Woke battle brews at PBS: Why does one white, male filmmaker get all the support?

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Is it time to cancel Ken Burns at PBS? It’s not easy being a white, male, cisgender filmmaker these days over at the taxpayer-funded public television network. Burns has achieved immense success for his documentaries made for PBS and has been generously rewarded for his work there. A group of nearly 140 filmmakers and other professionals is blasting PBS for a lack of diversity behind the scenes. Their complaint says there is just too much Ken Burns.

A group of people that includes filmmakers, producers, directors, executives, and programmers signed on with their support after an essay by a Korean-American filmmaker was published by the Ford Foundation. The purpose was to lodge a complaint that PBS is too dependent on Burns, “America’s storyteller”, for its programming. The woke are going against their own network, in other words, because of what amounts to what looks like professional jealousy.

Grace Lee, an independent producer, director, and writer working in both narrative and nonfiction film, according to her byline on the essay, credits her career to PBS. She now asks “how much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?” She compares the time given to documentaries by Burns versus that of her own, which was on Asian Americans.

In 1967, amid widespread civil unrest, CPB was created by an Act of Congress “to expand and develop a diversity of programming dependent on freedom, imagination and initiative on both local and national levels.” PBS was founded in 1969 to interconnect public television stations and distribute programs. Fifty-one years later, as we undergo another societal breakdown and racial reckoning, how much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?

I take this question seriously because I largely owe my own documentary career to PBS. In 2020, I was a producer on Asian Americans, a groundbreaking series for which we had five hours to tell 150 years of history spanning from the Chinese who built the railroads to South Asians targeted after 9/11. Compare this to 16 hours of Country Music, which also aired in 2020, or 13 hours of the Roosevelts—both by Ken Burns. His 2021 slate includes four hours each on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin, and the American Buffalo. When bison merit 80% of the airtime afforded to Asian American history, it calls into question not only the leadership of public television but also who gets to tell these stories, and why.

She makes her argument using the fact that Burns is a white male and the dependence on his documentaries for PBS programming is perpetuating racial and cultural inequities. She criticizes PBS for overlooking black, indigenous, and other filmmakers of color.

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“The decades-long interdependence of PBS decision-makers, philanthropists, and corporate funders with one white, male filmmaker highlights the racial and cultural inequities perpetuated by this system. The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots,” said Grace Lee.

PBS responded but that response wasn’t to the satisfaction of the group of 140 professionals.

In a statement over email, a PBS spokesperson noted that of the more than 200 primetime hours of documentaries slated to be aired this year, 35 percent are produced by diverse filmmakers. A total of 55 percent feature BIPOC talent, are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“For over 50 years, reflecting the full range of the American experience has been central to the mission and work of PBS. As America’s home for documentaries, we use our national platform to amplify a broad array of perspectives shared by diverse storytellers,” said the spokesperson. “While we have a strong foundation of inclusive programming, we recognize that there is more to be done, and we welcome ongoing dialogue on this critically important issue.”

The group has questions.

“As the leader of the public broadcasting system, you are responsible to commit to an open and sustained public dialogue. Questioning whether PBS could be doing better should not be seen as an attack, but as an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and action, and to engage BIPOC filmmakers as we chart a course forward,” said the letter, which asks:

“How many HOURS of PBS non-fiction television have been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers vs. by white filmmakers over the past ten years?

Of all SPENDING on PBS non-fiction television over the past ten years, what percentage has been directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers?

Of the top 25 production companies that have produced the most content for PBS over the past ten years when measured according to budget, how many of them are BIPOC-led vs. white-led?

How many PBS management staff (including individual stations and major strands) are BIPOC vs. white? How do these numbers compare to the numbers from ten years ago?”

The AP reports that PBS President and CEO said, “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with Ken Burns, whose legacy is extraordinary and as we look forward, has a very rich pipeline of programs that he’s bringing to public television.”

President and CEO Paula Kerger was asked Tuesday about an essay by filmmaker Grace Lee, who contended that public TV’s deep attachment to Burns, whose series include “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” slights viewers of color.

“I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with Ken Burns, whose legacy is extraordinary and as we look forward, has a very rich pipeline of programs that he’s bringing to public television,” Kerger said in a virtual Q&A with the Television Critics Association.

“We create lots of opportunities for many filmmakers,” Kerger said. Burns “mentors a number of filmmakers who now have quite established careers … and he has a deep commitment to mentoring diverse filmmakers.”

She said she “respectfully disagrees” with Lee’s arguments in a essay last fall for the Ford Foundation.

When asked during a panel of television critics this week, Ken Burns defended the subjects of his documentaries. “The stuff that’s coming up is incredibly diverse in every sense of the meaning of that word,” Burns said.

Ken Burns isn’t known as a liberal filmmaker in the sense that Michael Moore or Spike Lee is. Maybe that is why he is being singled. PBS has the right to choose whomever they want to showcase. Burns has decades of professional experience and deserves the credit he receives. His documentaries are popular and bring high ratings for PBS. Why wouldn’t they keep using him as their star documentarian? Ms. Lee was given an opportunity and even admits she has PBS to thank for airing her documentary. The relationship between PBS and Burns is beneficial for both parties. Burns isn’t jumping to streaming services, instead pledging his loyalty to staying with PBS. PBS gives him the creative freedom and fewer restraints than, say, Netflix or another streaming service would be able to allow.

“I could have gone a few years ago to a streaming channel or premium cable, and say, with my track record, ‘I need $30 million to do Vietnam,’ and they would have given me,” Burns said. “But what they wouldn’t have given me is 10 and a half years. PBS gave me 10 and a half years. They gave me six and a half on Ernest Hemingway.”

It sounds like Ms. Lee is going to have to find her own niche in the documentary-making business. Blaming race and diversity for everything doesn’t always work.

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