Between buying elections, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch shop for big pieces of American media and culture. And, hey, why not?
We already knew of the Kochs' efforts to buy Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other major newspapers. Then, last week, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer took a thoughtful, in-depth look at the machinations that led New York's PBS station, WNET, to pull from the air a documentary critical of David Koch, one of the station's biggest funders. The story raises plenty of questions about the extent to which the public owns public media and the role of money in the arts and culture (see anything at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater lately?). But it also provides a rare intimate look at what happens when big money begets massive influence, often without a dime changing hands.
Mayer describes the fate of two documentary films. One took on income disparities in America by profiling the inhabitants of one tony Park Avenue building – including David Koch. Under pressure, WNET aired the film but, in a highly unusual concession, offered Koch airtime to rebut it after it aired. The second film, "Citizen Koch," made by the very talented, Academy Award nominated team of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, explored the influence that Koch and others like him have on our elections in the post-Citizens United world. But in the face of Koch's wrath, the film's distributor, a public television player with a history of gutsy moves, uncharacteristically lost its stomach for the fight and dumped the film entirely. Regardless, Koch decided to not give a hoped-for gift after the first film aired. Without lifting a finger or even taking out his checkbook, Koch cast a pall over the documentary film world.
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. As former Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer points out in the film, "Sometimes it's a check. Sometimes it's the threat of a check. It's like having a weapon. You can shoot the gun or just show it. It works both ways."
Koch and his brother Charles, both billionaire industrialists, pledged to spend a whopping $400 million on the 2012 elections, the overwhelming majority of it on behalf of Republican candidates. But that doesn't just mean that Republicans are jumping to please the brothers–it means that many of those in positions of influence, regardless of their political leanings, need to take into account whether or not it's worth the trouble of unnecessarily antagonizing the Kochs. Just as the public is unlikely to hear about the film PBS didn't run, it's almost impossible to know about the principled progressive stands that our allies in government decided not to take.
Koch's billions are a formidable political weapon, even without owning any influential newspapers. Thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, it's a more powerful weapon than ever, and we know it's having an impact even when they don't choose to deploy them. The result is a distorted government that responds to the whims of billionaires more easily than the needs of ordinary Americans.
As activists work to undo the damage being done by Citizens United, one of our main challenges is reminding voters of the dangerous, invisible effects that decision has on the country. It's a remarkable irony that by trying to hide a film about the danger of money in politics, the Kochs may have made it clearer than ever before.