Ken Burns and the Old Soldiers Who Wouldn't Fade Away

A scene from Ken Burns's seven-part PBS series on World War II, which now includes interviews with two Hispanic soldiers after Hispanic organizations demanded that their stories be told.
A scene from Ken Burns's seven-part PBS series on World War II, which now includes interviews with two Hispanic soldiers after Hispanic organizations demanded that their stories be told. (National Archives)
By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 12, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., July 11

Ken Burns is adding about 29 minutes of new material to his seven-part documentary about soldiers who fought in World War II, a response to pressure from a consortium of Hispanic organizations that demanded soldiers of their ethnic background be given prominent roles in the project.

Interviews with two Hispanic soldiers have been added to the first and sixth episodes of "The War," and the story of a Native American soldier has been added to the fifth episode, Burns told reporters here Wednesday at Summer TV Press Tour 2007.

The additional footage, which will be at the end of the episodes but before the end credits roll, may, or may not, end the war Latino groups have waged with Burns over "The War," which is set to debut Sept. 23 on PBS.

"It's been a kind of hot political battle, and we tried to rise above it and take the high road and respond as best we could," Burns said.

He said it had been "painful" to him that "people would misinterpret what the film is about" but added, "I think we found the right balance and the right compromise that permitted us not to alter our original vision and version of the film and at the same time honor what was legitimate about the concerns of people who for 500 years have had their story untold in American history."

Burns said the new material, which pushes the documentary's total length to around 15 hours, is "more than we were asked and expected to" add, calling it "our way of kind of honoring our own interest in doing this right."

In her opening remarks to TV critics and reporters Wednesday, PBS CEO Paula Kerger said the decision to make the changes was entirely Burns's.

"I applaud Ken for reaching an understanding with the Latino groups. . . . The concerns these groups raised remind us that public broadcasting will always be held to a higher standard. Americans demand a lot of us, and that's okay. That's how it should be. We welcome their interest and enthusiasm."

The "enthusiasm" of such groups as the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility -- an umbrella organization of 14 Latino groups -- extended to notifying Burn's underwriters, including General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and several nonprofit foundations, that they would hold those groups accountable if "The War" was not amended to insert interviews with Latino soldiers. They did so with the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which voted in May to support their efforts to wring the additional material highlighting minority soldiers out of Burns.

Burns initially resisted making changes to his project, but in April he agreed to bring on a Latino producer to help produce the new material. But the kerfuffle didn't end there; some Hispanic groups demanded the already finished documentary be re-edited to include the new footage.

At a 12-hour meeting in May a truce was called. Members of the special interest groups were vague in describing the terms of the agreement that had been struck but said it did not spell out how many additional minutes of programming Burns would add nor did it give the Latino groups a role in deciding what would be added.

Asked Wednesday whether he thought the changes would satisfy the Hispanic groups and whether this was as far as he was willing to go, Burns responded, "It's too late -- yes -- this is as far as we can go. We're coming up to the broadcast.

"When you say 'these Hispanic groups' -- there are a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas and a lot of different concerns," Burns continued. "We listened as hard as we could and tried to hear beyond the rhetoric and the politics of it -- the larger question."

Burns says the mistake the Hispanic groups made was in assuming "The War" was intended to be the definitive history of WWII.

"We made a film in which we were not attempting to find out what made people distinct and different but what makes them the same."

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