Documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin is going on the offensive against any attempts by the Charles and David Koch to buy the Tribune Co. newspapers, weeks after some PBS stations plans to air her controversial “Citizen Koch” documentary about the Koch brothers drew controversy.
Lessin on Wednesday joined local activists and concerned citizens at a New York protest outside the doors of one of the bigger owners of Tribune stock — Angelo, Gordon & Co. which holds 9.4 percent of Tribune Co. stock. A company spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
Unions including the Writers Guild of America East and consumer groups have mounted the protest in an attempt to urge holders of Tribune stock not to sell off the Tribune’s newspapers to the Kochs.
Tribune Co. has announced plans to keep its broadcast holdings but sell off newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel.
While conservative or libertarian politically, the Koch brothers and especially David Koch has been a major supporter of public broadcasting both in Boston and in New York, contributing liberally and serving on station boards.
Producers of “Citizen Koch” have accused public TV stations of refusing to air their documentary because of fears that it would result in Kochs withdrawing support for programming. A spokeswoman for Koch Industries said no threat was ever made.
In a statement, Lessin cited a New Yorker article about her film and the Kochs (below).
“The New Yorker magazine last week documented how David Koch’s role as trustee of and donor to PBS flagship stations WNET and WGBH compromised the independence and integrity of public television — resulting in the censorship of our film Citizen Koch,” she said. “Public television officials withdrew their commission out of fear of offending David Koch. Imagine the chilling effect if David Koch were the owner of a media company, not just a donor or trustee."
WGAE President Michael Winship also expressed worry about the fate of Tribune newspapers if they were bought by the Kochs.
“We note with considerable alarm the difficulties faced by the filmmakers who crafted the documentary 'Citizen Koch,' which apparently will not be aired on public television because of the broadcasters’ fear not only of lost financial contributions from the Koch family, but also the undue political power and influence given to the Kochs by their deep pockets,” he said.
“The Kochs," he added, "have already demonstrated their inclination to use their enormous wealth to silence independent journalism. At a time when thoughtful, independent filmmaking is more critical than ever to the public conversation, this kind of checkbook censorship is simply not acceptable."
Koch Industries has declined to confirm its interest in the Tribune.
“As an entrepreneurial company with 60,000 employees around the world, we are constantly exploring profitable opportunities in many industries and sectors," the company said in a statement. "So, it is natural that our name would come up in connection with this rumor. We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in the news stories, but it is our long-standing policy not to comment on deals or rumors of deals we may or may not be exploring.”
It also suggested the protests are based on speculation.
"Setting aside for a moment the fact that we don't own the L.A. Times and that the protests are about pure speculation in the media, we encourage people to learn the truth about Koch Industries," the statement continued. "We are a diversified U.S.-based manufacturer with nearly 50,000 employees in the U.S. About 30 percent of our employees are represented by a union.
"We support voluntary associations, and where employees choose, we recognize their rights to be represented by a union and bargain collectively. In fact, in 2011, Politico reported 'a senior union official said that Koch jobs are among "the best-paid manufacturing jobs in America"' and that the company “has positive and productive collective bargaining relationships with its unions."
“Where unions represent our employees, we respect their status, work with them in good faith, and honor the terms of our collective bargaining agreements. Koch has mutually respectful and productive relationships with the unions that represent its employees – this has been true for more than 50 years. Our union employees, along with all Koch company employees, play an important role in our continued growth and success,” said the company statement.