The process that led to “Citizen Koch” being pulled from the airwaves illustrates exactly the point that Lessin and Deal’s film makes: Money can not only buy action in our democracy, it can also buy silence.
– Michael Keegan, President, People for the American Way
American democracy has been compromised. In reality, we reside in a plutocracy in which the wealthy and corporate overlords have an out-sized say in legislative and regulatory processes due to their sizable campaign contributions and high-paid lobbyists. This influence the capitalist elite have over our government is unpalatable enough, but it gets even more distasteful when they can stifle the media and the free speech of journalists and filmmakers, or anyone trying to communicate a message. Lest they forget, the Constitution still guarantees free speech to the rest of us too.
An article in the New Yorker recently reported that a public television station in New York, succumbed to pressure, either directly or indirectly, from David Koch to halt the funding and airing of Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s documentary film, Citizen Koch. Mr. Koch has donated $23 million to public television over the years, and until he resigned on May 16, had served on the board of WNET since 2006. Citizen Koch focuses on the unlimited campaign spending that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United ruling unleashed. The filmmakers say that the documentary’s title is a “metaphor for American politics today and the outsized influence wealthy individuals and corporate interests have in our democracy.”
It was rumored earlier this year that the Koch brothers had an interest in purchasing the Tribune Company’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. Since the 1990s, media consolidation has been happening at an alarming rate. This consolidation is detrimental to a democracy because a diversity of voices and ideas can too easily be silenced as reporters and opinion writers are directed to reflect the political ideology and interests of the owners.
I have the same problem with billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While I do support many of his policies, he can reek of arrogance. When he decided to run for a third term, he basically spit in the face of New York City voters who had twice voted to limit the mayor and city council members to two terms. (Current mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, was complicit in changing the law so that Bloomberg and city council members could run for a third term, which is one reason some New Yorkers oppose her candidacy.)
I remember distinctly when Bloomberg received pushback and criticism from constituents for this power play and in a defensive huff (okay, that’s how I perceived it) proclaimed something akin to the fact that he could finance his own campaign. I lost some respect for him that day. Just because he could finance his own campaign, doesn’t mean he should. But then billionaires live and play by different rules than the rest of us, which is my point.
Americans take great pride in residing in a democracy and boasting about our freedoms. Yet our current democratic system is broken. When moneyed interests are allowed to shape public policy and shred regulations to their benefit regardless of the cost to everyone else, that is a travesty. The American people are the losers. When wealthy donors influence non-profit organizations’ programs and try to suppress free speech in the media, the American people are the losers.
If rich people want to donate money to causes, great, but it should be done because they believe in the organization’s mission. They should not be free to take an organization they don’t like (maybe a public television station) and try to manipulate and shape it with their millions of dollars to reflect more closely their worldview. It is time to stand up for ourselves and stop letting people like the Kochs, Bloomberg, and the Sheldon Adelsons of the world bully us into submission by enticing us with dollar signs.
Wall Street gets bailed out time and again, but not Main Street. A hedge fund manager commits a hit and run of a bicyclist causing spinal cord injuries yet is charged with only a misdemeanor (should have been a felony) and no jail time because his company would be affected negatively by his absence. A crack cocaine user faces much harsher sentencing than a powder cocaine user (though the sentencing ratio was decreased from 100:1 to 18:1 in 2010 when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act). These inequities should have us all seeing red.
The funding aspect of Citizen Koch is more complicated than I’ve described above. To get a better understanding of it, watch DemocracyNow!’s fifteen-minute interview with the filmmakers here:
So, I challenge you. Kick in some money on Kickstarter to close the funding gap needed for the Citizen Koch documentary. The filmmakers have 15 days left and have raised $126,084. Their goal of $75,000 has been exceeded, but the funding they lost was $150,000, so to recover that amount, they still need $23,916. I made a contribution today, becoming the 2,747th funder. It’s past time to get serious about protecting our democracy before we hit the point of no return.
- Carl Deal: We Refuse to Be Silenced (huffingtonpost.com)
- A Word From Our Sponsor (newyorker.com)
- ‘Citizen Koch’ Hits Crowdfunding Goal, Raising More Than $75,000 in Three Days (variety.com)
- “Citizen Koch” Filmmakers on Political and Media Funding (wnyc.org)