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Burns’ omission seen as Latino civil rights issue

Originally published in Current, March 26, 2007
By Karen Everhart

Prof. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez with newspapersKen Burns has gained such a reputation for delivering exhaustive TV summations of vast events, whether he wanted it or not, that his forthcoming World War II series is now under heavy fire for what he didn’t include.

The War, which comes to PBS in September [2007] and recounts wartime experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians, apparently includes no interviews with Hispanic American veterans.

Latino leaders have called for revision of the series and PBS has refused, creating a rallying point for civil rights organizations, veterans’ groups and media activists representing Latinos.

As long as television and other media continue to marginalize Latinos’ military service and wartime sacrifice, “we continue to be invisible,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is leading the charge against The War. “This is one that we’re not going to allow.”

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 Gus Chavez, a retired university administrator from San Diego who participated in a March 6 meeting with PBS execs. “We are not going to sit still and let historical events of this nature be presented without our input and representation.”

Chavez, a Navy veteran, joined Rivas-Rodriquez in organizing the campaign for recognition that they call “Defend the Honor.”

“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 said.

PBS President Paula Kerger said last week that programmers are looking for other docs to supplement the Burns series, but the network is standing behind its star filmmaker. “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 March 13 letter to Rivas-Rodriguez, Chavez and other meeting participants. The CPB-backed outreach project tied to The War (earlier story) is designed to bring out many stories not told in Burns’ series, she wrote.

“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,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “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.”

Rite of citizenship

“If you had to hit a sore point in the Latino community, this is it,” said Chon Noriega, a filmmaker and associate director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California in Los Angeles. “The Second World War,” he said, “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.”

Before a March 21 congressional hearing on CPB funding, several Hispanic-American leaders released their letters to Kerger. “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,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The caucus asked Kerger to withdraw The War “until this omission is corrected.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) the first Mexican -American woman elected to Congress, raised the issue with Kerger and CPB President Patricia Harrison during the appropriation hearing, which she chaired. 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, Roybal-Allard said, adding that she hopes “their contributions will not be overlooked.”

“[I]t escapes us how Ken Burns could have made a seven-part series that does not mention the contributions of Latinos,” wrote the top leaders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, in a Feb. 16 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.”

Universal symbols of humanity

The complaint leaves Burns, one of the best-known nonfiction filmmakers of his time, in the difficult position of defending a documentary that few people have seen and that he designed to celebrate the war’s unsung participants.

“What saddens us so tremendously is that Hispanic Americans have had their history marginalized for as long as there have been European settlers in what is now the United States,” Burns said, speaking for himself and Lynn Novick, co-director and co-producer. His previous histories, particularly Baseball, Jazz and The West, did include stories of Latinos’ contributions to American history and culture, he said.

With The War, Burns set out to “depart quite radically from previous series” on the epic war, which invariably focus on “celebrity generals, tactics and armaments.” He and Novick wanted to “to clear out that debris and tell the story that should be told from the bottom up” by presenting the stories of veterans who survived the war.

The producers initially tried to tell the history by examining what happened to the people of a single town, but they later expanded its scope to four communities. They spent time in each place—Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Mobile, Ala.; and the farming town Luverne, Minn.—and publicized their interest in gathering materials and talking with WWII vets through local newspapers and historical societies.

The filmmakers weren’t looking for representatives of 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—most of whom are from these four towns.” They searched especially for veterans who could give first-hand accounts of specific battles and events.

Burns and Novick did 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 said. “Those choices are symbolic and we hope that you see the whole.”

“People, when they see the film, they will see the universality,” Burns said. “The comments that people make are not based on their ethnicity but on their humanity.”

“We knew by the nature of the way we configured this story that many stories would not be told,” Burns said. To acknowledge the ground that the film does not cover, Burns decided three years ago that each episode of the documentary will open with a title card acknowledging its limited scope. He also asked PBS and CPB to back a 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. “It’s not just me that can tell all these stories,” Burns said. “This is public broadcasting.”

Putting the question to Burns

For PBS, questions about ethnic representation in The War became a concern early this year — when Rivas-Rodriguez, who directs the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project, began asking about it.

Since establishing the project in 1999, the Texas professor has sought out producers with World War II topics and offered help and information, she said. After a November screening of the Burns 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, and later spoke with his public relations rep.

After weeks of waiting for a reply, she heard through a publicist that the film doesn’t include Latinos and isn’t “structured that way,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. She asked her project supporters for help and advice. An ally with connections made another round of queries, confirming what Rivas-Rodriguez had learned.

“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 said. She and others believe that reediting the documentary to include Latino veterans “would be very easy.”

“Realistically, it’s not that hard to change a documentary,” said 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.”

“It’s hard to talk about the valor of the men who fought and not mention Mexican Americans who were marginalized and discriminated against,” Noriega said.

“As someone who’s known for definitive work, it’s worth getting it right more than meeting a certain schedule,” Noriega said. “He’s come to this point because of a clear failure to do the research.”

Not meant to be comprehensive

Critics of the omission repeatedly ask how it could happen. “He was working on this for six years—I can’t understand how no one thought to ask, ‘Gee, how about these Latinos?’” Rivas-Rodriguez said.

The answer appears to be that Burns and Novick were given artistic license to define their take on a war already retold in hundreds of films.

PBS programmers first looked at The War when Burns and Novick had assembled a “fairly advanced rough cut,” said John Wilson, senior v.p. of television. “We saw it was an amazingly powerful film, taking a new angle and approach to what some would say is fairly well covered turf, and were touched by the storytelling and emotion,” Wilson said. The War is distinguished by its reliance on veterans’ stories, not the insights of academics, he said.

PBS agreed “there was no way any one filmmaker could tell an encyclopedic and comprehensive story as cataclysmic as World War II,” Wilson said, and backed the idea of the opening title card.

Because the National Endowment for the Humanities had given funds to The War, and Burns and Novick had worked through the academic rigors required by NEH, network programmers didn’t have reason to question Burns’ historical analysis, Wilson said. Nor did they doubt 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,” Wilson said. “This is very much a part of what Ken does and I think in The War he’s very sensitive to issues of race.”

“Based on the premise of what this film is and what it set out to do, the omission of Latinos’ stories is regrettable, but it doesn’t make the film itself journalistically unsound,” Wilson said. “PBS by and large is known for respecting the work of producers.”

In a 14-hour documentary, Burns could have figured out how to include the Latino WWII experience,” said filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. But his failure to do so isn’t a fatal flaw of the program, she said.

Seavey believes PBS is doing “absolutely the right thing” by standing behind Burns. “PBS would be remiss if they started requiring political litmus tests for their work.”

“You cannot require a filmmaker to go back, because then none of us would exist,” Seavey said. “Our work would become so tied up in ethnic, religious and cultural knots that it would be interminable.”

Noriega doesn’t think reediting the film would set a bad precedent. “It happens all the time,” he said. “We live in a society where people try to influence each other.”

Photo by Marsha Miller, University of Texas at Austin.

Web page posted March 30, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Parts of the Burns-Novick film were screened last year at the AFI festival.


The War website on

Defend the Honor campaign.

During the series' six years of preparation, if no one thought about its lack of Hispanic soldiers and sailors, then "new thinking is required," comments PBS ombudsman Michael Getler.

Burns appears on Fresh Air.

Profile of University of Texas Prof. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and website of her U.S. Latinos & Latinas World War II Oral History Project.

The National Council of La Raza urges PBS that it "ensure that the upcoming series fully reflects the Hispanic experience" during and after the war. Adding ancillary programs including Latinos "is not an acceptable substitute," the civil rights group wrote to PBS President Paula Kerger.

Replying to a delegation that met with her, Kerger says the series begins 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.”

Latino veterans in Colorado called for a boycott of PBS, CBS's Denver station reported

Lawmakers may try to restrict pubTV's federal funding if PBS doesn't address the concerns of Latino activists, according to Politico, which covers national politics.

National Association of Hispanic Journalists tells PBS: " escapes us how Ken Burns could have made a seven-part series that does not mention the contributions of Latinos."

PBS responds: "...millions of stories are not explored in the film, which is not and never was intended to be the definitive history of World War II."