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November 7, 2013

"Citizen Koch" Fights to Tell Its Story

By Joan Brunwasser

Because of David Koch's donations and his position on the board of one powerful PBS affiliate, the film was censored.The public agency that funds independent documentaries withdrew its financial support and its broadcast partnership for our film to avoid offending WNET's benefactor David Koch.Not only did the film lose $150,000 in funding, but millions of viewers lost their chance to see "Citizen Koch" on public television.


(Image by Citizen Koch website)
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Tia by Citizen Koch website

My guest today is independent filmmaker, producer and director, Tia Lessin. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Tia.

JB: Two and a half years ago, we spokeabout Trouble the Water, which you made with Carl Deal. It was nominated for an Academy Award and won the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. That film was about Hurricane Katrina. What are you working on now?

TL: We finished a documentary called "Citizen Koch." The film unravels the state-by-state campaign by wealthy extremists, led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, to reshape Democracy. Set against the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which unleashed unlimited campaign spending and helped fuel the rise of the Tea Party, three Wisconsin public employees' staunch Republican loyalty is challenged after their newly-elected Republican governor strips their union rights, while granting tax breaks to large corporations.

Koch Bros. political fundraising retreat, Palm Springs, 1/2011 by Elsewhere Films

JB: The Koch Brothers flew under the radar for an awfully long time but they're getting more and more unwelcome and unflattering attention of late. Your film is particularly timely because of the recent government shutdown and the revelations about the Koch brothers' support and involvement in it. [For good examples, see Robert Parry, The Koch Brothers' "Samson Option' | Consortiumnews , October 8, 2013 or New York Times: A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning October 5, 2013.] Speaking of timing, the fate of your documentary was affected by another documentary which dealt with the Koch Brothers. Can you tell us what happened, Tia?

TL: "Citizen Koch" was greenlit by public television last year and premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. But then, because of billionaire David Koch's donations to PBS and his position on the board of one powerful PBS affiliate--WNET in New York--the film was censored. The public agency that funds and curates independent documentaries -- ITVS -- withdrew its financial support and its broadcast partnership for "Citizen Koch" to avoid offending WNET and its benefactor David Koch.

Not only did the film lose $150,000 in funding, but millions of viewers lost their chance to see "Citizen Koch" on public television. All because of David Koch's money. It's the very thing the film is about -- how the money of the wealthiest drowns out the voices of the rest of us.

JB: Koch money essentially shut you out and shut you up. But you didn't give up, despite this rather large set-back. What did you and your partner, Carl Deal, do about it?

TL: We spoke with investigative journalist Jane Mayer about losing our public television commission for "Citizen Koch." We went on record because we want things to change, and we want our revered public institutions to operate free from this type of pressure. We also wanted to know the whole story. After conducting her own investigation, she wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine: A Word From Our Sponsor. The story exposes how the integrity of public broadcasting has been compromised because of David Koch's role as trustee of and donor to WNET and WGBH, and elevated this conversation about private influence over a revered public institution to a national stage.

We also joined a coalition of groups that organized protests, a petition drive, media coverage around Charles and David Koch's contemplated purchase of the Tribune Co.'s chain of newspapers using our experience with public television's self-censorship as a cautionary tale -- and we can claim victory for helping to draw unwanted attention to the Koch's interest in the company. The Kochs ultimately walked away from the sale.

In early August, we completed a successful crowd-funding campaign that raised more than double its original goal, and surpassed the $150,000 in funding that ITVS rescinded from "Citizen Koch" with an average pledge of $50. Our experience with crowd funding "Citizen Koch" shows that thousands of small donors, in concert, can counter the big money deployed by billionaires like the Kochs that effectively suppressed this film from the public airwaves.

We are currently working with a coalition of groups on a campaign to get David Koch off the board of Boston's PBS affiliate, WGBH, to ensure that what happened at WNET doesn't happen at WGBH. Among other shows, WGBH produces the leading science program, NOVA, and the Kochs -- who deny the well-established science around man made climate change -- are also major supporters of that show.

Wisconsin for Sale by Citizen Koch website

JB: Rather than slinking away to lick your wounds, you joined with others to work against the huge influence of Koch megabucks. Good for you; look how much you've collectively accomplished! So, what do you do with the film now that it's in the can? After the PBS debacle, I'm assuming that's not an option. The public is clearly interested but how do you get the film Out There?

TL: I love what one woman wrote to us to explain why she supported our film "I learned the reason for supporting this project when I was six years old, from someone who said it much better than I ever could: "Sometimes when the fight begins, I think I'll let the dragons win. But then again, perhaps I won't. Because they're dragons. And I don't. A.A. Milne.'"

In mid August, members of Working Families, United New York and delivered a petition signed by more than 350,000 supporters to WNET, public television's flagship station, urging a national PBS broadcast for "Citizen Koch." Working Families,, Credo Action and Demand Progress mounted the petition drives. But we have yet to hear from PBS in response.

We aren't going to let the dragons win. Early next year, audiences will be able to watch the film and we are finalizing release plans as I type...

Tia and Carl Deal by courtesy of Jeff Vespa, Wireimage

JB: Please keep us in the loop. In the meantime, anything you'd like to tell our readers before we wrap this up?

TL: We want to encourage folks to sign up on the website for updates on the release of "Citizen Koch": If you want to organize a public or private screening of "Citizen Koch" please sign up here.

If you still want to make a donation to make sure that "Citizen Koch" gets out far and wide, please click here (it's tax-deductible). We are so very grateful to all of you who are have joined us on this journey to complete "Citizen Koch" and release it into the world!

JB: I'm looking forward to seeing "Citizen Koch" for myself. Thanks for talking with me, Tia. So glad that you and Carl didn't give up!

WI Gov Walker talking with Deal on campaign trail, 6/2012 by Citizen Koch website


my previous interview with Tia and Carl Deal about Trouble the Water :

Katrina through the Lens of Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, February 19, 2011

Literally seconds after Tia and I closed our interview, I read the following article: Koch Pipeline Spills 400 Barrels Of Crude Oil In Texas , "The crude oil spill is the latest in a string of pipeline incidents that have occurred in multiple U.S. states."

Citizen Koch website

Read up! Learn more!

New York Times, Brian Stelter: The Documentary "Citizen Koch' Regains Money , 9/12/13

New York Times: A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning 10/5/13

Robert Parry, The Koch Brothers' "Samson Option' 10/8/13

Paul Krugman, The Boehner Bunglers - 10/6/13

Tia recommends you read [or watch*]:

Jane Mayer, New Yorker, A Word From Our Sponsor

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, We Refuse To Be Silenced , Huffington Post, 7/16/2013

Citizen Koch website: Statement About "A Word From Our Sponsor"

*The Colbert Report "Citizen Koch", 5/22/2013

More of Tia's recommendations:

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and