CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Do Things Go Better with Koch?

Joel Kaplan

July 3, 2014

For several weeks the ombudsman has been receiving various complaints about the impact businessman David Koch has been having on public broadcasting. Mr. Koch, who with his brother Charles, is co-owner of Koch Industries, has been a lightning rod for liberal critics because of their support of conservative causes.

But David Koch has also been a great supporter of public broadcasting, contributing millions of dollars to the PBS show NOVA as well as serving on the board of public broadcasters WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York City.

This has led to a number of complaints from viewers and listeners that public broadcasting has been tainted by its relationship with Mr. Koch.

Here are a few examples:

I don't recall NOVA doing a program dealing with climate change, which, I think is the most important scientific challenge of the time.

My real concern is that this is because of David Koch's support of the program.

If that is the case, then I believe we need a congressional investigation, but I'd like to hear your response first. Are you constrained by some "unholy" agreement with David Koch? Please come clean and let me know.

-David Waycie, Illinois

Koch brothers underwriting CPB and/or NPR. I now cannot trust my two favorite shows NOVA and FRONTLINE to be unbiased. Koch brothers' money is full of strings. Is NOVA going to do an expose on man made climate change, or is FRONTLINE going to due an expose on Canadian Tar Sands Oil and the KOCH brothers profit motive to refine that oil with little regard for carbon dioxide emissions! I am looking to find other like-minded CPB viewers to warn them of the Koch Brothers strings attached money to PBS. Shame!

-Louis Smith, Florida

Your news programming and commentary segments are a very important part of information gathering for the general public. Many political and social views are represented in your reporting and interviews, contributing to a balanced exposure to the issues.

In many cases however, points of view are represented from invited commentators that promote misinformation and disinformation on many crucial topics. The following list includes many of the organizations that have been guilty of false representation on the air and in print via the public broadcasting system:

  • Heritage Foundation
  • Cato Institute
  • Americans for Prosperity
  • FreedomWorks
  • American Legislative Exchange Council
  • State Policy Network
  • George Mason University Foundation
  • Heartland Institute
  • American Tradition Institute
  • Beacon Hill Institute
  • Mackinac Center for Public Policy

These organizations are all connected to Koch Industries and Koch Family Foundations, through considerable influence and monetary support, in order to gain control of our political system and the commerce that Koch Industries and their subsidiaries own.

I urge you to end your association with these and any other organizations that promote untruthful dissemination. You owe it to the public that supports you, and to the nation as a whole, to be sure that any information presented through the public broadcasting system is not tainted by vested interests or originates from undue influence.

-Ron Fein

I have never written PBS before, but the news of the influence of David Koch on broadcast decision-making of PBS was startling, and disturbing and I felt I needed to express my dismay and outrage over this issue. I have mused for years about the prominent sponsorship of NOVA by David Koch fund for science. I had discussions with other PBS viewers on this topic, as the support of science by a man that supports political causes that generally do not support policies based on science make little sense. Others have stated the reason of this is PR, as there is NO WAY PBS would let itself be influenced by the money concerning what to create or air. We apparently were wrong. PBS has let me and all America down. This may be the beginning of the end of PBS. All PBS has is its integrity, and the idea of Americans like me with the image of a PBS executive giving the finger to someone trying to control PBS. I thought PBS had paladins, not cowards. Take some of the expensive "flash" out of the work if necessary. If PBS doesn't reverse course, and apologize to the public for this breach of trust, what is the value of a decades old trusted program like FRONTLINE.... absolutely nothing.

Please Ombudsman, you must be starting to get a lot of mail on this. The PBS execs must realize everything else is controlled by big money and PBS is just a weird purveyor of entertainment without its immunity to big money influence. I will care less about the fate of PBS if things continue down this path.

-Peter Landry

The complaints about David Koch having undue influence are serious yet for the most part unsubstantiated. Liberals, conservatives, moderates and independents all give money to public broadcasting, though few give as much money as Mr. Koch.

The issue is not whether Mr. Koch or others give money; the question is whether they use that money to influence programming. Put another way, is there a quid pro quo between the contribution and the content of the programming.

Critics point to NOVA's failure to address the issue of global warming.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who has also received complaints about the influence of Mr. Koch, weighed in last month on NOVA's failure in this area:

The PBS science series NOVA did a good program called "Extreme Ice" about the Greenland ice sheet. But that was five years ago. It has aired a couple of times since then, most recently last December. There have been some other efforts to address climate change elsewhere on PBS, including the NewsHour and Frontline. But NOVA is PBS's premier science program and it appears to me that there has not been a strong, timely, in-depth television presentation that goes right to the heart of this crucial issue—climate change and the contribution of human activity to global warming—despite its importance and the intense political divisions and high stakes surrounding it. A memorable and authoritative program is needed, it seems to me, that does not pull any punches, reports what the science shows, identifies the forces who deny such outcomes and analyzes those arguments.

About a year ago, Jane Meyer of the New Yorker, wrote a compelling piece on the untoward influence of Mr. Koch at WNET, particularly concerning the decision not to air the Citizen Koch documentary. The conflict resulted in the resignation of Mr. Koch from the WNET board.

Mr. Getler weighed in on that as well in a report titled, David Koch and PBS: The Odd Couple.

In the politically charged environment we live in it is not surprising that people see the contributions of David Koch in a political light. The burden is on public broadcasters to make clear that there are no strings attached to such contributions.

That is why it is important for public broadcasters throughout the system to operate transparently and openly and to explain to the public what such contributions are used for and the decision-making behind various programming decisions.

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