What does $23 million in donations to public television get you? A lot more than a tote bag, according to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. A New York public television outlet, WNET, went to great lengths to placate conservative industrialist David Koch as PBS aired an Alex Gibney documentary on income inequality that focused on the conservative billionaire. The president of WNET called Koch and offered to let him film a roundtable discussion that would air after the documentary, among other conciliatory gestures. The controversy reportedly also prompted PBS to back off another Koch-focused documentary in the pipeline. All the placation didn’t work: Koch resigned from his position on WNET’s board and reportedly canceled a large donation. Also, according to Koch’s doorman, Koch’s philanthropy doesn’t extend to tips. “We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch,” he says in the Gibney film. “Fifty-dollar check for Christmas, too—yeah, I mean, a check! At least you could give us cash.”
Shortly before “Park Avenue” aired, Melissa Cohlmia, the chief spokesperson for Koch Industries, sent WNET a two-paragraph statement criticizing the film as “disappointing and divisive.” Cohlmia acknowledges, however, that neither she nor Koch had watched it. WNET aired the statement, unedited, immediately after the film. Cohlmia said that she based the critique on the trailer.
The weekend before “Park Avenue” aired, Gibney said, it was clear that “something weird had happened.” Shapiro called him at home. “He was very upset,” Gibney said. “They were thinking of pulling the program.” Gibney was told that the most pressing problem was Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. Schumer’s staff had called WNET, arguing that “Park Avenue” falsely accused the Senator of supporting tax loopholes for hedge-fund managers. Gibney double-checked his research and stood by his interpretation. Nevertheless, Shapiro told him that he planned to allow Schumer to add a response after the broadcast. But, Gibney noted, “Shapiro told me nothing about the Kochs.”
Gibney gives credit to Shapiro and WNET for airing his film uncensored. He is disappointed, though, that the station gave Koch and Schumer the last word. “They tried to undercut the credibility of the film, and I had no opportunity to defend it,” he said. Moreover, WNET replaced the introduction to “Park Avenue,” which was delivered by the actor Stanley Tucci, with one calling the film “controversial” and “provocative.” Gibney noted that he had asked to interview the Kochs while making “Park Avenue,” but they had refused. Cohlmia initially denied this, but after Gibney’s office provided me with the relevant e-mails she acknowledged that she had been contacted.
Shapiro emphasized that, by showing the Gibney film, he had made “the right call.” Still, spokespeople at WNET and PBS conceded that the decision to run the rebuttals was unprecedented. Indeed, it was like appending Letters to the Editor to a front-page article. Gibney asked me, “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.” He added that the Kochs’ willingness to issue a disclaimer without seeing the film “does not give me much confidence about how they might run the Tribune’s newspapers.”