What a PBS station in New York did to placate David Koch

david-koch.jpgDavid Koch, one of the Koch brothers whose possible interest in the Los Angeles Times has raised concern among union activists and some Times staffers, is a long-time board member of WNET, the New York City PBS station. (He also has long ties to WGBH in Boston. He also calls President Obama "a hardcore socialist." Go figure.) Last fall, WNET aired a PBS documentary that focused on income equality in the U.S. and, in particular, the concentration of wealthy people who live at 740 Park Avenue. One of those residents: David Koch. That confluence of influence apparently led to some unusual handling of the PBS doc, "Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream,” as Jane Mayer details in the new issue of The New Yorker. Story is online — excerpt:

“Park Avenue” includes a multifaceted portrait of the Koch brothers, telling the history of their family company and chronicling their many donations to universities and think tanks. It features comments from allies like Tim Phillips, the president of the Kochs’ main advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, and from activists in the Tea Party, including Representative Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, who share the Kochs’ opposition to high taxes and regulation. (It also contains a few quotes from me; in 2010, I wrote an article about the Kochs for this magazine, noting that they were funding much of the opposition to President Barack Obama by quietly subsidizing an array of advocacy groups.)

A large part of the film, however, subjects the Kochs to tough scrutiny. “Nobody’s money talks louder than David Koch’s,” the narrator, [Alex] Gibney, says, describing him as a “right-wing oil tycoon” whose company had to pay what was then “the largest civil penalty in the E.P.A.’s history” for its role in more than thirty oil spills in 2000.


In a recent phone interview, Neal Shapiro, the president of WNET, said that he grew concerned about the film, which he had not yet watched, after Ira Stoll, a conservative writer, lambasted it in the Post....[Shapiro] called Koch at his office and told him that the Gibney film “was going to be controversial,” noting, “You’re going to be a big part of this thing.” Shapiro offered to show him the trailer, and added that he hoped to arrange “some sort of on-air roundtable discussion of it, to provide other points of view”...

Shapiro acknowledges that his call to Koch was unusual. Although many prominent New Yorkers are portrayed in “Park Avenue,” he said that he “only just called David Koch. He’s on our board. He’s the biggest main character. No one else, just David Koch. Because he’s a trustee. It’s a courtesy.”

WNET did run a roundtable to discuss the show — without inviting the filmmaker — and also tacked on a different introduction that downplayed the doc's hard-hitting nature. "Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors? And why did the station allow Koch to offer a critique of a film he hadn’t even seen? Money. Money talks,” says Gibney in the piece.

The bottom line here is that Koch cancelled plans to make a large donation to WNET, according to the story. And on May 16, he resigned from the station's board.

More by Kevin Roderick:
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