September 18, 2013

Public Broadcasting Censorship Sparks Fiery Exchange at IFP Film Week

Directors threw caution to the wind Monday at the IFP 2013 Film Week, engaging in a heated on-stage debate during the "When Documentaries Disturb the Power Structure" panel. The heat was no surprise, given the recent controversy over ITVS' decision to withdraw support and public television broadcast for Citizen Koch, after David Koch -- who is not shown in a flattering light in the film -- withdrew a large anticipated donation from PBS flagship station WNET (read the full story reported by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker).

The real surprise was that the most heated debate wasn't between the Co-Directors of Citizen Koch and the ITVS Executive Content Advisor on the panel, who voiced her support for their film and their cause. Tensions rose surrounding the question of how best to address the corruption evident in US public broadcasting -- whether to blame "podunk public broadcasting executives," as one panelist put it, or the systemic problems which force them to cater to private funders in the first place.

IFP requested that the Film Week panels not be independently filmed, so I will do my best to reconstruct the highlights below.

The fun began when Rachel Grady, Co-Director of Detropia, mentioned that filmmakers need to engage their audiences around the issues their films tackle for years after the release. "That part you don't get paid for," she said, to which Citizen Koch Co-Director Carl Deal jokingly countered, "What part do you get paid for?"

Deal and his Co-Director Tia Lessin have found this question more complicated than usual since ITVS reneged on their deal. More important than the $150,000 payment (which the filmmakers were able to raise back via Kickstarter) was the potential for public broadcast via Independent Lens, which would have doubtlessly brought more diverse viewers to the piece than the self-elected theatrical ticket-buyers or DVD purchasers who now make up the likely audience. Instead of showing on public airwaves, Citizen Koch now risks preaching only to the choir.

Mette Hoffman Meyer of  the Danish Broadcasting Corporation provided much-needed global context to the debate, remarking that American filmmakers are fooling themselves by championing social media websites as the new funding apparatus, replacing tax dollars. "Isn't it a systemic error to rely on the good feeling of an investor on a particular day to fund your films?" Meyer is the Executive Producer of Why Poverty?, an international co-production of eight documentaries shown by over 70 broadcasters to hundreds of millions of international viewers, but barely seen in the US.

In Denmark, Meyer said, 77% of people saw the program and 57% of those who knew of Why Poverty? deemed poverty and inequality as more important issues after the campaign. She emphasized that large Arab audiences showed the broadcasts and organized surrounding discussions, but that the US broadcast of Park Avenue was stripped of all branding associated with Why Poverty?, marketed as "controversial" despite painstaking fact-checking, and followed by a roundtable which the Director, Alex Gibney, was not invited to attend.

While conversations between documentarians about the power of documentaries to ignite social change might have the tendency to lean towards the self-congratulatory rhetoric of "speaking truth to power," Eugene Jarecki, Director of The House I Live Inmade sure this was not the case yesterday. "You cannot gently whisper truth to power," he said in a spirited soliloquy that resulted in an outburst of applause from the audience.

Referencing Orwell, Jarecki said, "Universal deceit is the norm, and well-funded. I know of no revolution that came from the powerful. Thanks to the media, we spend more time talking about Assange's sex life than any of the substance of his wires. You can only speak truth to the powerless." He emphasized the futility of vilifying "podunk PBS executives" who curate public media while catering to private funders, saying they amount to a red herring distracting from the real systemic issues embedded within our "many-headed hydra" of global capitalism.

At this point, a woman walked to the Q&A mic and said, "I am a podunk PBS executive." In an effort to "clean up the facts," she said that Park Avenue received four times the average national audience on Independent Lens, and that she had never seen a submission of Citizen Koch to her division of PBS. This is not difficult to understand as the film's public broadcast was likely nipped in the bud before it reached her desk. Still, the comment drew accusations of slanting the story, and indeed it might add another layer of doubt to a narrative already fraught with rumor and controversy.

(Apologies for the iPhone photo; I was asked to put my DSLR away after sneaking footage for my notes.)

The ensuing uproar calmed when a self-identified co-founder of Newsreel and IFP approached the Q&A mic and summarized the seed of discontent and in-fighting within the room. "I don't think Koch is possible to deal with because he is such a sneaky right-wing bastard." He then balanced his comments with, "You have a bad attitude, Eugene. And I like it very much."

IFP's video of the event will released in the coming weeks.

Despite the relatively healthy media coverage of the Citizen Koch controversy, it is the only film represented on the IFP panel that has not been broadcast on PBS. Did the print coverage of the controversy make up for the lost broadcast audience? How will this precedent effect the future of free speech in American public media? It can only be assumed that in reaction to this scandal, the David Koch's of the future will simply perfect the privacy of their censorship activities. If so, will institutions like ITVS have the backbone -- or financial independence -- to stand up to pressures presented by private interests?

Your Comment

11 Comments

Ooh, I can't wait to see the official IFP video of this.

September 18, 2013 at 10:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mr Blah

Actually, the real problem is Public Broadcasting, which is the shill for the Eastern Seaboard power structure. People are entitled to make any claptrap they put their mind to it. They're not entitled to be subsidized by the taxpayers for it. And who gives a crap what the Danes say. I'd rather go Dutch (King).

September 19, 2013 at 12:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

In addition, they are not entitled to be funded by the very people they seek to tear down. Their complaints about the targets of their wrath not being willing to pay for their diatribe are really quite laughable..

As to their "speaking truth to power", they would have something to complain about if they were talking about the current Administration, whatever that may be. They're not. They are talking about the folks who are currently the least represented in Washington.

If they really think things are unfair, try this thought experiment: What would have happened to Michelangelo if he had been openly critical of the Pope? We all know what happened to Galileo.

September 19, 2013 at 10:13AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mr. Bill

Galileo probably isn't the best example of a cautionary tale. For one thing, you've invoked his name four hundred years after his death. For another thing, Galileo was right.

This is just an example of a wealthy person trying to lever influence through a media outlet which, seeing as it's PBS, seems a bit paradoxical and silly. You don't see any other major sources of funding pulling this sort of nonsense because they know how to play the game. The fact that they give money is what puts them in the green. Koch yanking funding is a damning conclusion to something that was poorly thought out from the start.

As to "speaking truth to power" and the ambiguous grammar of that paragraph, I think by the current [a]dministration refers to the current administration. And if you're referring to the subject of the filmmakers, Koch or billionaires in general, they enjoy massive representation in our government. That's like, common sense, brah.

Also, DLD, "shill for the Eastern Seaboard power structure" doesn't sound like a real thing, though it does sound very dramatic and forceful in the Saturday morning cartoon way. Do you know what a shill is? PBS tends not to push any particular agenda. Unless you hate diabetes research or anti-proliferation. Further, can you explain to all of us what the "Eastern Seaboard power structure" is aside from maybe something that gets "knocked offline" on GI Joe? I wouldn't quite call that bit "rhetoric," but there's a lexical gap in English for whatever it is you created when you wrote that, so if anyone can advise...maybe the Danes?

September 20, 2013 at 6:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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July_No_October

I was a film student. I couldn't finish college due to financial hardship. I couldn't find a job in the city where I was going to school, because it was 2008, and the economy had tanked. I returned home in shame, and got a job as a waiter. I worked and for years I pretended I could be a film maker and a working class American at the same time. With no college degree, I worked crappy jobs, and without enough time or money to devote to networking, free work on other people's productions, or a decent demo reel, I never stood a chance at getting paid work in content production or development. I moved into a crappy apartment, which, a couple years later I couldn't afford due to rent increases, so I moved into a rented basement.
It does not matter how long it took (5 years), it does not matter how easy it is to make a good short film with an inexpensive camera (used t2i, worth $300) to edit on a cheap home computer (used laptop worth $300, 10 combined labor-hours work to shoot and edit a 1 minute short); what matters is that this is the most strangling environment to creativity you can imagine. It is a depressing, oppressive, hopeless situation for an aspiring artist, no matter how many times you tell yourself that many other people have it worse. A person's creative drive is totally crushed by the anxiety that comes from living on the lower rungs of the economy, paycheck to paycheck.
I wish I had saved the camera money for gas, and I wish I had never bought the expensive macbook my school told me I had to get. I wish I had ignored the allure of working in the arts, because I am simply not a strong enough person to overcome the intellectual paralysis that comes from years living only to catch up with yourself, get back to the point of success and accomplishment you had at 20 years old, so you can move forward from there. I still haven't done that, and this week, I lost my job. I am pretty screwed.
I am relating this story because while I can't find hope in many places anymore, I feel pleased and happy to see the kind of material made by the likes of Deal and Lessin, Grady, Gibney, Jarecki et al, because it is any effort, by anyone, to explore the economic malaise in my country, and in the vocabulary of film. These works provide important alternative worldviews not often seen in popular media, because these are grim outlooks, and even if you think such a worldview is hyperbolic and unfounded, it is important to recognize that such a grim worldview is held in earnest by countless Americans, myself included.
I am not saying the social problems discussed are responsible for my hardship; I take full responsibility for my life and it's failings, yet these are the realities I have to think about in my daily life, the constant reminders of how far I have to go to even be stable enough to attempt my art, and the depressing weights that leave me feeling that it is never going to be worth the trouble, because those with the modicum of privilege necessary for a better start than I had, those smarter than me, less prone to depression and anxiety, strong and assertive enough to take their place at the table will have already gotten to anything I would have wanted to say as an artist and done it better.
Perspective matters, these filmmakers are working to convey commonly unheard perspectives, and the avenues by which they are disseminated should not be limited, because to a miserable, sad bastard like me, they remind me that anyone is paying attention, and in the language that most inspires me to look beyond my own plight and into the world of possibility I once thought was waiting just for me.

September 19, 2013 at 10:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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McCauley's Ghost

Hey McCauley, sorry this went unanswered for a few days. Email me at lgamse@nofilmschool.com, send me a resume and let me know what you're looking for at this stage. I can try to connect you with a few people.

September 21, 2013 at 12:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Laura Gamse
Writer
Director/Producer

What a wonderful post subject. Hopefully Citizen Koch will find a hope in the US to get its audience. Its so interesting to me to see the comparison between Public TV and Big Government.

September 19, 2013 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Allan Crocket

The issue isn't really whether these controversial documentaries should be shown, but whether PBS is an appropriate venue for advocacy journalism. Because if it is, as a publicly funded entity, it needs provide equal time to all political perspectives, so real issue the cherry picking of content that goes on in choosing what goes on. The discussion starts off with a fallacy by suggesting PBS isn't part of the power structure. It's funded largely by the Federal Government, NGO's and powerful private foundations (Ford, Bill & Melinda Gates, Annenburg CPB, Joan Kroc, etc.), so it's already beholden to powerful influences. Many local PBS stations do a decent job of politically balancing content, but it's largely a mouthpiece for the government with a de facto cosmopolitanist perspective on issues, so it shouldn't be surprising that folks from Podunkville get irritated seeing their tax dollars (even if it's a relatively small amount of money) spent on programming they dislike.

September 19, 2013 at 3:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marc B

I have never met a bigger bunch of snobby punks than Documentary Filmmakers and Social Activists.
Shut up and do it the hard way. You really think people should pay you, so you can blast them?
Pa-lease.

September 19, 2013 at 5:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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J. Michael

For years I've enjoyed watching top-notch programming on PBS, much of it funded through donations from David Koch. How stupid would PBS have to be to turn around and bite the hand that feeds it? Pretty damn stupid. Personally, the last thing I want to see is another smear job from "activists". Save it for the festivals. Or get a distribution deal like Michael Moore.

September 20, 2013 at 12:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bob

The real reason the Koch documentary wasn't aired was because it simply wasn't a good film - it was a Michael Moore-level hit piece, not a piece of responsible journalism. PBS absolutely made the right decision, and if you watch programs like Frontline or NewsHour, you'd realize they are the ONLY network that isn't beholden to slanted corporate interests.

Furthermore, if we REALLY cared about public broadcasting, we would support it with more federal funding. As it is, PBS has been reduced to basically surviving from foundations and charitable organizations. Someday, all that will be left are those corporate-funded meganetworks.

September 22, 2013 at 3:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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