Exposing the Koch brothers

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald talks about the worst of the 1% and the importance of storytelling for progressives

Topics: AlterNet, Koch Brothers, ,

Exposing the Koch brothers Screenshot from the "Koch Brothers Exposed" trailer
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Foundation debuted their feature-length film “Koch Brothers Exposed” in New York on Thursday night. (The DVD is available here; see the two-minute trailer for the film on the last page of this article.) “Koch Brothers Exposed” weaves together a series of short films produced over the course of the last year or so as part of an online video campaign of the same name. As principals of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in America and one of the nation’s top polluters, the Koch brothers have grown notorious for their funding of think tanks and astroturf organizations that aim to deregulate business and scale back government programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the new healthcare reform law.

AlterNet“Koch Brothers Exposed” zeroes in on several aspects of the Kochs’ impact by focusing on the people most affected by the brothers’ use of their billions to buy politicians and ignore regulators. In North Carolina, we meet high school students whose lives would have been gravely impacted had Koch-allied politicians succeeded in undoing the desegregation of the Wake County school system. In Arkansas, the filmmakers take viewers to a community that is riven with cancer, the likely result of toxic dumping by a Koch-owned paper plant. We meet voters in Missouri and Texas who find themselves disenfranchised by a voter-ID law pushed by an organization funded with Koch money.

Before becoming an activist filmmaker, Robert Greenwald enjoyed a long career in the world of commercial film and television, directing the feminist classic “The Burning Bed,” and earning a Peabody Award for “Sharing the Secret,” a 2000 made-for-TV movie about a teenager with an eating disorder. He also directed the cult classic “Steal This Movie,” about his late friend, Abbie Hoffman — which may speak to where his heart was all along. The advent of Fox News launched Greenwald into the role of an activist when his Brave New Films launched with “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” Since then Brave New Films and Brave New Foundation have produced a torrent of video shorts and films, including “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” “Rethinking Afghanistan” and “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.”



AlterNet sat down with Greenwald to discuss the value of storytelling as an organizing tool — and to explore just what makes the Koch brothers “the 1 percent at its very worst.”

What drew your interest to the Koch brothers as a vehicle for a broader story? These guys are your poster boys, but they’re poster boys for something even larger than themselves.

What we always try to do with Brave New Foundation films is to connect the dots. I think it’s very important that people understand how whole systems work — and that it’s not a question of a rotten apple, be it Wal-Mart, or be it war profiteers, or be it the Koch brothers. In all these cases, they are representative of the fact that there are structural and systemic inequities in our society.

The Koch brothers, as you say today, are perfectly out of Central Casting [as typecasts for] rich, arrogant, conservative billionaires. But they’re not the only ones. What drew my attention to it was Jane Mayer’s brilliant piece in the New Yorker, and articles by Lee Fang and [AlterNet's] Addie Stan — and the realization that this was an opportunity to do what we do, which is build narratives. Now we can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything. There are certain issues that should absolutely remain in the hands of policy folks, or think tanks or position papers. But the Kochs are breathing, human representatives of the worst of the 1 percent — and it’s the way they use their money to advance their economic self-interest and their ideology. And that’s important.

It’s not just about having money; it’s the use of the money, the use of the power — it’s the use of the money and power to impress and take advantage of others. And it’s the fact that they are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that capitalism has absolutely no restraints on it. And capitalism without restraints is a very ugly beast.

You embarked on this initially as a series of shorter films. What led you to that approach? Each of these films dealt with very different aspects of the Koch brothers’ activities. When you set out to make these shorter films, did you have a longer film in mind?

When we started the “Koch Brothers Exposed” campaign, we were not thinking — or I was not thinking — of a longer film. It was similar to our work around Afghanistan, where we learned — you know, one of the things that’s exciting about working in digital media is how quickly everything changes.

One of the challenges, too.

Oh, my god! We could have a long session just on the changes on YouTube, which has been phenomenal in a short period of time. But we realized with the Afghanistan work — and there we did it because we really had no choice; we had no money and no funding at the beginning, so we were only able to do a couple of short pieces. But with each short piece, we found that we were building an online community, and so we used that same approach with the Koch brothers.

And so, one piece was around Social Security, one piece was around environment, one piece was around Wisconsin, one piece was around education — and what we were doing was we were reaching an audience with particular interests in that aspect of the Koch work. And, frankly, very strategically reaching out to audiences so they could see how the issue they care about most profoundly was being attacked by the Kochs. And then a couple of months into it, we realized that there was an opportunity for a full-length film here.

We fortunately were able to raise some money to allow us to take the short pieces — we went online, we asked people for help, we had a very strong response from thousands of our small donors and some wonderful larger donors and a foundation or two who said, We think this is important. We think it’s important because it’s talking about the structure, it’s talking about the way the system works, and it’s connecting the dots between these various issues: Social Security, resegregation, buying up politicians, buying up college professors. And, overall, it’s the money in politics frame. This is what you can achieve when you have money, when you have power, when you have access and you’re willing to use it for your own narrow self-interest.

By doing this film in these pieces that look at all different aspects of what these guys are up to because of their broad reach, do you inadvertently build a coalition? One piece of the film that is so moving is about an African-American community in Arkansas that is decimated by cancer because of the apparent dumping of toxic waste by a plant owned by Koch Industries. You have the environmental community galvanized by parts of your film. You have the voting rights community targeted by another part of the film.

Definitely. And as we realized the size and scope of what the Kochs were doing, it became very intentional. One of the problems in the progressive movement, all too often — and, you know, people have talked about this endlessly — is the separate silos, the single-issue folks who are both focused and funded to do a single issue. But how do you encourage and work so that the issue people come together and see the importance of the fact that the people who are attacking the environment are attacking Social Security, are attacking public education, are attacking and buying politicians, are attacking an African-American community, etc., etc.

[The Koch brothers] are a perfect example of the interlocking interests of the 1 percent, and how they are using, again, their money, their power, their access on a series of issues. And woe unto us if we do not see that and if we do not connect those dots, and if we do not bring all of those communities together. I’m actually thrilled that we have more than 40 groups working with us on this — from the NAACP to Greenpeace to DFA (Democracy for America) to a whole series of unions. And it’s been very exciting to see and be a part of building and growing that coalition.

Social media has been your primary means of distribution, particularly on the short films. “Koch Brothers Exposed” is being made available on DVD, but how else do you plan to distribute it?

There will be the 40-plus groups — and they’ve been critical to every undertaking we do. There will be progressive media, led by AlterNet, which have been, as on every single film, extraordinary partners. [Progressive] radio stations and televisions and the Huffington Post — there’s been all kinds of places where attention has been given to the specific campaigns [such as Rethinking Afghanistan and Wal-Mart]. Then there is the very, very active Facebook presence, and lots of work using Twitter, of course. And then in what’s going to be a major breakthrough, we’re going to be in somewhere between 50 and 60 million homes with streaming and video-on-demand (via cable and satellite networks). That doesn’t mean that all 60 million people are going to watch it, but it’s going to be an option.

Are there times when you find yourself surprised by who you’re actually reaching? For instance, in Addie’s research, she stumbled upon an opera blog that featured your video on the North Carolina school board takeover by Koch-sponsored advocates of resegregating the school system. The link there is that David Koch is a significant patron of the New York City opera, and this blogger was issuing a warning to other opera buffs about tainted Koch money.

One of the things that people often don’t understand about digital media online is that they’ll say, you know, you’re only reaching people who agree with you: You really should do an op-ed in the New York Times. And I kind of smile to myself and think, the only people who read an op-ed on a certain subject in the New York Times — and I love the New York Times — are a very self-selected group of people. But when you put narrative content on digital platforms the possibilities are limitless because — and the opera blog is a perfect example, because that’s gonna reach opera audiences. It’s not going to reach red, white or blue; it’s not going to be defined by Republican or Democrat; it’s going to be defined by opera.

And similarly, with some of the health folks that we are reaching with this because of the cancer in Arkansas. The fact that religious communities are spreading these around because they see a moral and religious issue around the Kochs. The fact that older people are spreading and using some of the Social Security stuff, which, again, we know cuts across Republican or Democrat. So that’s the beauty of the potential with the digital platforms. And video is a perfect way to do that — video passed on by friends, relatives, even co-workers, is among — and the advertising agencies have tested this — the most effective and impactful ways [to convey a story].

Because people don’t trust 30-second [television] spots. You can show me all the data in the world about how many homes [are reached by] the 30-second spot. But the impact is the real key, because regardless how many homes it’s in, how many silence it? How many are watching on TiVo and fast-forward through it? And how many, particularly 35 and under, just don’t trust TV ads? Versus something forwarded to you from an opera blog, or from a member of your church.

Returning to the Arkansas segment of “Koch Brothers Exposed” — the story of a small town that is riven with cancer, apparently because of toxic dumping by a Koch Industries Georgia Pacific factory. The rest of the film — in very different ways and in very different circumstances — mostly highlights the Kochs’ involvement in government or politics, whether it’s the attempt to resegregate the Wake County school system in North Carolina, or the voter ID laws passed by state legislatures across the country, or attempts to scale back Social Security.

Then we go to this community in Arkansas, where way too many people are dying of cancer, and it’s a very poignant story. The scenes in the cemetery are just gut-wrenching. What made you decide to use that story, and how did you decide where to place it in the film?

What I’ve tried to do in as many of the films as possible is to make the personal political, so that people understand it’s not them as individuals, and it’s not even their fault or a result of the alignment of the stars, but it’s the way the system works. Whether it’s the individuals in “Wal-Mart,” whether it’s the individuals in “Iraq for Sale,” it’s always important to find those people who exemplify what we’re talking about. Because otherwise the discussion is too abstract; it’s an abstract discussion about ideology and its consequences. But if you see people bleeding and hurting and paying a price, then it brings it home. So that’s the overview.

In this particular case, a couple of things that I read came together. One, that Koch [Industries] was one of the worst 10 polluters. Two, that David Koch was a cancer survivor himself. And, three, that [the Koch brothers] spend enormous amounts of money trying to fight regulations that would protect people from getting sick from their own factories and plants. So putting those three ideas together… [Brave New Foundation filmmakers] Jeff [Cole] and Natalie [Kottke] spent five months on this — a story, by the way, just as an aside, one would hope the corporate media would be undertaking, but they’re not, partly because they don’t have the resources, and partly because they don’t care about a poor, black community somewhere getting screwed over. So, because we had the support from the people we did … Natalie was able to put months into finding the community and the people, building a level of trust, going and visiting,and then getting their agreement and encouragement and support for us to be able to go forward.

Progressives and liberals — we know our facts. We like to think we can convince the world to see things our way through reason and facts. But you can’t convey the facts without storytelling and narrative, and despite the great number of artists and creative people who identify themselves as either liberal or progressive, the right often does a better job at creating a narrative — often a narrative with which facts do not comport. What do you have to say to AlterNet readers about the importance of storytelling and narrative?

This is a very important discussion; it’s very critical, because many wonderful, committed, passionate progressives really believe that if we can turn out one more white paper with 17 points about how to fix Problem X, the world and the axis would shift. And they truly believe that because they are in a distinct minority of people who function primarily with their rational brain. But there’s all kind of scientific evidence, psychological evidence, that that’s not primarily the way you reach people; it’s not the way you move people. It’s not the way a great majority of people make their decisions. And what we do at Brave New Films and Brave New Foundation always, and this comes from my commercial background in storytelling, is, you reach the heart first. And if you reach the heart first, then you can access the brain — and you can access change and movement. But if you start with the multifaceted position paper, it’s very hard to move people.

So narrative becomes important, because that’s the way that you touch people, that’s a way that you get them feeling something, and then you open up their brain so that you can change their position, so that you can encourage them to think differently.

We’re in the throes of a political season that is one of the angriest we’ve seen in a good, long while. Given that context, how would you like to see people use “Koch Brothers Exposed”?

Probably the most exciting thing of all in doing these films is that people find all kinds of ways of using them that we at the Brave New Foundation would never dream about. I mean, the most creative and inventive ways. People have shown them in bowling alleys, in church basements, on college campuses. I think the primary thing is that with the films, with the digital media, everybody can do something. Everybody can get a copy of the movie and do a screening. Or everybody can get a copy of the movie and donate it to the library. Or everybody can get a copy of the movie and give it to a church or a social group — or show it at any one of the many places today that have TV screens.

And that’s another reason that we do these films but do not focus on getting them into theaters, where the bar to entry is high — $9, $10, $11. No — put them in every possible place where people congregate, because where they congregate today, there’s almost always a TV screen. You know the ultimate goal is organize, organize — and then, organize.

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