By Michael Getler
October 7, 2009
As I was saying, we would wait until the completion of the six-part, 12-hour Ken Burns series on "The National Parks" before pulling together a representative sampling of viewer observations sent to the ombudsman's inbox. Not surprisingly, this makes for a long mailbag. At the end of the letters about the series, are a couple more on other subjects, including the airing of a controversial film about the 9/11 attacks by a PBS-member station that was also part of last week's column.
Most of the letters about the series are very positive, which is not surprising since Burns is perhaps the premier television documentarian of our history and culture, and certainly the most productive. A fair number of those who wrote, however, found fault, especially in what they perceived as an excessive element of religion that co-mingled with the narrative of natural beauty and the struggle to preserve it within a national system. There were other criticisms as well. Any project of this scope and duration will naturally attract differing points of view. As a viewer of Burns' projects over the years, I've always felt that whatever flaws they may contain, it was far better, in the end, to have had these documentary projects than not to have them; they represent an extraordinary body of work that will endure.
The shortest of all the letters printed below comes from a viewer in Detroit who says that the series was too much in too short a space; jamming six two-hour segments back to back for almost a week was just too much forced viewing. I had the same feeling. It would have been better, I thought, to have spaced these out more to once or twice a week to help make each segment stand out, especially because the tone, pace and style of every nightly offering seemed similar, hence a sense of repetition. There is no doubt that this had very high viewership at the start, but it made me wonder how many people actually stuck with it. PBS officials say they hope to have some stats on this by the end of the month.
The Good Stuff
I am writing to express my gratitude after watching, Ken Burns' documentary. I am not sure how to express my charmed delight in this film series. I watched each night and then on Sunday to once again partake of this extraordinary footage. It is as though someone handed me an intricate connect the dots drawing and then magically connected them before my eyes adding color and dimension to reveal a landscape so rapturous that words cannot describe. I have visited 18 of the 58 parks. My husband and I hope to visit all of them in this lifetime.
Kathleen Edwards, Tampa, FL
I just wanted to express my profound gratitude for the National Parks series. It was probably the most dazzling and emotionally stirring program we've ever watched, and PBS has had quite a few of those. Thank you for letting us experience such beauty interwoven with such an exciting history of the evolution of our National Parks. I would have liked to have sent a personal note of thanks to Mr. Burns, but I am sure you'll convey to him our eternal gratitude for the lovely program.
The National Parks series was a wonder to behold. The beauty that each park brought to the series was nature at its best. To bad that there were so many narrow minded people at its onset of creation (Park Service). Finally PBS has brought back memories of what PBS had started sooo long ago. I remember the nature series, the science series the most. Hope to see more (Nova) style programming. Again kudos on the Park series, and thank you for taking the time to read this.
Bernard Brodeur, Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada
I want to thank Ken Burns for a wonderful series. What would Muir, Mather, Murie and other pioneers think now I wonder, especially in Alaska where wolves are being shot by hunters in helicopters. I think this film should be shown in schools. Also Peter Coyote was a great narrator.
Norma Harris, Warminster, PA
I love the Ken Burns series — I have been glued to it long after I should be in bed. I was especially taken with the short segment on the work of Chiura Obata. When I search for his name online I find very little: I hope someone out there will produce more for the public on this amazing artist.
I thoroughly enjoyed The National Parks series this past week and recorded it so I can view it again and share it with friends. It prompted the following question/suggestion: Are PBS programs available via the Armed Services TV network? My son is serving in the Air Force in South Korea, and he and his colleagues deserve to be able to see the many marvelous programs PBS offers. I could find no way to contact either the AFN or Ken Burns in this instance to make this suggestion to them. I hope you can either tell me that PBS programming is already available to the military deployed abroad or that you will take steps to move the suggestion toward the desks of appropriate people at PBS and the AFN in hopes of making that a reality.
Barbara Blomgren, La Jolla, CA
(Ombudsman's Note: It's on AFN. Here's a link to the schedule.)
The Not So Good: Keep Religion Out of It
I have visited many of our national parks and was looking forward to this week's series. I have been absolutely appalled at the plethora of totally unnecessary religious references to the mythical Christian deity and savior. I have always thought that PBS should be a place that is grounded in science and reality. When did the Christian cult that has taken over our government and destroyed our country's economy also gain control of PBS?
Richard Feldman, Pomona, CA
When I read about the series on our national parks, I asked my husband to record the series. We watched part of episode one, and I got so annoyed I had to quit watching! I wanted to see the majesty of our parks, not hear religious sermonizing. My husband deleted the rest of the series from our recordings. What a huge disappointment!
Susan Robinson, Modesto, CA
The Ken Burns series on national parks really got carried away emphasizing religion in connection with geology and beauty. I realize some do believe in the supernatural but many do not and it became apparent that they were emphasizing this connection every time they could. Sad.
Ramona Memmer, Seattle, WA
To reiterate: "Many famous environmentalists, unlike John Muir, felt the natural world was enough for them: 'above us only sky,' as John Lennon put it. Environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold roundly rejected religion. We hope as your series continues that there will be an acknowledgment of the many of us who treasure and support our national parks who are not religious, who have a devotion to this world, our only world, instead of to some unseen, speculative afterworld and its 'creator.'"
Ruthe Milan, W. Bloomfield, MI
I would very much like to know why it is that a documentary mini-series about our national park system has to include offensive sectarian comments and lyrics. We are living in the 21st Century and comments in favor of any particular religion or favoring religion over irreligion demonstrate intolerance and a complete disregard for the rights of the viewing public. Maybe Ken Burns should just limit himself to producing materials for religious organizations.
John Ross, Washington, DC
This Burns doc is a complete waste of time and an embarrassment to him and you. How much did you pay for this overwrought garbage? He easily could have shrink this doc-by-the-number from what, 30 hours, to one or two hours. Boring, self-indulgent drivel. I mean, who cares? Using up Tivo space for what? I'm sure this 30 hours of programming could have been much better used for actual docs that say something to us, not two hours on John Muir and endless photos of people driving through towns on buggies or nature shots. A total commentary on the irrelevance of PBS as well as the lack of self-restraint on Burns' part. Guess he has read so many overflowing with BS praise about himself he thinks anything he throws out there will be fascinating. It's such a waste of time and resources. He should give the money back and you should give your self-praise back. Real mediocre crap and so much of it. Who do you think you are, Bush?
Frank Fong, Yosemite, CA
What an extraordinary series. Until the last event. Why, Oh! WHY did you have to insert the black propaganda into this exceptional series. It just destroyed the last Chapter and left me unsettled and took away the perfectness of the program. These poor people . . . who have made unbelievable strides in the last 50 years to be normal like everyone in the USA . . . and you insert all that repulsive derogatory nonsense. What in God's name did their morally repugnant past have to do with the beauty of the Parks? What possible motive did the Editor have for allowing such unrelated footage to be inserted into something so incredibly beautiful. That section completely eliminated my desire to purchase the series for my grandchildren.
Frances Smith, Knoxville, TN
While I like the National Parks feature by Ken Burns, I do not like his anti-white and anti-American position and I like it even less when he spews his discriminatory anti-isms in his films. Criticizing what people did to other people centuries ago without the benefit of having walked in their shoes in their time is stupid and meaningless. Criticizing only whites is discriminatory. Insinuating that America is the only bad country to have ever existed is hypocritical. If Ken Burns does not like whites and/or America, why doesn't he move to the Congo? The answer is freedom and money. That is why I do not voluntarily financially support Ken Burns or PBS.
Fred Tessier, Las Vegas, NV
I must say, the "Parks" is a good story, except for the last part about "Civil Rights." I am sick and tired of every production on PBS to be centered around civil rights. If you see and listen to anything educational like a documentary as The National Parks, racism or the thought of racism is invoked into the story. Why can't we tell the story, and let black, white, Asian be who they are. It's time to drop the civil rights movement. Let's start the American movement.
Paul W., Spanish Fort, AL
I would prefer the National Parks programs to have been more widely spaced apart/out . . . perhaps one or two a week rather than jammed in on one week . . . I simply don't want to devote a week to full time TV viewing.
I am watching National Parks. I also work at Historic Mill Creek, which is part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks in Michigan. I think it is a gross omission of the program that no mention has been made of the fact that Mackinac Island was made the second national park in 1875 only after Yellowstone and maintained by the Department of War or that there was a concerted effort by islanders and vacationers there to preserve it as a park when the Army planned to leave Fort Mackinac in 1895 without regard for its uniqueness. It was only then transferred to Michigan as the first State Park before there even was a Michigan State Park system. Even most Michiganders do not know this history.
Richard Amacher, Rochester Hills, MI
Unable to visit the Parks due to financial and time limitations from farming, I was in high hopes of seeing the much hyped program. Repeatedly, the previews showed beautiful panoramic photography of amazing places beyond my comprehension. Those photos though, must have been the compilation of all the color photos in all the segments put together! I patiently wait through all the black and white stills, repeated shots of narrators, and history of Yellowstone and Yosemite, for a 30 second glimpse of a park in color, every half hour or so, as I thought the program would highlight! It is torturous. Even my old book of Yellowstone shows more colorful beauty than hours and hours of Ken Burns' take on this treasure. Even his choice of music is wrong. Music suitable for the Civil War does not cross over to the 30's and WPA projects in parks.
Dee Marie Moore, North Manchester, IN
Pop-Ups and Credits
I am watching the final part of Ken Burns' The National Parks. This is so awesome that I cannot find words to express my appreciation for this work. Part 5 got to my period of recognition: CCC & FDR. I felt more comfortable with that one. It is being repeated each night, so I have often watched twice on the same night. I was wishing for more about wildlife, but the Florida everglades with the incredible birds and now the wolf in the snow have gotten to what I was hoping to see.
I am one of those people who does not need to see my local station identified or be reminded of what I am seeing. Thank you for publishing some of the mail with the same complaints. Other than that, Nevada Barr, one of my favorite authors, showed up in one of the segments, and they didn't even mention that she was the author of several books set in the parks where she had served — Mesa Verde, Big Bend, and others. If you read her novels, you almost feel like you are there. The park rangers are blessed to be able to work in the parks and their love for the parks shows through in what they say and write.
Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX
Just another vote against the pop-ups during the National Parks Program. Others have eloquently made the case that we don't need these reminders, they're annoying, detract from the visual beauty and are a reminder that PBS today is not the wonderful PBS of yesteryear.
Marian Grant, Reisterstown, MD
I just found this ombudsman service while looking at some of the searches that found my blog. I recently posted about all six episodes of the National Parks series. I also find the use of this "TV bug" very annoying. It seems to be a common industry trend. Since PBS is not commercial I would hope that our contributions would keep these annoying commercial trends off the PBS screen.
Maybe I have become so accustomed to the afore-mentioned "pop-ups," that I no longer even notice them. There is a related topic, however, that I do find to be annoying. It is the habit PBS seems to have acquired from the national networks and elsewhere, of minimizing the end credits of a program and running promos for future episodes or other programs below. You should realize that as the music plays and the credits role, it is an opportunity for the viewer to meditate on what he or she has just seen, while still under its powerful spell. This practice is a disservice to the profound and contemplative nature of a series like "National Parks," and betrays a surprising lack of sophistication on the part of PBS.
Barry Anglin, Oklahoma City, OK
On Other Subjects: How About Other Voices?
PBS is supposed to be neutral and report to the people in a balanced way. There is no balance at all, it is completely under the influences of the establishment and corporations. Every night we are obliged to watch commercials for the oil companies. Every night we have retired generals and political hawks discussing Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Why do we never, ever hear from anti-war leaders? Why is there never a voice of Amnesty or the Peace movement. My taxes go to pay for the propaganda PBS puts out? We get 30 minutes of business news for the rich every night and never a program of 5 minutes about Unions or the homeless or women's rights. There's no integrity at all in PBS reporting. The producers and announcers are lackeys and a disgrace.
John Dunnicliff, Escondido, CA
A Thankless Task, but Someone Has to Do It
Mr. Getler, I do not know why you want this job! It is certainly a thankless task in many respects. PBS needs to do a better job of making it clear that the stations are independent and can run anything they want. I, too, have been offended at programming offered by my local station and did not understand the situation until reading about it here. If PBS can run endless promos for reruns of Sherlock Holmes, and run explanations of the digital changeover ad nauseum, perhaps they could spare some time to make this clear. Of course, if there weren't so many pledge breaks, there wouldn't be so much of this questionable programming, would there?
As to the Jewish person in Maine, I really had to laugh. Ken Burns' programs are run, rerun, rererun and then start all over again for YEARS. You WILL get to see the thing, believe me. Just for the record, I would not have a problem watching a worthwhile program on Christmas; in fact, our family go to a movie on Christmas every year. We have not been struck dead yet.
To the 9/11 people I really do not know what to say but I hope they will all apologize for skewering you for supposedly not watching the film.
About the "bug" thing: I got fed up with all that long ago (and all the reruns and pledge drives) and killed my television. Of course I do have friends and family so I do see television, so that's why I read this column.
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
We were all hypnotized into believing that two commercial aircraft struck the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001. While we imagined the jet fueled fire for over an hour someone responsible for surreptitiously placing enough explosive to bring down the building(s) set it off. A "deceptive controlled demolition." If I understand the claim correctly that is pretty much what is being claimed by the 9/11: Blueprint for Truth group.
No competent engineer would look at the available video of the fire and collapse and form any conclusion regarding the cause. The official conclusion makes sense and is supportable by the facts without a lot of complicated explanation. A large plane loaded with jet fuel struck the building blowing insulation off of the structural steel. The jet fuel and whatever was available as fuel in the building burned until the steel failed causing one floor to drop on to the next again and again!
I reject the 9/11: Blueprint for Truth explanation as too complicated, requiring far too many conspirators with rare even singular capabilities. When, in the real world has a deceptive controlled demolition ever been used? That is the most moronic of oxymorons. An explosion has no need to be deceptively controlled it need only be controlled and you not be caught lighting the fuse and you can effectively deny responsibility leaving open the wink, wink nod, nod option for future threats. A perfect surreptitious explosion demands a new perfect one every time you wish to make a point. One that can be attributed to you but not pinned on you is far more valuable. The ability to create the former does not exist. The ability to create the latter now that is a different story. Come up with one bit of evidence and I am on board.
Keep up the good work! Do Not Resign!!
Michael Knight, Tampa, FL
Nice October column. I read your column as a public television viewer and lawyer. The people who think that the WTC attack was an "inside job" by our government are true lunatics who choose to ignore extraordinary amounts of detailed objective evidence as to what happened. In particular, the assertion that the towers were demolished by explosives is incredible. By coincidence I recently stumbled on an authoritative explanation in laypersons' language as to why that could not possibly have been the case. "Objectivity and balance" certainly does not require that the theories of psychotics and the truly ignorant should be given airtime, especially without contemporaneous rebuttal. Anyway, thanks for your work.