The Blog

The Battle of The War

PBS defers to identity politics.

12:00 AM, Jun 29, 2007 • By LOUIS WITTIG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, is exactly the type of spokesman you'd want for your grassroots campaign: He returns reporters' call promptly and answers questions honestly and fully. But he wasn't who I really wanted to talk to.

Falcón is part of a coalition of activists who have been pressing documentary-maker Ken Burns (and his perennial partner PBS) to re-edit his latest film, The War, a 14-hour public television magnum opus on WWII, to include more material on Latino veterans.

"We don't feel like we're trying to censor Ken Burns," Falcón tells me, "we're just trying to hold PBS responsible to the Latino community." I really hoped that Ken Burns would have a counter-comment. Unfortunately, after I told his publicist this, she said it was a sensitive subject and stopped returning my emails.

The War, set to air on PBS in September, is classic Burns: a sprawling, mega-look the epochal conflict through the eyes of four American cities. It spends time on the internment of Japanese-Americans and the segregated service of African-Americans. Early this spring, several Latino activists discovered that it did not specifically mention the service of Hispanic-Americans.

Admonishing letters were written. In March, PBS responded that, as The War had already gone through final editing, it was too late to make any additions and anyway, doing so would impinge on Ken Burns' artistic independence. The activists kept active. Soon, indignant op-eds were appearing in papers across Florida and the Southwest and phones in Washington began ringing.

The activists complaint rests on a shaky premise--that Private Rodriguez's experience on Omaha beach was so profoundly different than Private Smith's and ignoring such a profound difference is something like racism. And their proposed solution, handing Burns a do-over, is perched atop a dizzyingly steep, slippery slope.

Were Jewish vets any less brave than Latino vets? What of the Cajun fighter pilots? And who speaks for the Bahá'í submariners? Slope-slippage is already occurring.

"We've been approached by Filipino veterans groups that wanted to know how they could have their stories told in the documentary. We told them to talk to PBS" says Falcón. As to how you would make a documentary that included every group that demands it: "That is a real question," he continues.

Indeed it is. Other botherations: Exactly how many additional hours of footage would The War need to adequately include Latinos? And once the bar has been set at total ethnic inclusion, how is PBS supposed to produce any documentary that's less than 14 hours long?

PBS was still holding its position by mid-April. Burns wasn't going to re-edit The War. But it held out an olive branch: Burns' company would hire Hispanic documentary-maker Hector Galán to help develop supplemental material on Latino contributions to WWII that would air after the main documentary. The activists were not enthused.

It's more than passingly odd that all this is happening to PBS, the inoffensive Mr. Rogers of TV networks. Latino characters have been on Sesame Street for decades. Ray Suarez is a senior correspondent on The News Hour. Later this year PBS will be launching a Spanish-language service. At PBS, inclusion is practiced on a grand scale.

But the most ruinous implication of the current mau-mau is that the previously accepted standard of on-air inclusiveness--that programmers should include minority characters and minority-targeted content to otherwise lily-white lineups--has gone out the window. The new standard, implicitly being pushed on PBS now, is that in order to be considered inclusive, the aggrieved group of the hour must be included wherever it conceivably could be included.

The furor dialed up in May, with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus hurling insults at Burns and making veiled threats of boycotts. PBS might have pointed out that the new standard beneath this hue and cry would make it impossible to produce any coherent television. But all the bad mojo was making sponsors such as GM antsy and, instead of fighting on, PBS folded. Burns, who had previously said re-editing The War would destroy it, now agreed to re-edit it.

PBS may have been the channel that least deserved to be accosted by identity activists. Ironically, it was also the one least able to fend them off. Activists regularly bang their pots at the Big Four networks too. But commercial television can take the risk of ignoring the hackles, hoping that sensible viewers will shrug them off and big ratings will calm advertisers. Last fall, CBS gambled that viewers wanted interesting TV more than they cared about racial orthodoxies and thus blew off activists who objected to the latest season of Survivor's race-segregated format. The show stunk, but at least CBS stuck to its guns.

Indifferent to profit and its attendant risk imperative, PBS was doomed from the start. Forcefully arguing its valid points would only have bought down more bad press on its sponsors and further alienated the liberal, culturally sensitive politicians on whose goodwill it depends.

Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.