Electronic genes: an important part of America’s cultural DNA

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One witness the congressmen didn’t lecture about donor-list improprieties at a House telecom subcommittee hearing July 20 [1999], was documentarian Ken Burns, who carried the historical weight of Sullivan Ballou, Thomas Jefferson and Satchel Paige with him. His remarks for the rapidly organized hearing echoed parts of his keynote at the PBS Annual Meeting in June 1999.

“The marketplace could not have made and to this day could not make my Civil War series — indeed any of the films I have made,” Burns asserted.

Let me say from the outset — as a father of two daughters and a film producer, increasingly concerned about violence on television — that I am a passionate lifelong supporter of public television and its unique role in helping to stitch our exquisite, diverse and often fragile culture together.

Few institutions provide such a direct, grassroots way for our citizens to participate in the shared glories of their common past, in the power of the priceless ideals that have animated our remarkable republic and our national life for more than 200 years, and in the inspirational life of the mind and the heart that an engagement with the arts always provides. It is my wholehearted belief that anything which threatens this institution weakens our country. It is as simple as that.

For almost 25 years I have been producing historical documentary films, celebrating the special messages American history continually directs our way. The subjects of these films range from the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty to the life of the turbulent demagogue Huey Long; from the graceful architecture of the Shakers to the early founders of radio; from the sublime pleasures and unexpected lessons of our national pastime to the searing transcendent experience of our Civil War; from Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark to Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mark Twain. I even made a film on the history of this magnificent Capitol building and the much maligned institution that is charged with conducting the people’s business.

In every instance, I consciously produced these films for national public television broadcast, not the lucrative commercial networks or cable.

As an educational filmmaker I am grateful to play even a small part in an underfunded broadcasting entity, with one foot tenuously in the marketplace and the other decidedly and proudly out, which, among dozens of fabulously wealthy networks, just happens to produce — on shoestring budgets — the best news and public affairs programming on television, the best science on television, the best arts on television, the best children’s shows on television, and some say the best history on television.

When I was working more than 15 years ago on my film about the Statue of Liberty, its history and powerful symbolism, I had the great good fortune to meet and interview Vartan Gregorian, who was then the president of the New York Public Library. After an extremely interesting and passionate interview on the meaning behind the statue for an immigrant like him — from Tabriz, Iran — Vartan took me on a long and fascinating tour of the miles of stacks of the Library. Finally, after galloping down one claustrophobic corridor after another, he stopped and gestured expansively. “This,” he said, surveying his library from its guts, “this is the DNA of our civilization.”

I think he was saying that that library — indeed, all libraries, archives, and historical societies — are the DNA of our society, leaving an imprint of excellence and intention for generations to come. It occurs to me, as we consider the rich history of education and service of PBS (and as we are forced again and again and again to justify our very existence) that we must certainly include this great institution in that list of the DNA of our civilization. That we are part of the great genetic legacy of our nation. And that cannot, should not, be denied us or our posterity.

We have consistently provided, with our modest resources, and over more than three tumultuous decades, quite simply an antidote to the vast wasteland of television my friend Newt Minow so accurately described. We do things differently. We are hardly a “disappearing niche,” as some suggest, but a vibrant, galvanic force capable of sustaining this experiment well into our uncertain future.

But now, and sadly not for the first time, I hear critics saying yet again that PBS must be scrapped, that our government has no business in television or the arts and humanities, that we must let the marketplace alone determine everything in our cultural life, that this huge, broad-based institution is essentially elitist, that a few controversial projects and actions prove the leftist political bias of the public television community. I feel strongly that I must respond to these charges.

Since the beginning of this country, our government has been involved in supporting the arts and the diffusion of knowledge, which was deemed as critical to our future as roads and dams and bridges. Early on, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers knew that the pursuit of happiness did not mean a hedonistic search for pleasure in the marketplace but an active involvement of the mind in the higher aspects of human endeavor — namely education, music, the arts and history. Congress supported the journey of Lewis and Clark as much to explore the natural, biological, ethnographic and cultural landscape of our expanding nation as to open up a new trading route to the Pacific.

Congress supported numerous geographical, artistic, photographic and biological expeditions to nearly every corner of the developing West. Congress funded, through the Farm Securities Administration, the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and other great photographers who captured for posterity the terrible human cost of the Depression. At the same time, Congress funded some of the most enduring writing ever produced about this country’s people, its monuments, buildings and backroads in the still much used and admired WPA guides. Some of our greatest symphonic work, our most treasured dramatic plays, and early documentary film classics came from an earlier Congress’ support.

With Congress’ great insight, public television was born and grew to its startlingly effective maturity, echoing the same time-honored sense that our government has an interest in helping to sponsor Communication, Art and Education just as it sponsors Commerce. We are not talking about a 100 percent sponsorship, a free ride, but a priming of the pump, a way to get the juices flowing, in the spirit of President Reagan’s notion of a partnership between the government and the private sector. The CPB grant I got for the Civil War series attracted even more funds from General Motors and several private foundations; money that would not have been there had not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting blessed this project with their rigorously earned imprimatur.

But there are those who are sure that without the Endowments, the co-called “marketplace” would take care of everything; that what won’t survive in the marketplace doesn’t deserve to survive. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we are not just talking about the commerce of a nation, we are not just economic beings, but spiritual and intellectual beings as well, and so we are talking about the creativity of a nation. Now, some forms of creativity thrive in the marketplace and that is a wonderful thing, reflected in our Hollywood movies and our universally popular music. But let me say that the marketplace could not have made and to this day could not make my Civil War series — indeed any of the films I have made.

That which we value the most — our families, our work, the things we build, our art — has the stamp of our focused attention. . . . The programming on PBS, in all its splendid variety, offers the rarest treat amidst the outrageous cacophony of our television marketplace — it gives us back our attention.

That series was shown on public television, outside the marketplace, without commercial interruption, by far the single most important factor for our insuring PBS’s continuing existence and for understanding the Civil War series’ overwhelming success. All real meaning in our world accrues in duration; that is to say, that which we value the most — our families, our work, the things we build, our art — has the stamp of our focused attention. Without that attention, we do not learn, we do not remember, we do not care. We are not responsible citizens. The programming on PBS, in all its splendid variety, offers the rarest treat amidst the outrageous cacophony of our television marketplace — it gives us back our attention. And by so doing, insures that we have a future.

The marketplace will not, indeed cannot, produce the good works of PBS. Just as the marketplace does not and will not pay for our fire department or more important our Defense Department, things essential to the safety, defense and well-being of our country. It takes government involvement, eleemosynary institutions, individual altruism, extra-marketplace effort to get these things made and done. I also know, Mr. Chairman, that PBS has nothing to do with the actual defense of our country, I know that — PBS just makes our country worth defending.

Do not be persuaded by the argument that this is all elitist, that we are funding the superfluous, “opera for the rich.”

The meat and potatoes of public television reaches out to every corner of the country and touches people in positive ways the federal government rarely does. Indeed, it would be elitist itself to abolish the Endowments, to trust to the marketplace and the “natural aristocracy” that many have promised over the last 200 years would rise up to protect us all — and hasn’t.

With regard to my own films, I have been quite lucky. The Civil War series was public television’s highest-rated program and has been described as one of the best programs in the history of the medium. But that show, indeed all of my films produced over the last quarter of a century, are only a small part, a tiny fraction, of the legacy of PBS. If public television’s mission is severely hampered or curtailed, I suppose I will find work, but not the kind that insures good television or speaks to the overarching theme of all my films — that which we Americans all hold in common. But more to the point, where will the next generation of filmmakers be trained? By the difficult rigorous process of CPB and PBS or by the Hard Copy‘s of the world? I hope it will be the former.

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, spoke eloquently and often of an American people poised for the 21st century, endowed with a shared heritage of sacrifice and honor and the highest ideals mankind has yet advanced, but also armed with new technologies that would enable us to go forward as one people. I say to all who would listen that we have in public television exactly what he envisions.

Many have recently criticized public television for certain controversial actions and projects with possibly too political a bent. I share the outrage of those who have condemned these lapses. But that’s all they are: mistakes made by institutions forced continually to find sources of revenue from ever more disparate sources. Let us not be so foolish as to throw the baby out with the bath water. As historian David McCullough said, to abolish this institution for these transgressions, “would be like getting rid of the Navy after the Tailhook scandal.” Let us respond reasonably.

Unfortunately, some continue to believe that public television is a hotbed of radical thinking. I wonder, though, have they ever been to a PBS station? I doubt it. PBS is the largest network in the world, reaching into the most remote corners of every state in the Union and enriching the lives of people of all backgrounds. These are essentially conservative institutions, filled with people who share the concerns of most Americans. Indeed, PBS is supported by 70 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Independents, and 90 percent of Democrats across the country. And Mr. Chairman, I know many people who criticize us as too conservative, to middle of the road, too safe.

And in a free society, the rare examples of controversy that may run counter to our accepted canon, or one group’s accepted canon, need not be the occasion for a new reactionary Puritanism, but ought to be seen as a healthy sign that we are a nation tolerant of ideas, confident — as the recent tide of geo-political history has shown–that the best ideas will always prevail.

One hundred and fifty seven years ago, in 1838, well before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln challenged us to consider the real threat to the country, to consider forever the real cost of our inattention: “Whence shall we expect the approach of danger?” he wrote. “Shall some transatlantic giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track in the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” As usual, Mr. Lincoln speaks to us today with the same force he spoke to his own times.

Mr. Chairman, clearly we in public television must not take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes our greatest strength, our earnestness, metastasizes into our greatest weakness. I know it’s true for me. Usually a faithful and true companion, our earnestness and seriousness is sometimes worked to death. And Lord how we like to see our mission as the cure. I remember once, after giving an impassioned defense of what we do at PBS, a man came up to me and said simply, “It’s not brain surgery, you know.” (Perhaps.)

But a few weeks ago, on a perfect spring day, I was walking with my oldest daughter through a park in a large American city on the way to a college interview. We were taking our time, enjoying the first warm day of the year, when a man of about 30, dressed in a three-piece suit, approached me.

“You’re Ken Burns?” he asked. I nodded.

“I need to talk to you about Baseball, he said under his breath.

“Okay.” I hesitated.

Then, he blurted out: “My brother’s daughter died.” I took a step backward. “I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.

“SIDS.” he said. “Crib death. She was only one.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I have daughters.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said in a halting, utterly sad voice. “My brother and I are very close. Then I thought of your film. I went home to our mother’s house, got our baseball mitts, and went to my brother’s. I didn’t say a word. I handed him his mitt and we went out into the backyard and we played catch wordlessly for an hour. Then I went home. . . . I just wanted to thank you.”

Maybe it is brain surgery.

Mr. Chairman, most of us here, whether we know it or not, are in the business of words. And we hope with some reasonable expectations that those words will last. But alas, especially today, those words often evaporate, their precision blunted by neglect, their insight diminished by the sheer volume of their ever-increasing brethren, their force diluted by ancient animosities that seem to set each group against the other.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has said that we suffer today from “too much pluribus, not enough unum.” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal as well as collective blessings flow. And it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment overshadows all else–our bright past and our unknown future — what finally does endure? What encodes and stores that genetic material of our civilization, passing down to the next generation — the best of us — what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity?

PBS holds one clear answer. Please do not be the author of its destruction, the finisher of their important good works. PBS is the best thing we have in our television environment, that reminds us why we agree to cohere as a people. And that is a fundamentally good thing.

Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does this great system which honors me by counting me a member.



In remarks to TV critics in 1992, Burns comments on public TV: “I’m happy to make it my home.”

Why the House hearing was called for July 20, 1999: the donor-list scandal.

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