In the middle of Citizen Koch, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's documentary about outside conservative groups' successful efforts to dismantle organized labor in Wisconsin, former congressman and governor of Louisiana Buddy Roemer talks about how powerful interests make their voices heard. "It may come as a check, it may come as a threat of a check," Roemer says. For Lessin and Deal, it came as the threat of of a missing check when PBS decided to kill their documentary earlier this year.
As The New Yorker's Jane Mayer recently reported, billionaire Tea Party astroturf artist David Koch withheld a "seven-figure" check from PBS's New York affiliate, WNET, after a documentary cast him and his ilk in an unfavorable light last fall. Afterwards, Citizen Koch was greenlit by PBS, but the network eventually bowed to pressure and nixed airing the 90-minute documentary about how outside groups funded by wealthy conservatives like the Koch brothers killed collective bargaining rights for union members in Wisconsin in 2011. The two filmmakers are still trying to get the film distributed and shown in theaters. Carl Deal spoke with us about how he feels about PBS, whether he thinks there can be a limit to election spending, and what will happen if we don't heed the lesson of Wisconsin.
When did you guys find out that Jane Mayer was writing about your film getting spiked by PBS? I'm not certain exactly when we found out. Jane's somebody whose work we know. We had taken note of when she had done an exposé of the political activities of the Kochs in 2010, and we'd been in touch on and off for the last few years. When she asked us the status of where we were with this project and with PBS and we told her, she immediately said she was interested in this angle because she had been aware of the various ways in which they had wielded influence with the network and had participated in some of the science programming that had aired on PBS. She was really interested in following up on this.
Speaking out publicly about what the experience wasn't a decision that Tia and I reached easily. But we felt that our film was exactly about this topic—the power that ideologically-driven wealthy Americans wield over the public debate. They determine what gets talked about and what's important, around elections for example. They're really interested in setting the parameters of the conservation.
So given our experience with losing the PBS audience for political reasons, we felt it was appropriate to be transparent, to answer questions, to share this experience.
There isn't a lot of backing for independent documentary filmmakers, political filmmakers. The only real significant source of support for indie documentaries, in this case, caved to the very interests that we were discussing in the film.
Has PBS reached out to you since Mayer's article was published? No.
Would you work with PBS again? Absolutely. I mean, they're essential. There is no broader audience on television than the free TV audience. PBS exists specifically to encourage these kinds of difficult conversations about very important issues, and to have a place for a whole variety of viewpoints to be expressed in artistic ways and in political ways, and in solidly reported documentaries, as ours is.
PBS is really a premier venue for independent filmmakers. So we were delighted when we were greenlit for funding for this project. What better place to have this conversation about how big money is working the public dialogue than on public television?
Did you guys see this in terms of PBS simply not having a choice in the matter? Is this just how the system works now? We've seen a trend over our lifetime of attacks on public institutions and public support for the arts, even on PBS. Every few years somebody goes after Big Bird and there's a public outcry. But there has been success in the efforts on the folks on the right to chip away at the funding base for PBS and somebody has to step in to close that gap.
There should be all kinds of support. There should be private support, individual support—people should be making contributions to support this type of programming and pay their $75 for a tote bag, and we should all participate in that, it's very important. But there also needs to be much more public [funding] for this kind of programming and we shouldn't rely as heavily on private donations.
Your film features union workers who are Republicans, who feel betrayed that their party would support a removal of collective bargaining rights. But what struck me was how willing many of them were to cut their own benefits, to cede ground, so long as their rights to negotiate weren't terminated. What do you think that says about how successful the right has been with messaging that they were so willing to give up what is, arguably, rightfully theirs before the battle even begins? That's an interesting question. Well, let's just look at the issue of how campaigns are financed and to whom politicians are supposed to be beholden to—the many or the few? And when Citizens United came along and made it possible for the wealthiest of us to essentially give them unlimited money in more and more creative ways and skirt disclosure laws. In order to do that, you're kind of left with organized labor as the closest equivalent you have to counter big money on behalf of the masses, I guess they would say. You've got a community of people who normally wouldn't be able to compete in that political area are able to do it because they collectively pool their money.
So one thing that we noticed about what was happening in Wisconsin is that the attacks on organized labor in the 2011 budget bill of Governor Scott Walker were not necessarily ideologically driven, but it was a political strategy to disempower the labor unions in the electoral process. When you take organized labor out of the equation, essentially all the big donors you're left with, the top ten donors as something we show in the film, are all Republican-affiliated. It's a political strategy. The collateral damage to that is that you're also silencing all those people whose money is speaking through their donations to their unions.
In terms of being willing to give up some of their benefits, I frankly don't see anything wrong with sacrificing something for the common good. I think the reason that it's significant that the working people in Wisconsin were willing to do that, is because that was rejected, because it really was never about balancing the budget, it was a political strategy to further enfranchise conservative candidates and those who donate to them.
Last year was the most expensive election year ever—more than $6 billion was spent, much of it on conservative candidates or causes. Yet the groups like Americans for Prosperity failed to unseat the president and many Democratic incumbents. Do you see a diminishing returns with respect to how much money can be thrown at an election? I don't know, I think that the presidential election and even the federal elections are a little bit of a misdirect. The Supreme Court decision ostensibly on its surface applied to federal election spending, it involved the FEC. One of the reasons we didn't look at the presidential race is we had a sense that this was having deeper implications at the state and local levels and indeed, as we were making the film, the Supreme Court affirmed that: states could also not enforce their bans on corporate spending in elections as an extension of the law in Citizens United.
Look, there were big spenders on both sides in the presidential election. Maybe they neutralized each other to some extent, and certainly the incumbent had a much more effective ground game and collected a lot more money in smaller amounts from a greater number of people, and maybe that made the difference. But what we want to convey with this film is that this is a state-by-state effort to consolidate power for what we view as—I think it's safe to say—an extremist agenda, and it's being brought in from the outside in many cases.
The unions ultimately lost in Wisconsin, and the film mentions that similar legislation to dismantle collective bargaining rights was passed in Michigan. Are we going to see folks like the Koch brothers dump more money into state races? That is the strategy. That was the strategy in this last election cycle, that's the battle they're facing in North Carolina right now, which is already a right-to-work state but they there are efforts to further marginalize the unions that do exist. That's happening in Ohio, it's happening in Florida, and we screened the film in all those states. They're facing the same sorts of attacks, not just on workers' rights and the ability to organize, but there are these very comprehensive voter suppression laws being put in at the state level and they all lead you down the same path.
That has been the strategy. It's not new, and I think that we just wanted to shine the spotlight on that and hope that the people learn the lesson from what we've seen happening in Wisconsin.
How was the film received in Wisconsin? Wonderfully, wonderfully. The folks who appear in the film who speak so eloquently about their experience and how big money has driven a wedge between them and their values, and their party's values, they really loved it.
What I think was really great about the Wisconsin premieres, we were able to screen in Madison, and Madison you would expect a certain type of audience because that was ground zero in the protests and the backlash to Scott Walker's laws. What was lost on a lot of people was the diversity of voices who participated in that. So to bring in these rural, middle class, and working class Republican voices in the film, to bring those to the audience in Madison was really quite moving. And I think that the people in Madison were challenged by it, some of the audience members were challenged by it because that wasn't exactly what they expected to see. But obviously they very much embraced it.
Money in politics is not a partisan issue, it doesn't affect Republicans or Democrats more, it affects the way all of us conduct our lives.