movies shown in theaters by getting enough people together to commit to buying tickets. Click over to their web site and you can find a screening in your area, find tools to start a new screening, or pre-order a digital copy. You'll also find links to actions to help take back our democracy from the Kochtopus.
All of this is a reminder of how important the internet is in organizing to defend our rights. When PBS sold out, the internet provided true public funding through Kickstarter. The internet also transmits the The Good Fight podcast, it provides tools for organizing screenings of Citizen Koch, and a million other things.
The new chairman of the FCC (another government entity that was supposed to protect the interests of the people and prevent news from being consolidated under a few owners), himself a former telcom lobbyist, ignored a public outcry and has proposed rules that would allow a fast and slow lane on the internet. If that's allowed, sooner or later you won't even be able to watch a documentary like Citizen Koch online because it will be relegated to the slow lane for lack of funding.
Please submit a public comment to the FCC as to how terrible an idea a rich and poor-lane internet is. I have no doubt that the Kochs would love nothing more than to begin to dismantle the last great tool we have for resisting their endless money and spreading tendrils of power. While you're at it, go take some action against the Trans Pacific Partnership which would completely cut people off from the internet by simply accusing them of doing something illegal on it - no trial required. It's easy to imagine how the Kochs would use that particular rule against any who disagree with them.
Want to battle the Kochtopus hand to suction cup? Refuse to buy any of their numerous brand names. There's even an app for when you're shopping.