Media

Ken Burns, You're Better Than That!

Filmmaker Ken Burns has come under intense criticism for not including any Hispanic Americans in his new 14-hour PBS documentary about World War II.
Imagine making a multi-hour, nationally broadcast series for public television about baseball -- but never mentioning Roberto Clemente. Or a multi-hour, nationally broadcast series for public television about jazz -- without referencing Tito Puente or Celia Cruz or Eddie Palmieri. Impossible, right?

So how did Ken Burns and PBS manage to construct a multi-hour, nationally broadcast series of public television about World War II without including any interviews with Hispanic American veterans?

Burns, whose reputation as one of pubcasting's leading documentarians rests on his penchant for producing exhaustive (some say exhausting!) examinations of epochal subjects and events, is coming under attack for what he didn't include in his forthcoming (September 2007) PBS series, The War.

Latino leaders from a range of civil rights, veterans' and media activism groups are calling for the series to be revised before it airs -- but PBS is refusing. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is among them. "We continue to be invisible," Rivas-Rodriguez recently told the public telecommunications newspaper Current. "This is one that we're not going to allow."

Gus Chavez, a retired university administrator from San Diego who participated in a recent meeting with PBS execs, echoed her fighting words. The War documents a "major national experience and we're not part of it and we don't want it to be shown until it's corrected," said Chavez. "We are not going to sit still and let historical events of this nature be presented without our input and representation." Navy veteran Chavez has joined Rivas-Rodriquez in organizing "Defend the Honor," a campaign for recognition.

"We are totally geared to making the general public aware of our concern that this documentary is misrepresenting the war as it's presented to exclude the Latino experience," Chavez told Current.

But PBS President Paula Kerger says the network is standing foursquare behind Burns -- the star of her system. "While we acknowledge and respect the concerns you have raised, we do not agree that going back into production to revise a completed series that represents one filmmaker's vision is the appropriate solution," Kerger wrote in a letter to Rivas-Rodriguez, Chavez and other meeting participants. Instead, Kerger pointed to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-backed outreach project tied to The War that is designed to bring out stories not told in Burns' series.

Kerger's muted response to the Hispanic concerns incensed Rivas-Rodriquez, who noted:
PBS is more concerned with maintaining its respectful relationship with Ken Burns than its relationship with the Latino community and its veterans of World War II. But it is public broadcasting -- funded in part by taxpayer money -- and it should be more respectful to the community than to any individual filmmaker.
Chon Noriega, a filmmaker and associate director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California in Los Angeles, believes the subject of World War II is "a sore point" in the Latino community.

"The Second World War," he told Current, "is where the community felt it had earned the right to citizenship that had been denied since 1848" -- the end of the Mexican-American War. "This is a critical turning point in their recognition as citizens and they're not there" in Burns' series, Noriega said. "You can understand why people would be upset." PBS is a "public entity receiving public funding to describe this history and they're just not there in the image."

Several Hispanic-American leaders released letters of protest to Kerger just before a recent congressional hearing on CPB funding. "A documentary on World War II that excludes the contributions of Hispanic Americans is inaccurate and incomplete, and thus fails to meet the standards of fairness and excellence for which PBS has been previously recognized," noted Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Rep. Joe Baca. The caucus asked Kerger to withdraw The War "until this omission is corrected." Hispanic soldiers in World War II received more Congressional Medals of Honor than other ethnic groups in proportion to their numbers in the armed forces.

Leaders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have also weighed in:

"[I]t escapes us how Ken Burns could have made a seven-part series that does not mention the contributions of Latinos," they wrote in a letter to Kerger. "His usually thorough work is seen as the contemporary documentation of U.S. political, social and cultural history on a wide variety of themes. For PBS to air the series as is would be a disservice to its viewers, giving them a skewed version of this important part of American history."

Few people have seen the latest Burns magnum opus, leaving both critics and defenders in a difficult position. Burns himself is on record as being "tremendously saddened" that "Hispanic Americans have had their history marginalized for as long as there have been European settlers in what is now the United States."

Nonetheless, the filmmaker says he wasn't intending to include representatives of any specific ethnic groups. "That is not what the film is about," Burns said. "It's about the experience of combat from the perspectives of a handful of people. Yet the film does feature stories of two groups of soldiers who fought despite discrimination at home -- Japanese Americans, whose families were held in internment camps, and African Americans.

"At some point, one has to understand artistic choice," Burns responds. "Those choices are symbolic and we hope that you see the whole."

The controversy should come as no surprise to PBS executives like Kerger. After all, questions about ethnic representation in The War were raised months ago by Rivas-Rodriguez, who directs the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project.

After a November screening of the film at which one of his producers acknowledged that Latinos were one of several minority groups not represented in the film, she contacted WETA in Washington, D.C., a co-producer of The War.

"A lot of people keep saying, 'Why don't you wait and see the film?' but we're not going to do that because at this point we know there's not Latino representation," Rivas-Rodriquez says. Reediting the documentary to include Latino veterans, she believes, "would be very easy."

"Realistically, it's not that hard to change a documentary," adds Noriega, a board member of the Independent Television Service. "This is really a referendum for Ken Burns. His actions will signal what he feels about how important this issue is ... He's come to this point because of a clear failure to do the research."

John Wilson, senior vise president of television for PBS, says network programmers don't have any reason to question Burns' historical analysis or his ability to deal with issues of race and ethnicity. "That is not really a note that you need to be concerned with in Ken's work," according to Wilson. "This is very much a part of what Ken does and I think in The War he's very sensitive to issues of race."

Still, Wilson admits, "the omission of Latinos' stories is regrettable -- but it doesn't make the film itself journalistically unsound." Moreover, Wilson added, "PBS by and large is known for respecting the work of producers."

As a documentary filmmaker myself, I'm definitely in favor of respecting the work of producers. But isn't respect for the audience also important? In a 14-hour documentary, couldn't Burns have devoted a few minutes (at least!) to include the WWII experiences of America's Latinos? I certainly am not asking for the imposition of any kind of "political litmus tests" for documentaries -- but I am calling for Burns to listen to and show respect for valid complaints from the public broadcasting audience and, in this case, to reassess his startling and ahistorical omission.

But to date both Burns and his PBS supporters seem instead to be circling their wagons and taking a defensive posture, instead of reaching out and trying to rectify the situation. "People, when they see the film, they will see the universality," Burns claims. But Latinos won't see themselves -- and that's the crux of the problem.

To acknowledge the ground that the film does not cover, Burns will begin each episode of the documentary with a title card acknowledging its limited scope. He has also asked PBS and CPB to back the related project of local outreach and production. "The film is done yet there are all these opportunities to tell all these other stories," Burns said.

In other words -- leave it to others to clean up the mess I've made ...

Come on, Ken -- you're better than that! You have fourteen hours in well-promoted prime time, coupled with the most extensive outreach campaigns ever tied to a national broadcast, so why not give it up? Do the right thing! Listen to the voice of the people and then re-edit your precious art ...

So far, however, Burns demurs. "It's not just me that can tell all these stories," he maintains. "This is public broadcasting."

Precisely ...
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.