The First Thing You Do in War Is Take Over the Communications System, or Why I Love Sheffield Doc Fest

The panel was the best one I attended, and along with the screening of Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (a film which reminds us why journalism with integrity matters), was the not only worth the two hours, it was worth the trip from Paris for the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Firstly, let me thank the moderator of the panel, BBC's Nick Fraser, who along with recently stating that he thinks documentary filmmakers should be rich, held his own as the various public television representatives and one doc filmmaker, basically destroyed the Transatlantic Trade agreement in one fell swoop. At one point, someone who will not be named (but who has a certain Koch brother on his board) called the Danish national broadcaster a "Nordic utopian". Things went downhill from there.

In Europe, taxpayers foot the bill for much of the national public broadcasting budget, by paying an annual fee for having a television. Now that folks watch programs on all kinds of devices, many countries will most likely be expanding these taxes to cover computers, and any kind of device, tablet even smart phone, which can stream and download content.

In the U.S., PBS must go out time and again and raise funds to cover a great part of its budget. They also accept money from various foundations and corporations, which in Europe is not only unheard of; it is illegal in most cases. The argument made by the U.S. broadcaster on the panel was that he must indeed go out into his community and raise funds to cover costs. In the process of doing so, he ended up with a member of the Koch family on his board. Now this has caused outrage in part of the U.S., especially those who are active in media policy circles, but if we were to protest every single time an individual or corporation funds the arts, education or anything which our taxes in the U.S. do not cover, we would have no museums, no amazing private collections which then are donated to museums (think oil money), no zoos, no scholarships, no well, anything.

And this is where we find the basic divide between two ways of shaping state backed broadcasters. Public television in Europe is paid for by virtually all of the public in the form of a tax, along with other government subsidies, which is why it is called "public". Some of the best and most independent programming is shown on the likes of the Nordic channels, the BBC, Arte and others stations. In the U.S., PBS is not funded in a majority directly by the government and must actually reach out to citizens and the private sphere to raise funds. As most doc filmmakers in the U.S. know, finding money is very difficult, and increasingly so, thus the hybrid brand-backed works being produced, such as the amazing "DamNation" paid for by Patagonia and its founder, Yvon Chouinard, who luckily has a great deal of integrity. The film is doing film festivals and then will release via the Patagonia stores and directly via Vimeo. But this is the best-case scenario. Yet one could argue, Mr. Chouinard and Patagonia most definitively have a political agenda and they do try to hide it. It is a privately made brand-backed film. Now extend this kind of reasoning to foundations linked to corporations, say the oil industry, and the kind of content we might hope to see on a public broadcaster. Google "Citizen Koch" which is showing across the U.S., right now. A friend forwarded the email about the film:

Citizen Koch nearly didn't see the light of day. Public television executives abruptly withdrew support last year, leaving us with massive debts and no public broadcast. All because they feared repercussions from David Koch, a WNET board member and major PBS donor.
We blew the whistle on Koch's influence over public television, and he resigned from the WNET board.

And herein lies the conundrum. How to make great programs, support investigative journalism (which is now in the U.S. being supported more often by private foundations yet again) and have the public actually see it if those who fund it (corporations and foundations funded by individuals with their own agendas even serving on boards). Well, it means perhaps something unheard of for the likes of PBS, regulation of a monies and board representation coming from anyone who is tied directly to political funding above and beyond the most minimal contributions. It means money out of politics and moneyed interests out of public TV.

On the other hand, the U.S. produces some of the most cutting-edge documentaries around. But how will these be shown on public television if their subject matter may disturb a few folks with deep pockets and political connections? Is this censorship? Yes. But I would argue that it is the same kind of censorship that keeps many films by and about women off the air. It is the same censorship that keeps programs by and about minorities and difficult to swallow realities off the air.

The real problem is that money and the enormous wealth gap has lead to a non-democratic representation in the media sphere and that now extends to so-called public television. But this began a while back and B.J. Bullert, a scholar in Seattle, wrote about it almost twenty years ago in her book, Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film. The late brilliant C. Edwin Baker, a foremost scholar on the First Amendment, a leading scholar of constitutional law, communications law, and free speech, also argued to protect what was left of Public Television.

I am one of those lucky Americans who was born in the late 1960s and grew up in the 70s with wonderful educational programming on public TV. Great programming still exists and PBS still show sit, but there is a menacing cloud over our great national treasure, and that is too much money from too many folks who have too much power and too much influence over our country. You cannot have someone who funds the Tea Party to the degree that the Koch Brothers do, have any say about public television. What I always find to be amazing is that these guys live in New York and do not even mingle with the kinds of folks who join the Tea Party. They are at the Met Ball with the Liberals. But they vote with their money for whatever supports their private corporate interests, and that includes putting a kind of quiet but very real pressure, on the programming of our public broadcasters.

Remember, war begins by taking over the Communications system. If the FCC (or their lawyers) is in bed with the owners of television networks, how do we protect free speech? If your public broadcasting is virtually privatized by powerful interests, then we the People have lost the war.

Filmmaker/Journalist Vivian Norris wrote her PhD on Globalization and Anarchy in Cinema: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Entertainment War? She is proud to have co-founded the Women In Cinema Festival and recently premiered her first feature doc, Obama Her next film is on the Geopolitical Implications of Change in her home state of Texas-or How Wendy Davis and the 99% Are Taking On the Good Ole (Oil) Boys.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously identified the founder of Patagonia as Yves Chouinard. His given name is Yvon. The post has been updated accordingly.