Business / Opinion

When Journalism Bows to Money

Screenshot from the trailer for the documentary “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.”

By Marisa Demarco

— I was part of The Line panel on “New Mexico In Focus” yesterday, and the topic of balancing the needs of funders against editorial integrity came up. The discussion moves pretty quickly on this KNME program, and I had a lot to say on the subject that I didn’t manage to interject, despite what I suspect will be a few humorous attempts. (The show airs tonight at 7 p.m. and Sunday morning at 7 a.m.)

Here’s background on the story, as told in an article by Jane Mayer that appeared in The New Yorker: 

A documentary called Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream was slated to run in the fall on PBS affiliate WNET in New York. The film, about the growing wage gap in the country, focuses on an apartment building that houses the wealthiest people in New York.

The documentary is critical of David Koch, a billionaire who runs Koch Industries with his brother Charles. Here’s the conflict: David Koch sits on the board of WNET—the station set to air Park Avenue—and has donated 23 million to public television.

So WNET President Neal Shapiro called Koch to warn him about the film before it ran. He said WNET would like to do a roundtable discussion of the documentary after Park Avenue aired and asked whether Koch wanted to be involved. Koch declined. The spokesperson for Koch Industries—who, like her boss hadn’t yet seen the film—issued a statement calling the film “disappointing and divisive.” WNET aired the statement right after the film.

WNET and PBS acknowledged that was an unusual move; it’s a bit like tacking a letter to the editor to the end of a front-page news article, as Mayer points out.

Meanwhile, two unwitting filmmakers were working on another documentary about money in politics and the effects of the Citizens United decision. It was called Citizen Koch. The Independent Television Service, the arm of public TV that distributed Park Avenue, had agreed to fund Citizen Koch for $150,000. But after WNET President Shapiro gave ITVS a hard time, things got dicey. Eventually, ITVS backed out of the project.

Citizen Koch’s filmmakers call that censorship.

Screenshot from the trailer for “Citizen Koch.”

Now, this story perhaps seems kind of run-of-the-mill. And the moral could be: You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Except no amount of money should exempt a person from scrutiny. One of the goals of journalists and filmmakers everywhere should be to serve as watchdogs for people in power. Though I haven’t seen either documentary yet (you can bet I’ll check them out ASAP), I have enough respect for PBS to assume that we’re talking about high-quality work here.

From Mayer’s article:

PBS has standards for “editorial integrity,” and its guidelines state that “member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.”

I’m a huge fan of public television. And it’s great that “New Mexico In Focus,” a show on our local PBS affiliate KNME, chose to dig into this topic. Unfortunately, PBS has lost a lot of its public funding, and these days, only 12 percent of it comes from the government. The rest, 88 percent, has to come from donations and gifts. That puts PBS bosses in a precarious situation: They have to please the funders and maintain high editorial standards.

But we can see from the conclusion of this tale that you can’t bow to financial pressures and produce good work. When WNET allowed money concerns to infect the editorial process, it got the worst of both.

Koch didn’t make a large contribution that an anonymous source in Mayer’s story said he intended to make. He also quit WNET’s board.

WNET aired one documentary with an odd, deferential statement at the end, and ITVS axed a second film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

It would have been better for WNET and other PBS affiliates to air the full documentaries unapologetically. Then at least, at the end of the day, everyone could say they did right by the public. Instead, PBS, WNET and ITVS took a hit to their reputations because the boundary between finances and content was punctured.

This doesn’t tie up quite that neatly, though. I’m left wondering: Whether you’re a for-profit entity and subject to the whims of advertisers or a nonprofit entity subject to pressure from donors, how do we preserve to total journalistic integrity and independence while still managing to pay the people who do this work?

2 thoughts on “When Journalism Bows to Money

  1. I’ve often wondered whether it would be advisable, in the interest of free journalism, to insist that any donations to public TV should be anonymous. That removes the coercion factor. Would it work?

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