Ken Burns Is Better Than That!

Bowing to pressure, Ken Burns decided to amend his new PBS documentary about World War I that did not include Latinos. Let's hope PBS now amends their decision-making process.
"It was Ken," said John Wilson, Senior Vice President & Chief TV Programming Executive for PBS, explaining the reversal of an earlier decision that no changes could be made to Ken Burns' forthcoming, magnum opus on World War II, scheduled to air in September. "Ken elected to make changes."

Controversy erupted recently because Burns and PBS had somehow inexplicably managed to construct the multi-hour, nationally broadcast public television series about the war without including any interviews with Hispanic-American veterans.

Previously, PBS executives had taken the steadfast position that nothing could be done to address community complaints over the omission because the film was already completed and they did not want to interfere with Burns' artistic independence.

"So what changed?" I asked Wilson. "What's being cut out and what's being added?"

"The film itself is still the film itself," he responded. "It is entirely intact. New content will be incorporated within the footprint of the series without changing the existing film. The footage remains the same. We will be able to incorporate additional material without ruining the core vision."

Pressed for specifics, Wilson admitted, "the details are still unclear," but said that the new plan "allows The War to go out with its emotional experience in place, while still acknowledging the Hispanic contribution."

Pressed further, he referred to a press release stating that Burns, "in consultation with PBS, will assemble a production team, including a Latino producer, to create the additional content, and will work with this team to insure that the new segments are consistent with the production values and sensibilities" of other segments of The War.

"What changed is that we are trying to walk a fine line of balance," Wilson concluded. "Listening to our audience while still respecting the artistic vision of our film makers."

What also changed -- but which he left unsaid -- is that the uproar within the Latino community, and the coordinated response led by an ad hoc coalition called Defend Our Honor, brought so much moral, political and financial pressure to bear on PBS executives that they were ultimately left with no choice but to allow changes to Burns' film.

The leadership of the campaign for inclusion first met with PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger little more than a month ago, at which point Kerger told them nothing could be done to address their concerns. Instead of accepting the decision, the group began involving academics, activists, politicians, veterans' groups and the media in a coordinated campaign to persuade PBS.

To their credit, Kerger, Wilson and other PBS officials finally began to listen. After a month of meetings, media reports, and political intrigue, they moved from rejection to acceptance. As this week's statement puts it, "PBS takes its mission to serve all Americans very seriously. Along with the independent filmmakers who work with us, we are deeply committed to listening to the public we serve."

The Defend the Honor Campaign has responded in a letter to Kerger outlining concerns that they wish to pursue further with her. "The devil is in the details," said Marta Garcia, Chair and Founder of the New York Chapter of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "We need more information, especially about how the Latino experience will be treated in the film, what role our community will be playing in the development of the film itself, in the development of the educational materials, and in PBS' community outreach efforts."

Garcia says the group plans a follow-up meeting with Kerger to talk about developing an ongoing mechanism by which the community can have input and can act as a resource for PBS.

"We need to make sure that this problem does not occur again and ... PBS in general better incorporates Latinos in its programming, staff and in other ways," Garcia said.

So kudos of course to PBS for finally listening -- but why did it take so long, and how can such situations be avoided in the future?

"It is certainly our desire to reflect America and to listen to diverse voices," said John Wilson. "This really demonstrates where public broadcasting needs to be, in terms of listening to the audience and fulfilling its mission.

"The premise of the film was not to be a survey of different ethnic groups' involvement in World War II," Wilson added. "So the notion that particular groups had been left out wasn't in the foreground. Ken was following his instincts."

This instinctual approach, however, is clearly insufficient, and PBS should establish a better process going forward and create procedures for dialogue, community involvement and "listening to diverse voices" long before such well funded and promoted programs are finished and being readied for broadcast.

Asked if any effort to do so had begun, Wilson was vague and retreated into cliché speak. "There's a constant effort to make sure we're doing the best we can," was all he could muster. "There are actions we will take and things we can learn...We've done our best job of listening."

Maybe so ... But even if it can no longer be said that PBS officials are listening too little, there's no denying they're still listening too late. Following your gut instincts is no way to run a public broadcasting service. Paula Kerger brings a new set of ears to PBS -- now it's time to use them.
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.