How much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?

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To truly reflect diversity, PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as ‘America’s Storyteller’ – October 22, 2020 Grace Lee’s provocation on the need for “more than one lens” for PBS’ long-form documentary films is republished here in full with permission from the Ford Foundation. 

For many, public television is synonymous with Ken Burns. Documentary series like The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and The Vietnam War have led PBS to market him as “America’s storyteller,” as if there were only room for one. It’s worth remembering how and why PBS came to be, and time to reinvent this system for today’s America.

Production crew at Crystal City TX Detention Center Rally. Photo courtesy of the film, Asian Americans. Via fair use from

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?

PBS chief defends filmmaker Ken Burns, touts diversity – February 2, 2021

“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. Among them: that PBS decision-makers and funders have an interdependence with “one white, male filmmaker” who represents “one man’s lens on America,” as Lee put it.

A letter to PBS from Viewers Like Us – March 29, 2021

We are filmmakers, producers, directors, executives and programmers. Many of us have had our work funded, commissioned and distributed by PBS and we greatly value public broadcasting. In that spirit, we feel compelled to express our disappointment with your remarks which fail to acknowledge efforts across the field that not only diversify voices on major platforms, but also attempt to repair past injustices. Keeping this collective vision in mind, when Lee questions the network’s over-reliance on one white male filmmaker you “respectfully disagree” with her argument. We respectfully ask to understand the basis of your disagreement. Specifically, is there data to support it?

Ken Burns says he agrees PBS can ‘do better’ on diversity, representation – April 2,2021

The Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns said Thursday that he supports the goals of a group of nonfiction filmmakers who have criticized PBS over a lack of diversity and an “over-reliance” on his work.

“I wholeheartedly support the objectives of the letter writers,” Burns said in an interview. “I think this is hugely important, and one of the reasons we’ve been in public television has been a commitment to inclusion and diversity.”

“But can we do better? Of course we can. Can PBS do better? Of course they can,” Burns added.

Beat the Press: PBS Reliance On Ken Burns Called A Diversity Problem – April 2, 2021

Filmmakers in Solidarity – Documentary Producers Alliance

We are a group of non-fiction filmmakers and members of the Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast (DPA-Northeast), representing filmmakers in New England and upstate New York. We are writing alongside other New England film professionals to register our complaint against Emily Rooney for her demeaning and racist commentary on Beat the Press, April 2nd.

Many of us have produced for GBH, which is known for its fact-based reporting and integrity. Rooney is a longtime presence there, touted in her bio as someone with “deep knowledge of media, politics and culture.” The program we reference was about access to airtime and funding from PBS – which concerns all of us. Instead of showcasing her understanding of the subject, Rooney relied on derision, racist tropes and more ignorance than fact.

Emily Rooney Apology – April 16, 2021

GBH’s Emily Rooney Apologizes For ‘Uninformed, Dismissive and Disrespectful’ Comments About Filmmakers Of Color – April 16, 2021

A  group of local documentary filmmakers sent a letter to GBH this week holding “Beat the Press” longtime host Emily Rooney accountable for comments she made on her show suggesting that work by filmmakers of color does not stand up to that of documentarian Ken Burns…

The response was swift. Rooney recorded an apology broadcast at the beginning of “Beat the Press” Friday, according to Jeanne Hopkins, spokeswoman for GBH. But staff inside say people are furious with what they feel is an insufficient response to handle what is just a symptom of a larger toxic culture.


  1. Don Hallock on April 24, 2021 at 12:26 am

    I know this may sound a bit conceited, and obliquely off-subject. The concern with diversity, in general, and more particularly in public media, is a ‘third rail’ concern these days, AS IT SHOULD BE.
    During the six years of my employment at GBH (1950s to 1960s), virtual tidal waves of people washed across our threshold – almost all of them, though hailing from widely diverse national and cultural backgrounds, were white. I think I can say with some degree of confidence, that there was no malign intent behind that. Oh yes, we were ‘enlightened’ – at least in our own sense of ourselves – but time has shown, even though the social indications were everywhere at hand, we really didn’t know better than to do as we did. Our theoretical appreciation of the virtues of diversity were simply not very much manifest in our instance-to-instance decision making. It would have been better had it been more so.
    My family and I live, these days, in Hawai’I; it is, in the obvious sense, paradise. But, in our past trips to the mainland, we frequently found ourselves somewhat uneasy with the ‘whiteness’ of it all. We were always relieved to return to our beloved ‘faces,’ of so many different racial characteristics, and colors. The cultural richness and human decency here, which came with that variety, had won our love and appreciation.
    And, here’s the payload: In preparation for the GBH alumni reunion 2000, I threw together a web site (this one), intended as a repository of GBH lore and a forum for the exchange of related memories and ideas. Making it truly presentable for a longer run became the work of Jay Collier, who has done an impeccable job. And what it has become, a platform for important exchanges among respected, talented media practitioners on subjects critical to the true mission of public media, and its relation to the survival of the democracy itself, is something I had never imagined. To say I’m impressed and deeply pleased that the site has matured to such an extent would be the understatement of the year.
    I’m not going to try to contribute to the ongoing arguments. I’m old, and not wise enough, nor do I have the required statistics at hand. Let me just observe that argumentation among people who are really listening to each other can yield unexpected and valuable insights.
    As for us ‘crackers’; yes, we are not-so-slowly being replaced. As ‘whites’ we have not always comported ourselves well. We need to do better.
    And maybe we should argue a bit less about what has or hasn’t been, than what might be, and how we can get there (together).

  2. Harriet Reisen on April 23, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    I have always wondered why so little attention is given to Ken Burns’ collaborators, Lynn Novick being the most frequent. The most recent article I could find about Novick was written in 2011:

    Burns’ brother Ric Burns was also a collaborator, but the films are always billed auteur-style, with the phrase “a Ken Burns Film,” even if Ms Novick or another is listed somewhere with the phrase “a film by Ken Burns and _____,”

    How active is Burns in the actual filmmaking work? I don’t know, but PBS and Burns promote the “America’s Storyteller” image as if there weren’t other imaginations and workers involved, including writers of the books that the series are based upon.

    Do any of you know, or wonder as I do how this production company’s films are made day-to-day, and how much they are actually the work of one person?

    • Chuck Schuerhoff on April 30, 2021 at 8:38 pm

      For what it’s worth, I have known Ken Burns for almost 40+ years. He still lives in the small NH town he did when I met him in 1982. I consider beating him once at “Trivial Pursuit” one of my top 10 achievements. Ken went to Hampshire College, and from what I have observed, he has always lived the egalitarian, collaborative ethic (some might say “socialist”) in his film work and relations with employees and collaborators that was its hallmark. While he used to do his own camera work before the THE CIVIL WAR made him famous, he spent more time after THE CIVIL WAR on the post-production phase of his projects.
      I sat in on one of the 5 (yes 5) rough cut editing sessions for JAZZ to see the “process.” In an editing room in an old fame house in Walpole, NH, packed full of about 20 people, everyone involved in the production had a chance over 3 days to weigh in on all manner of creative decisions (even me) including, for example, whether a particular cut of music was verifiably written before the events being shown on screen. Post-C.W., Ken declined all the numerous lucrative offers to work for commercial cable TV outlets and stayed with PBS. He has had to spend a lot of his time pitching his projects and convincing organizations donate the money to make the films. I sat in on one such session, and he is amazingly effective at it.
      While producers like Lynn Novick and Dayton Duncan (who started with Ken as the author of the book on which “Lewis and Clark” was based) have always gotten due credit in programs for their roles, much of the “A Film by Ken Burns” stuff has been driven by PBS’s perceived promotional needs. But more recently (e.g. “THE VIETNAM WAR”, 2017) you’ll see “A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.” Better late than never.
      Sorry to be so long-winded, but I’ve wanted to say this for some time. Thanks for asking.

    • Arnie Reisman on May 1, 2021 at 7:42 am

      Thanks, Harriet. This needed to be said. This Ken Burns thing is like a cottage industry marketing ploy. Guess it works in terms of bringing in donors. But experienced filmmakers like Lynn Novick deserve more credit & kudos than simply being placed beside an ampersand. More than 30 years ago she interned with Mickey Lemle & me in the making of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON. She is very sharp & creative.

  3. Alex Pirie on April 23, 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Deja vu all over again – remembering the debacle at Elma Lewis’ in Roxbury when Michael Rice and Stan Calderwood told an angry crowd that a recent survey had shown that most Black people did not support/like Say Brother (which had been taken off the air after a painfully honest segment on protests in New Bedford). One of the audience members, a member of the Ithiel de Sola Pool team that had done the survey, got up and basically called them liars (although they came back to the station and repeated the same story at a staff assembly until interrupted once again). Then there was the series of (NET?) Black written dramas that almost didn’t get made because the Black star refused to work with a production team that was almost exclusively white. OK, a long time ago, but lessons clearly not learned and that won’t be learned without greater diversity throughout the organization and, here’s a thought, throughout its audience.

  4. Jay Collier on April 21, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    Emily Rooney’s dismissive eye-rolling — and her insistence that opposition to Ken Burns was about resentment that he is a white man, rather than the amount of air time he gets — was stunning. Her apology was insufficient. I hope that other public media professionals are more respectful of this important conversation.

  5. Louise Rosen on April 20, 2021 at 11:17 am

    WNYC – The Takeaway: Documentary Filmmakers Push for PBS to Improve Commitment to Diversity Behind the Camera

  6. Jay Collier on April 20, 2021 at 10:41 am

    From Current: Public Media for All analysis highlights persistent gaps in pubmedia diversity

    In February, CPB released data that shows underwhelming BIPOC representation in all segments of our industry. Public Media for All has developed the following graphs to present visually how stagnant these numbers have remained over the past 5–10 years.

    While some segments of the workforce have become incrementally more diverse, an approximate 3.1% increase in “minority” employees as shown by the CPB data is disappointing for an industry founded to “addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”


    • JACK CALDWELL on April 30, 2021 at 9:07 pm

      The founding of CPB…it’s charter mission.

      I’m trying to track down the quote you note: “…an industry founded to “address the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”” I can’t find it.

      I did find multiple sources quoting an original mission statement — “CPB is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services. CPB’s mission is to ensure universal access to non-commercial, high-quality content and telecommunications services.”

      There has been and will be lots of discussion on this topic — The Mission. We need to be accurate when stating facts and sources, And we often need to define the context, times and politics that influenced what was determined and written at past points in time. Whatever “right” or “wrong” may be in the context of today, let’s be sure we recognize and understand where, how, and why public media defined itself and set and grew its roots. We’re essentially 60 years into this “experiment” We who were there in the early 1950’s had dreams and ideas and few skills. We had no mentors. What we did have was the opportunity to invent public broadcasting. As each year passes, that opportunity remains fresh. GBH, alone, is a premier case study of the industry evolution. Creating jaw dropping documentaries, point of view journalism and balanced news and outstanding programs for children are but parts of today’s mission.

      Let’s imagine our evolving history with respect and understanding of how we got to today. And let’s give those who, 50 years from now, write about our mission and performance today and tomorrow that “they got it right.”

      GBH gave many the chance and the trust to invent. For those who are and will be selected to carry the GBH “flag,” — it’s a privilege, an opportunity, an honor, and an obligation to deliver performance excellence.

  7. Frank Capria on April 18, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    Having worked for years on American Experience in the 90s, I was disappointed in PBS’s Ken Burns addiction then. Now, 25+ years later, that addiction continues to stifle other voices. Ken Burns documentaries are what I call “happy white history.” The Civil War didn’t focus nearly enough on slavery, Baseball gave short shrift to the Negro Leagues, and the West glossed over so much of the genocide of indigenous people. That Emily Rooney overlooked all of that and offensively dismissed valid criticism of PBS’s reliance on Burns’ Wonder Bread-tinted documentaries is reason enough for her to lose her platform permanently.

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