By Michael Getler
March 16, 2007
"The War" doesn't even start for another six months, but the skirmishes around its flanks have been underway for some time now and they escalated in the past week or two.
"The War," of course, is not the one we are in now in Iraq. It's the "good war," World War II, the one that mobilized the nation and in which more than 12 million Americans served in the armed forces at its peak. And it's also the title of another epic work by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns that begins on Sept. 23. This one, co-produced with Lynn Novick, will be 14½ hours, spread over seven evenings (six two-hour segments and one 2½-hour episode) and each will air beginning at 8 p.m. nationally on PBS.
Burns is an extraordinary talent, "the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation," according to Tom Shales, The Washington Post's TV critic. He's done wars before, including the highly acclaimed series on "The Civil War" in 1990, and others on "Baseball," "Jazz," "The West," "Thomas Jefferson," and "Lewis and Clark," among many others. PBS chief Paula Kerger has described the forthcoming World War II saga as "Ken Burns' greatest work." It will be, she has said, "one of those seminal events, not just in public television history but in broadcast history."
Kerger may be among the very few who have actually had an advance look at "The War." So the skirmishes that have been popping up surrounding the documentary are largely engaging those who have not seen it, which includes the public and the ombudsman.
The first pre-war battle began several months ago and so far it amounts only to a preemptive strike by PBS against any would-be action by the Federal Communications Commission that could result in fines of $325,000 against stations that air the film in primetime (before the kids go to bed) if the FCC gets complaints and judges that the film uses obscene language. There are, according to the producers, three incidents in which some normally banned words are used in the film. But these are described by Burns as both minor and appropriate. It is, after all, a film about war as described by veterans and a narrator, and Kerger and Burns have both said that they are committed to present and defend this film and its language as it was created and on its artistic merit. My pre-war judgment is that it would be obscene for the FCC to fine stations over language in this series.
The second battle was mostly inside-baseball, but it was an actual engagement. In this case, my sense is that TV critics saved PBS from itself. This unfolded in January and early February and was recorded in the media sections of several news organizations.
Basically it involved PBS's determination to schedule the debut of "The War," in which it has a great deal invested, during the same week as the commercial broadcast TV networks debut all their new shows, during what is called Premier Week. The TV critics essentially argued that a big and serious event such as the airing of a new and very high-profile Ken Burns series cannot get the space and attention it deserves from TV reviewers if it is scheduled at the same time as the big new network premiers. PBS, a few weeks later, relented and moved the opening date back to Sept. 23.
A Third Encounter of the Tougher Kind
The third encounter has unfolded just recently, and it is a lot more powerful and challenging for PBS and for Burns and Novick. It involves a sense of anger and exclusion being expressed among a growing number of Hispanic American commentators and PBS viewers at the reported, and apparent, absence of Hispanic veterans from the more than 40 men and women whose interviews are included in the documentary. "How is it possible that in the six years it took to make this film, no one involved thought to ask where are the Latino stories?" asked Gus Chavez, founder of the "Defend the Honor Campaign."
According to statistics kept by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, between 250,000 and 500,000 Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. military during the war. But it notes that these estimates are rough because, at the time, the military categorized Hispanics under the same heading as whites. The only racial groups to have separate statistics kept were Blacks and Asians, according to the museum.
In a statement reacting to the growing protest, Burns and Novick said: "We are dismayed and saddened by any assumption that we intentionally excluded anyone from our series on the Second World War. Nothing could be further from the truth. For thirty years we have made films that have tried to tell many of the stories that haven't been told in American history. In this latest project, we have attempted to show the universal human experience of war by focusing on the testimonies of just a handful of people — mostly from four American towns. As a result, millions of stories are not explored in our film.
"We sincerely hope that viewers will refrain from passing judgment on our work until they have seen it. We are certain that this series will spark a national dialogue about World War II and war in general, and that people throughout the country will be inspired to tell their stories as part of an unprecedented national outreach effort initiated by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
Asked about it directly on the NPR program "Fresh Air" yesterday, March 15, Burns said: "I think the way we constructed it sort of renders a little bit of the protest moot. I mean I can understand, particularly in the Hispanic community, after 500 years of having so much of their history marginalized (on) this continent, how important it is to be told. But we knew going in that we weren't going to be able to tell the whole story and in fact we limited the film to four geographically distributed towns and a handful of people from those towns. And we're actually not, with the exception of Japanese Americans and to a much lesser extent African Americans, who had an amazingly different kind of American experience, i.e. they were interned and in segregated regiments, looking for any type of people in the film. We were looking for universal human experience of battle, of what was it like to be in that war and not try to cover every group. We left out lots of people in many, many different kinds of groups because we weren't looking at it in that way."
Attention at the Top
PBS CEO Kerger, along with board member Lionel Sosa and Chief Content Officer John Boland, also met on March 6 with a group of Hispanic leaders including Chavez, Maggie Rivas-Rodriquez of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Marta Garcia, Chair of the Executive Board of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
In a follow-up letter to the attendees a week later, Kerger said: "While our conversation focused on your specific concerns regarding the upcoming Ken Burns series, THE WAR, we hope this will be the start of a broader dialogue with organizations representing the Latino community to address the goal of increasing representation of Latinos among the ranks of public broadcasting's content creators, among the leadership and staff of our stations and national organizations, and in the programming we present.
"As we indicated during our discussion last week, THE WAR was never intended to be a comprehensive or definitive television series on the subject of World War II. From the beginning of this project, co-producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick understood that their film would not capture many important aspects of those cataclysmic years. Each episode opens with the statement, 'The Second World War was fought in a million places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of how four towns and their citizens experienced that war.'
"As we discussed, THE WAR was completed in Fall 2006 and is scheduled for broadcast beginning September 23. 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.
"It is our goal that THE WAR serve as a catalyst to bring forth the many stories that are not part of the Ken Burns series. That is why we are supporting one of the most comprehensive community outreach and educational initiatives in our history. The initiative includes grants to every public television station in every state that will allow communities across the country to produce programming, host events and invite public discourse in order to celebrate and commemorate the extraordinary sacrifices made by millions of Americans, both on the field of combat and on the home front. PBS will consider programs produced by our member stations for national distribution."
Kerger went on to say that PBS recognizes its responsibility to reflect the diversity of the population and pointed out, among other things, the new "V-me" national Spanish-language network featuring the best of public television, continuing children's programs Maya and Miguel, and Los Ninos en Su Casa, and several PBS programs that feature the work of independent Latino filmmakers and programs that focus on Latino characters.
My Two Cents
Personally, I have no reason to doubt what Burns and Novick say in rejecting the idea that anyone was intentionally excluded from the series. Burns is an extraordinary filmmaker and the filmmaker's vision, as he explains it, is artistically crucial. I'm not one for artificially introducing quotas into art, either, and, as the co-producers say, I'm quite ready to refrain from passing judgment on their work until we have all seen it. The idea of focusing on four towns — in Connecticut, Alabama, California and Minnesota — seems a good way to manage this, although in earlier PBS online program descriptions these locations were described as four "quintessentially American towns," language that seems to have been dropped in more recent characterizations.
On the other hand, this series, according to PBS, was, indeed, six years in the making. That's a lot of time to think about all the angles, including the diversity of this country and the way it manifested itself during those war years.
African Americans and Japanese Americans are apparently reported upon. But commentator Jose de la Isla, in an article carried by the Scripps Howard News Service, attacks PBS for not "calling to task its documentary darling, Ken Burns," and reminds readers about the dozen Hispanic soldiers awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and other highly praised units.
So what interests me most among the critical public statements, and the questions and criticisms raised by viewers in letters to me, is whether, during the six years of production, anyone did actually think about the Hispanic veterans. And if the honest answer is no, or not much, then these protests ought to remind us all, if any reminder is necessary in such a diverse and complex country as this one, that new thinking is always required. It may be that nothing would have changed, but having thought about it at least makes for fuller and more open explanation and challenge.
Here Are Some of the Letters
I was surprised and concerned when I recently heard that Ken Burns' forthcoming documentary, "The War," on World War II does not include Latinos who served in the military during this time. I don't understand why the documentary does not fully represent the collective of people who served. And I also don't understand how everyone who was involved in making it and deciding to show it on PBS didn't notice this — didn't see this as a problem or that this is offensive. So my questions to you and Mr. Burns: Did Mr. Burns and others not see this over the six years it took to produce this film? Was the exclusion of Latinos in this documentary noticed and simply allowed? Who or how many people are accountable for this lack of support and respect for our citizens of Latino descent who have served and are now serving in the military?
I have perceived your intentions to be that of responsible broadcasting with the capacity to check out information to be shown on PBS. It's important to me to bring this troubling matter and my concerns to your attention. With an assumption that you have an intention to cultivate programs that are accurate, I'm asking you to look at "The War's" inaccuracy and how it disrespects and marginalizes a large segment of Americans by their lack of inclusion in this film. As you know, pictures can sometimes speak louder than words and I perceive this documentary and a decision to show it anyway as a disguised, subtle and offensive form of racism even though I can imagine that this is not a conscious or intentional exclusion.
Lee Lipp, San Francisco, CA
I am a strong PBS supporter because of the quality and accuracy of productions, but it is beyond my comprehension that a documentary such as The War has totally excluded Hispanics, Puerto Ricans and Americans of Mexican descent. Makes no sense to exclude a group that was awarded the second largest number of Congressional Medal of Honor and whose history in WWII is so well documented. I am angry that PBS appears to support the miseducation of the public and my community by our exclusion from history. What is PBS going to do?
Port Aransas, TX
I am writing to share my concerns with the upcoming documentary series on WWII, by Ken Burns. I join a growing chorus of Latinos who are concerned and disappointed with the absence of Latinos in the series. It is abundantly clear that Latinos, like my father, made profound contributions in the war effort. We are among the most decorated vets. It is hard to believe that, in 60+ interviews, Mr. Burns could not find a Latino voice. As a publicly supported, national service, it is inconceivable that PBS would not have intervened to ensure a more inclusive treatment of WWII. While I understand and respect creative/artistic freedom, to ignore the major contributions of Latino WWII vets is just unacceptable and tragic.
Eduardo Diaz, Albuquerque, NM
Executive Director, National Hispanic Cultural Center
I was disappointed to see that PBS is not taking a pro-active stance in the inclusion of Latina/os in its programming, notably in Ken Burns' upcoming series on WWII. While I would never expect you to "violate" Burns' "artistic independence," it is troubling to me that this issue was not on the table before the production was undertaken.
Anne Martinez, Austin, TX
I was listening just now to Ken Burns on Fresh Air . . . a program devoted to his upcoming series The War. As you probably know, the series has stirred up some controversy among the Latino community because apparently it does not fully document the roles and contributions of Latino soldiers during WWII. Burns' rationalization is a familiar one. We were going for universal stories of combat, he says, and not out to give coverage to the ethnic spectrum. This claim, a familiar one, will no longer go unchallenged. It implies that primarily white Anglo voices are best able to articulate "universals", which is the kind of short-hand anti-Latino bias that continues to marginalize our history, culture, art, and basic humanity inside the United States. If the accusation holds true, PBS should be ashamed of itself for allowing this kind of subtle racism to permeate such a critically important project of historical recovery.
Javier Rodriguez, San Antonio, TX
Also in the Mailbag
For those of you still with us, here are some recent e-mails from viewers on programs that have recently aired and been the subject of ombudsman columns as well — including the recent productions of "News War" and "The Marines," and that oldie but goodie, "Einstein's Wife."
First, More on 'News War'
News War is fantastic! I wish there where more of these kinds of programs on PBS. Not that it was so serious, but that it was so thoughtful. The subject is great but what really separates it from other programming is how thoughtful the series is. Thank you. Keep it coming!
Jason McInnes, Chicago, IL
"Most of this has unfolded at the same time as a secretive, two-term administration has skillfully sought to diminish the impact, credibility and even patriotism of what is called the mainstream press."
The answer to what is happening to the business of journalism is summed up in that line you wrote in today's (March 7) piece. PBS is a lot of things but part of the mainstream press isn't one of them. There is a reason why the DNC buys your mailing lists and the RNC doesn't. They know your audience because they know your editorial slant. I have more choices than ever to get my news and being locked into PBS with its liberal bias is way down the list. Had the "mainstream media" actually been mainstream for the last 30 years, perhaps they wouldn't have lost so many readers? Life's tough Michael . . . get used to it.
I read your synopsis of Frontline's recent series on journalism, then I read the comments. First off, I agree very much with your opinion of the series. Secondly, my sentiments about our current journalism comes closest to Dorothy Knable of Sacramento. I applaud this Frontline series. It is a topic sorely needed. I also agree with you about part 3, I think I blurted out "thank you!!" when it started going into depth. Finally it got into the meat of the matter.
I left the newspapers around the beginning of our illegal invasion of Iraq, mainly because there was no serious questioning. I didn't get satisfactory answers. PBS still has me very concerned — the FAIR article, regarding the obvious lack of anti-war positions, supported my belief. Along with that, Harrison, Halpern & Gaines being selected indirectly by Karl Rove and their obvious pro-AIPAC and Republican stance. Couple that with the disturbing ads in the beginning of the Lehrer NewsHour for pharmaceutical & insurance companies especially ADM, price fixer of the world.
I thought the Frontline series was great, but it could have been a little more self-critical. Especially into its catastrophic failure in investigating Iraq (or Bush's military record or the Swift boats or Rove's dirty tricks or Sibel Edmunds or Rendon's propaganda efforts or hidden American foreign policies or . . . ). I don't want to rely on foreign news services, Sy Hersh, Greg Palast & Amy Goodman or look at PBS as though it's just another tool of big business/partisan politics.
And More on 'The Marines'
Frankly, I saw nothing to "criticize" about the production of "Marines," including who financed part or all of its production: how can one criticize the truth? A documentary is a dramatic production that either shows or analyzes reality with little or no fictionalization, and, if done with reasonable accuracy defies criticism other than claims regarding entertainment value. Therefore, Mr. Getler, exactly where did this production fall short? Can you point to any intended misrepresentations for fact presented in "Marines?" Did you find it not entertaining? Do you think those who paid for production of "Marines" would have been better advised spending their money on one of YOUR special interests? It is easy to criticize something: anyone can do it.
B. Batman, Lee's Summit, MO
My dad was a Marine, and so is my eldest son. He did two deployments, to the Gulf and then El Ramadi in Iraq. He then chose to be in the Reserves to serve his country. When he was commissioned as an officer I visited and toured the base at Quantico, Virginia. Based on a first-hand visit, mail, email and many visits to the Marine Corps websites, I thank PBS for such an accurate portrayal of recruitment, training, ethos and all that makes a Marine part of the branch of the military services that I believe is uniquely dedicated to defending our country and performing at the highest standards.
Christine Kimball, Lynnfield, MA
Those who complained about your program on the Marine Corp were correct in what they said, in a way. They don't hate the Corp, what they really hate is this Iraq war we Americans have been duped into by the Bushies, and were we ever. You folks who are defending the Marine Corps must remember that there are people who live in this country who are just as loyal to America as you are and yet we have been totally DEMONIZED by the right-winger Republicans and their machine of war and killing for PROFIT. We have been attacked from the time of Ronald Reagan, the sleeping president, and this has been going on non-stop and continues to this very day and we are totally sick of it, totally fed up and totally disgusted. The endless insults have to stop and America has to be re-balanced. I don't hate the Corp. My brother was a Marine in Vietnam. Many of us feel it's our America just as much as yours. Many of us feel we have been shut out. Many of us feel that the Corp has a do-or-die attitude, and a overcome at almost any cost. We, the rest of America, have been overcome and killed and we don't like it. Would you? We realize the Corp didn't do it, but the Corp is a part of the mentality that has given us on the left, who really do get upset over your deaths in Iraq, and I get really angry almost everyday that I see another list of the dead on PBS from the Bush war and death machine for fun and profit. And we are disgusted at what the Republican Party has done to America and in the Middle East in what we/I see as a phony war.Thank you all for your service to America and your deaths make us very angry. Please try to understand the deeper dynamics of what is going on.
Bob D'Amico, Cleveland, OH
Having been a United States Marine I would like to make a few things clear about this subject. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to view the program on the Marine Corps but would like to state that the majority of Marines that I have and still do communicate with are not the brainless killing machines that most of the people in this feedback column think they are. The Marines have a long standing tradition of loyalty and respect for their country and the people that live in this country. We are not brainwashed in boot camp to be anything but good soldiers who know how to follow orders, LEGAL orders I might add, and those who follow ILLEGAL orders are doing so either out of fear or because they simply do not know the difference between a legal and an illegal order. Yes you get some that do something stupid on their own accord, but to group the majority of Marines in with these people is just plain offensive. The majority of Marines are not infantry and will most likely not see a true combat engagement. This is true in all of the services. One of the problems is that the Marines have a higher reputation to live up to, and when one or two do something wrong it reflects on all of us. Oh, and one other point, not to speak negatively on the Coast Guard because I respect them and what they do greatly, but the only time they are considered a part of the Armed Forces of the U.S. is during a war, otherwise they are considered a branch of the Department of Transportation as of 1978. So please, those of you who do not agree with what we do, please understand it is not about us wanting to go to war, or kill, or whatever else you might believe, but that we do it to protect the freedoms this country provides and to protect YOUR very way of life.
May I be permitted to respond to the comments (posted 31 January) from the woman scientist from San Mateo, CA, who wrote concerning my critique of the "Einstein's Wife" documentary of my "strident attacks on any woman who dares to excel in this male-dominated world"? I am at a loss to understand how my closely documented concern for the historical facts in this instance translates into a general attack on female scientists who excel.
The author of the letter writes: "There are existing letters from Mileva to Einstein discussing scientific issues and ideas, showing that they had a professional relationship as well as a personal one." In fact there is not a single letter by Mileva in which she discusses scientific ideas; all such letters came from Einstein, and even where we have Mileva's direct replies to such letters she makes no mention of the ideas Einstein had excitedly written about.
Incidentally, the same writer's account of the events relating to Lise Meitner is far from accurate. She writes: "Hahn did not even believe the experiments that showed fission was possible, until Meitner proved it to him. Because she was Jewish, she has to flee Germany in 1938 and Hahn published their findings in 1939 under his name alone."
The actual facts are as follows. The crucial nuclear fission experiment was performed by Otto Hahn and Fritz Glassman after Meitner had been forced to flee Germany, and Hahn and Glassman co-authored the paper describing their findings. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch (then working with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen) together arrived at the theoretical explanation for the experimental findings, and immediately reported it in a paper they co-authored. Under the difficult circumstances during the war, the Nobel Prize was awarded solely to Hahn. So it was not only Meitner who lost out on the Prize at that time, the same may be said for Frisch, who co-authored the significant paper with Meitner, and also for Glassman.
Allen Esterson, London, England
I have read your column regarding "Einstein's Wife" and thank you for thoroughly reviewing this unfortunate situation. My hope is that PBS, or someone, will go back and research Mileva Maric's life and tell an accurate story. My sense is that her true story is powerful and poignant, and needs to be told in a way that is above reproach of this kind. Something has gone very wrong, and I hope that PBS will continue to work to make it right.
After reading your site I can't help but think that all the attacks against Mileva Maric and the program come from disciples/worshipers of Einstein. Time to stop believing in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Einstein had help. No doubt.