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Burns’ vision for The War now includes Latino vets

Originally published in Current, May 14, 2007
By Karen Everhart

Filmmaker Ken Burns agreed last week to integrate stories of Hispanic World War II veterans into his upcoming PBS series The War in a carefully crafted compromise that recognizes “legitimate Latino concerns” about their portrayal in the documentary while acknowledging the filmmaker’s right to make his own “artistic decisions of what appears in his film.”

The agreement, announced May 10 [2007] by Burns’ Florentine Films, the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility and the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans’ group, marked an abrupt change in tone from previous public statements about the months-long dispute — and one that allows both parties to claim a partial victory.

“The role of Hispanic American veterans in WWII is one that lends itself to the universality of this film,” Burns said in the release, “and merits being included in my film.”

“I believe these additional stories will enhance our series and deepen the nation’s understanding of the sacrifices made by so many Americans during the war,” Burns said. “And I am confident that they can be incorporated in a way consistent with the film’s focus on individual experiences and in a way that means nothing in the film that already exists will be changed.”

Less than a week earlier, the New York Times quoted Burns adamantly refusing to re-edit The War. “It would be destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child,” he said. “It would destroy the film.”

Negotiated during a May 9 meeting between Burns and Raul Tapia, a lawyer representing the HACR and the GI Forum, the agreement is the third attempt to respond to demands that Burns add Latino soldiers to his 14½-hour documentary.

The first response by PBS and Burns, released April 11, pledged to produce appropriate segments that would air within the “footprint” of the broadcast. The second, April 17, was an assurance that the new material would be presented “seamlessly” with the original film. Each offer deepened Latino advocates’ concerns that the new segments would be treated as supplements or “afterthoughts” to the original documentary.

The latest Burns statement, May 10, includes two key commitments by Burns, according to Manuel Mirabal, chair of HACR. The new material will be added inside, rather than outside, the credits of The War. In addition, Burns agreed to produce and direct the segments himself. 

“We always wanted Mr. Burns to use his unique talent to tell the story of Latinos in WWII,” Mirabal said. “We have his assurances that he will personally direct this. The semantic concerns that we had before no longer exist.” 

During the meeting, Burns also described his story choices for the new material, Mirabal said. “I don’t think I’ve been given the authority to discuss the specifics,” he said.

“More united than ever”

The campaign for additions to The War coalesced in February after Burns’ representatives rebuffed private attempts to discuss Hispanic representation in the miniseries. When the campaign went public, it quickly became a rallying point for Latino leaders.

Rep. Joe Baca, photo by Current“We are more united than ever before, and this issue has brought us together,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The War is a “reflection of history that will be seen over and over and over by our children and others, and to say Hispanics are invisible and were not there is an insult to the Hispanic community who died for this country and sacrificed for this country.” 

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), a caucus member, queried pubcasting execs about the issue during a CPB appropriation hearing in March, and CHC members convened private meetings and spoke out publicly last month to press their point.

On May 2, caucus members met with funders of The War, including reps of Burns’ corporate sponsors, General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and Bank of America. “Our objective was to ask for their support and let them know the seriousness of what the caucus feels about the issue,” said Baca. “We are really serious and very much concerned that Hispanics who served during World War II were omitted.” 

Caucus members didn’t directly threaten boycotts against Burns’ sponsors, but they described the purchasing power of the Hispanic community and referred to past boycotts, said Michael Levy, CPB spokesman, who attended the meeting. “The essence of what we came away with is that they were asking that something be done and basically telling us, ‘We have long memories.’”

“We spoke to Mr. Burns and are confident that he and his team are making every effort to address the concerns being raised,” said Joe Goode, spokesman for Bank of America. “We expect a positive outcome to this.”

End of independence?

Protecting Burns’ ability to make his own creative choices about the film and avoiding the appearance of political interference had been key objectives of pubcasting officials in their earlier responses to the campaign.

When HACR, a coalition of 14 national Hispanic organizations, began targeting corporate sponsors of The War early this month, top executives of CPB, PBS, NPR and the Association of Public Television Stations issued a joint statement reminding policymakers of CPB’s statutory role in protecting pubcasters from interference in program content. “[A]ny attempt by the government or interest groups to influence content, especially before a program has aired, raises serious Constitutional, statutory and policy concerns,” the statement said.

Last week’s agreement breached public TV’s independence, in the view of a filmmaker who teaches at George Washington University. “To find that Ken and PBS have just bowed to the demands of any special interest group is really a travesty against journalism,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, director of GWU’s Documentary Center in Washington, D.C. “To my mind, that is the death of independent filmmaking on PBS,” she said.

“I don’t care if it’s Ken Burns or a new producer who’s just starting out—the sanctity of a director’s vision on the content is the basis of whether journalism ethics exist, and they have violated that ethic,” Seavey said. Now the door is open to any public interest group to influence PBS content, she said. “It’s almost guaranteed.”

It’s not clear whether the understanding reached between Burns, HACR and the American G.I. Forum will resolve concerns of other campaign leaders. “I still don’t understand how this addresses it,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin and director of a Latino WWII oral history project. “We still are no closer to clarification that this will be a meaningful incorporation,” she said.

Rivas-Rodriguez, a co-founder of the Defend the Honor campaign, said her group didn’t participate in the May 9 talks and hadn’t been briefed about it. “They are making it sound like it’s an agreement with the Latino community and it’s not,” she said.

“I would like to understand how this will be included in a meaningful way without opening the film [for editing],” she said. “Maybe it’s a question of semantics, but I don’t want this to be a bonus feature.

Web page posted May 15, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


Words became sore points in negotiations, rousing suspicions rather than healing the rift with Hispanic groups.


Burns is adding 28 minutes of material to the series. He had focused on commonalities of war, but agreed to add material dealing with differences.


Minority consortia tell PBS: This would not have happened if pubTV execs were more diverse.

Statement on editorial independence by four of pubcasting's major national organizations, May 2.

Burns and Latino groups issue news release (PDF) May 10.


Rivas-Rodriguez on the PBS NewsHour, May 14, 2007: "I really do not understand how PBS, in six-and-a-half years, didn't raise a flag on this."

Columnist Susan Estrich says Congress should stay out of pressuring broadcasters.

Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News contends that Burns shortchanged Latino ballplayers and jazz artists in earlier blockbuster docs.