Citizen Koch and the So-Called Public Broadcasting System

ZNet, June 11, 2014. One thing I’ve learned over many years of trying to read between the lines of “mainstream” corporate US media reports is that the best information often comes at the end. Look, for example, at a recent ABC-Yahoo Top Line report on a liberal documentary film about the big money behind the Tea Party phenomenon.

Deep Pockets and Racism

The film is cleverly titled Citizen Koch. As ABC-Yahoo reports, Citizen Koch shows that the rise of “the Tea Party” was fueled by a toxic combination of big corporate money and coded white racism in the wake of Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House. And squarely behind the phenomenon, the film demonstrates, were the Koch brothers – the mega-billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose deep-pockets funding of the fake-grassroots-white-“patriot” Teapublican “movement” was protected and furthered by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

The film’s co-directors Carl Deal and Rina Lessin told ABC-Yahoo that the Kochs are big figures in US politics today for one reason: “money – $100 billion now.” As Deal said in explaining the Koch’s remarkable political influence, “when we started out making this film, their net worth was about $68 billion combined, and we had to keep going in and changing the film and updating it because it was just recently reported they’re up to $100 billion.” A portion of that fortune is being invested to “create a class of politicians who owe their existence to the Kochs” (ABC-Yahoo).The ABC-Yahoo report is titled “Addicted to Koch.”

According to Top Line, “Deal and Lessin…make the controversial case in the film that the tea party was fueled by racist sentiments that pervaded…in the wake of the election of the nation’s first black president Barack Obama, and was used to rally working people around some of their…[racial] fears [and] around a different [pro-Big Business] agenda.”[1]

Any More Late Bulletins?

I hope I can be forgiven if I’m less than blown away by Citizen Koch’s findings. The basic, elementary facts that “the Tea Party” was a classically Astroturf Republican fake-populist “movement” driven by big capitalist political cash – Koch money especially – and by (among other dodgy things) white racial paranoia after Obama’s election were widely and well understood from the beginning of the Tea Party phenomenon. There’s little all that “controversial” about this judgment outside the FOX News-Rush Limbaugh hall of mirrors. I could cite a large number of early published and spoken reflections along precisely this basic theme – including my own reflections, which led to my book (co-authored with the left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).

Watching the ABC-Yahoo report, I was reminded of a comment my father liked to make to anyone who claimed to have “discovered” already well and widely known: “Anymore late bulletins?”

“And All of Your Questions Too…”
The real newsworthy item in the ABC-Yahoo story came at the end, when viewers learned that Deal and Lessin initially undertook their documentary with the “Public” Broadcasting System (“P”BS). “P”BS pulled its sponsorship and funding from the film because super-citizen David H. Koch has given $23 million to the “public” network and sits on the board of two flagship “P”BS affiliates.

Lessin asked “P”BS officials “point blank” if Koch’s investment in the “public” network was why it backed out. Network representatives responded in the affirmative, confirming that they, too, are “addicted to Koch.”

Now, that’s interesting.

It shouldn’t be “news” that “P”BS receives large-scale sponsorship from big corporate capitalists. Local “P”BS affiliates lie through their teeth during regular membership fundraising drives in which they claim that “P”BS “has no big commercial interests to answer to; we answer only to you, the regular viewer.” Anyone who watches “P”BS on a regular basis should know that’s a blatant falsehood. “P”BS shows are commonly followed by a list of corporate patrons and corporate-sponsored foundations (including the David H. Koch Foundation). The “public” network’s evening Newshour is preceded each night by commercials for multinational corporations like Toyota, Boeing, BAE Systems, British Petroleum, and BNSF Rail. Here are some of the giant private firms – all quite famous for their selfless commitment to “the public interest” (I write with sarcasm) – that are listed on the “P”BS Web site’s “sponsors” link:, Arby’s, Boeing, BP, Charles Schwab, Chick-fil-A, Delta Airlines, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Franklin Templeton, Kellogg’s, Liberty Mutual, Merril-Lynch/Bank of America, Microsoft, Pacifica LG, Pfizer, Quaker Oats, Radio Shack, Saturn, Sherman Williams, Sprint PCS, Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen.[2]

The corporate sponsorship shows in the Newshour’s regularly conservative and business-friendly coverage of and commentary on current events. The Republican pundit David Brooks is featured twice a week on the Newshour, which puts on air a steady stream of ex-military officials and right-wing ideologues from conservative, business-sponsored outfits like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation – along with elite centrists and mild liberals from the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, and the Obama administration. The show’s narrow-spectrum, power-worshipping content (depressingly nationalistic and imperial on foreign affairs) makes a joke out of Newshour anchor Gwen Ifill’s childish and Orwellian claim (in a regular “P”BS commercial) that her job lets her “ask all of my questions and, more importantly, all of your questions too.

A Longstanding “Arm of the Establishment”

Itself long majority-owned by the giant private firm Liberty Media (the property primarily of a right-wing businessman named John Malone),[3] the Newshour epitomizes the richly elitist and deeply conservative essence of “P”BS. That essence was captured nicely two years ago by progressive journalist Russ Baker:

“…here’s the sad truth: With a few notable exceptions, big public broadcasting (let us distinguish the national PBS/NPR from community-based entities) is a lot less educational than it would like us to believe. True, it contains ‘thought-provoking’ material delivered by dulcet-toned broadcasters and a charming, southern-inflected host with lightly tousled hair, and people seemingly disagreeing in the politest of manners. But the content of these broadcasts is just about as influenced by commercial interests and dominant cliques as the more ‘vulgar’ commercial broadcasters.”

“…Public broadcasting, which largely targets an affluent, well-educated audience of liberal and progressive bent, is a powerful tool for shaping perceptions and convincing people to continue working within the system rather than fully appraising the corruption that undergirds that system. A brutally candid investigation of our country’s institutions and political/cultural leaders as they actually function would make affluent liberals much more uncomfortable. They’d have to examine the corporate, legal and academic networks of which they are a contented part. And they’d be forced to see that when liberals get into power, all too many end up serving corporate interests in ways that differ from conservatives more in style and tone than in profound shifts of policy and governance.”

“Public broadcasting regularly pulls its punches—and has gotten steadily worse in recent years. You can blame attacks from the Right, which periodically threaten to eliminate government support of PBS and NPR. But, in fact, public broadcasting has always been, to some extent, an arm of the establishment.

“By creating an aura of thoughtfulness, it has essentially lulled the public into complacency. By its very existence, it has convinced us that dissent is not only welcomed but has a vigorous presence in the American conversation. By having hard-core corporate operatives gently debate tepid reformers, it has given us the facade of open discussion and probing inquiries. Which is why those oil companies, banks, and foundations set up by the very rich are so happy to underwrite all that good taste” (emphasis added). [4]

According to Bill Moyers (himself a rare voice of progressive truth-telling on “P”BS) two years ago, “What is emerging is not public television but government television shaped by politically conscious appointees whose desire to avoid controversy could turn the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [“P”BS’ governing body] CPB into the Corporation for Public Blindness” (emphasis added).[5]

Like N“P”R, “P”BS defends the underlying status quo of American Empire and Inequality, Inc. every bit as much as CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and FOX – stylistic and related demographic differences aside. Still, the myth of “P”BS as some kind of progressive alternative to corporate “mainstream” media persists, fueled in part by right-wing criticism of the supposedly left network. I’ve been struck over the years at the remarkable extent to which many highbrow “liberal” Democrats will go to accept and advance this fairy tale about “P”BS.

For those of us would like to see more liberal and progressive Americans grow up about the deeply conservative nature of “P”BS/N“P”R, it is useful for a major corporate network like ABC to report such a telling example of the “public” network’s subservience to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of concentrated wealth as “P”BS dropping Citizen Koch. That the example involves the rightmost wing of big capital helps drive home the deeper truth: there’s not much “public” in the “Public” Broadcasting System at the end of the day.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, Street can be reached at

[1] Rick Klein et al., “Addicted to Koch? New Documentary Traces Influence of Koch Brothers Money in GOP,” Top Line (ABC News-Yahoo, June 4, 2014),


[3] David Sirota, “After Pledging Transparency, PBS Hides Details of New Deal With Billionaire Owner of Newshour,” pandodaily (March 7, 2014),

[4] Russ Baker, “Will Political Ads Destroy Public Broadcasting ‘Uniqueness?’” WHOWHATWHY? (April 27, 2012),

[5] Quoted in Mike Spindell, “PBS: Why I Watch But Don’t Contribute” (April 28, 2012),

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By | 2014-06-21T14:09:26+00:00 June 21st, 2014|Articles|