In April of 2013, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's film "Citizen Koch" died an untimely death. The film had sought to illustrate the role of Koch money in American electoral politics. But the very day after the "Citizen Koch" played at the Wisconsin Film Festival, public television funding was pulled in order to placate the right wingers who were the subject of the film.
The Koch Brothers were already smarting from a negative portrayal in award-winning documentary director Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue." As Jane Mayer documents in The New Yorker ("A Word From Our Sponsor: Public Television's Attempts to Placate David Koch," May 27, 2013), WNET President Neal Shapiro had warned PBS Board trustee and donor David Koch before Gibney's film was screened. He also allowed Koch Industries to air a disclaimer after the film, which called the film "disappointing and divisive."
After the Gibney documentary debacle, on the eve of "Citizen Koch," the Koch Brothers cancelled a planned million dollar donation to the network. Lessin and Deal were then pressured to change both the title and content of their film. Finally, they had their PBS funding for "Citizen Koch" pulled.
Denied funding and access to public television, Citizen Koch, supported by a KickStarter campaign, is now making its way through limited release in theaters. The film itself is entertaining enough, if a bit uneven. It starts with a witch hunt: The 1960 admonition of Koch Brothers' father Fred - "The colored man looms large in the Communist Plot to take over America." Always afraid of race war and communism, Fred Koch had founded the ultra-right wing John Birch Society. Clearly Koch's sons have carried on in this tradition, using their conspiracy fears to justify censorship.
Deal and Lessin focus on the importance of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision paving the way for dirty money political campaign contributions. Talking heads give several perspectives. Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold warn against this decision's dire consequences. Pro-Citizens United attorney's Jim Bopp (who also represented the Republican National Committee's governors conference) and Ted Olson (who also represented Koch Industries) try to characterize the issue as one of free speech.
On the ground, we hear from several effected citizens, including a prison guard, a teacher and a farmer, who had been a stalwart Republican but was troubled by the repressive, anti-worker drift of her political party. Weaving in and out of the plot is former Governor of Lousiana Buddy Roemer, who laments the influence of big money as he is shut out of the Republican Presidential Debates.
Meanwhile we see the conflicts of interests of the Supreme Court Justices. Koch money had funded both Justices Scalia and Thomas, who then turned around and ruled in favor of the Koch funded Citizens United case. Justice Thomas criminally violates disclosure laws which would have revealed his own household supported by Koch monies. Justice Scalia accepts Koch Tea Party money to speak before right wing gatherings.
The far reaching effects of the Citizens United decision is felt as a tsunami of Koch money floods into Wisconsin, sweeping Scott Walker to the governor's office and later helping him rebuff a critical recall campaign. As we hear from Republicans and Democrats alike, Walker has a secret agenda to break the unions political clout. He attacks collective bargaining agreements, pension and benefits, in order to reduce union membership and political donations while he himself is supported lavishly by over $30 Million in Koch contributions.
It is in no small measure ironic that the Koch family, both father and sons, were so afraid of racial and communist conspiracies. Yet through their actions in bankrolling Citizens United and elections in Wisconsin and other states, the laws for transparency of political donations are gutted. Secret, dirty money floods into these state elections. Out of state monies and workers are employed to break unions, layoff workers and cut state budgets. Koch lobbies like ALEC write right wing legislation for Koch-money elected officials to pass in order to weaken progressive and democratic laws.
Although much of the film's substance is no longer news, the treatment of the film yields one more lesson in the meaning of having big money control politics . . . and culture. Instead of having it be accessible on public television, it shows how public television is controlled by narrow private interests. So the film is now offered at smaller venues and will be seen by fewer people.
But we have much more data on how the Koch's money and other huge right wing contributions influence American politics. We need less cameos particularly of failed politicians and even betrayed citizens. So hopefully the next such film will show greater depth of detail how this financing directly manipulates our political processes . . . and how we can take action to fight it.