For both sides, words become sore points
Latino leaders wary of PBS compromise
What PBS proposed as a peace offering to Hispanic leaders has reinvigorated protests over the absence of Latinos in Ken Burns’ forthcoming World War II epic.
Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on April 20 released their letter to PBS President Paula Kerger expressing “profound disappointment” with her proposal to end the conflict.
“The only appropriate course of action is that the documentary entitled The War fully incorporate within the body of the documentary the integral role of Hispanics,”
wrote Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), caucus chair, and Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), chair of the caucus’s veterans task force.
The caucus “will not support a decision that ignores or segregates our soldiers, our heroes or our history,” its leaders wrote.
The previous week, PBS and its filmmakers seemed to have agreed to demands that stories of Hispanic and Native American veterans of World War II be added to the September broadcast of The War, but the words chosen to describe the compromise enraged Latino political leaders.
Phrases used on each side of the negotiation carried meanings and weight that the other side didn’t fully comprehend.
From the start, demands that producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick “re-cut” or “edit” their film raised issues of political intimidation and editorial independence for media professionals, setting off sparks in the Burns camp.
And when PBS said new material on Latinos in the war would be presented within the “footprint” of the broadcast, it emphasized that the existing Burns series would be unaltered.
To the gray-haired Hispanic war veterans of the American G.I. Forum who came to the Capitol to protest PBS’s position April 18, this sounded like second-class treatment — Latinos’ stories inserted during “intermissions” and tacked on after episodes, they said.
The American G.I. Forum was founded after the war when an Anglo cemetery refused to allow burial of a Latino war veteran.
Juan Jose Peña, the forum’s state commander from New Mexico, rose in the audience to say he’d seen the same problem with school history texts written by Anglos.
“It’s why so many of our children think we don’t have any heroes,” Peña said.
“PBS has not taken significant steps to include us in the documentary,” Rep. Baca told the veterans, pounding the podium. “They have only treated us as an afterthought.”
“I am not satisfied and I will not be satisfied until we see a much different course of action by PBS,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Menendez, who met the previous day with filmmakers and execs from PBS and co-producing
station WETA in Washington, insisted that the new material must not be treated as an “addendum” to the original series.
“Not really leveling with people”
Latino activists began campaigning in February
to add Hispanic vets’ wartime accounts to The War. PBS and filmmakers initially responded by insisting the 14½-hour series was completed and unalterable. They pointed to preexisting plans to add war accounts through productions and outreach projects of local stations.
But, after members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus took up the cause late last month, Kerger promised to reconsider PBS’s plan.
On April 11, PBS told Latino groups that the filmmakers had agreed to create new material
on Latino and Native American veterans for presentation within the “footprint” of the existing series. The new content would also be included on DVDs and educational materials created for The War. But the words were not reassuring to advocates for Latino veterans.
“Immediately it raised the question, what does ‘the footprint’ mean?” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor and director of an oral history project for Latino WWII veterans at the University of Texas in Austin, during an appearance on pubradio’s Democracy Now!
Rivas-Rodriguez, who initiated the Defend the Honor campaign to change the film after Burns’ representatives
rebuffed requests for private discussion of the issue, said the new plan showed that PBS was taking Latinos’ concerns seriously. “I don’t know if this is an issue, a question of semantics, [or] that Ken Burns does not want to admit he is making any changes, but we need answers,” she said.
“We don’t want a documentary that just sprinkles Latinos here and there,” said Gus Chavez, a retired university administrator and co-leader of the campaign, told Current.
“Footprint” is a “terrible word that nobody understands except TV insiders and [it] conveys the sense of not really leveling with people,” wrote PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler in his column last week. “What it means is that new material will be included in the air time that the programs are allotted but will not be included in the already-completed original film.”
PBS convened two separate meetings in Washington April 17 so that the filmmakers could meet with Latino political leaders and others who had joined the campaign. By day’s end, network officials were saying the new material would be integrated “seamlessly” into the documentary.
The new segments will be “produced in the same style, tone and tenor as the rest of the series so that it in fact feels like a seamless element of the whole work,” PBS programming chief John Wilson told Current. The producers will use the same lens of documenting personal stories and a “bottom-up view of World War II . . . and keep with the artistic style of the whole film so it really is a seamless addition to the film.”
“It was really their creative solution to make the additional content part of the fabric of the series itself,” Wilson said.
To many public TV professionals, the PBS proposals had been significantly responsive without treading into another sensitive territory —
requiring changes in the work of an esteemed independent producer. Burns has said in the past that he continues working with PBS in part because it gives him some creative control and freedom from interference.
In the April 17 meetings, PBS said the new material would be added so carefully that the seams would not show. But the wording came off as double-talk and was reinterpreted in the Washington Post’s account the next morning. The story began: “Filmmaker Ken Burns agreed yesterday to re-cut his PBS documentary on World War II . . . and not to present the material apart from his 14½-hour series.” Spokespersons for PBS and Burns promptly denied the report.
“Ken is not opening his film,” Burns publicist
Joseph DePlasco told Current. “Ken’s film is done.” DePlasco said Burns had explained in the meetings that the new material “needs to be added in a way that it’s seen as part of the broadcast and that doesn’t seem like an orphan or an appendage. “How that gets done is something
that needs to be worked out.”
The previous day Burns told Current that he and Novick hadn’t determined the shape or scope of the new material but were committed to producing it in a way that’s not seen as a token effort or politically correct addition.
“Re-cut is a loaded term,” said Hector Galan, the filmmaker and producer hired to collaborate with Burns and Novick on the new production. “It’s a word we hear with Hollywood
movies and implies that it will be re-cut and reedited from its present structure. That’s not correct at all.”
The Texas filmmaker screened The War before traveling to Washington to participate in the meetings and said the series is stunning. “I don’t think I’ve seen any thing as powerful as this series,” Galan said. He is a veteran contributor to Frontline and American Experience and producer of the four-part Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement.
The new documentary pieces, which Galan will help “gather, shoot and put-together” will be an “organic part of the series,” he said.
“The whole idea is for the Latino story not to be separate,” Galan said. “In order to do that, we have to be extremely creative” to produce material that is stylistically compatible with the rest of the film.
“This will not affect any of the things that have been cut already,” Galan said. “There’s plenty of room to insert new material. Each segment is its own in the series.”
“My understanding is that they are going to incorporate the Latino stories in a way that’s not going to look like an add-on,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who attended both April 17 meetings between Burns and reps of Latino groups. “It’s going to be fully integrated.”
Exactly how is still being determined. Rivas-Rodriguez said Burns described his plans for the new production differently in each meeting. Unlike the first meeting, which was attended by those exerting political pressure on PBS, the second was a smaller working session at which the filmmakers discussed their ideas, she said. She offered to help by providing WWII photographs and other materials collected through her oral history project.
Rivas-Rodriguez “found nothing inaccurate” in the Post’s analysis of the outcome and surmised that objections by DePlasco and PBS hinged on the Post’s use of the word, “re-edit.”
“That has special meaning for people who do documentaries,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “I don’t see how you can incorporate new material if you don’t re-edit.”
“I wish that on the PBS side they would realize there are some phrases and terms that are really inflammatory,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “I understand there are words that are problematic for PBS—they’re insisting that it will not be reedited—but that has a different meaning on this side of it,” one that is not pejorative.
“I thought we had made a lot of progress, but now with this new thing I think it’s taken a huge step backward.”
Rivas-Rodriguez suggested that everyone drop the battle over semantics. “I think it would be best to let Hector and Lynn and Ken have time to look at how to do it, instead of raising this issue again,” she said. “This is just going to enflame people.”
But those who hammered PBS may not dare to let up the pressure. Organizations including the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic National Bar Association and a coalition
known as the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda helped shaped the position of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Speaking to Latino GIs on April 18, caucus Chairman Baca and veterans leaders demanded a written description of the filmmakers’ story choices and treatments for the new material.
“We are not satisfied and we’re not going to put our guard down,” said Antonio Morales, national commander of the American G.I. Forum. “The only thing PBS understands is political pressure and, soon, economic.”
Morales said he wants to see “substantive changes and less rhetoric.”
Web page posted April 24, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee