PBS chief defends filmmaker Ken Burns, touts diversity

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FILE - Ken Burns, director of the PBS documentary series "Country Music," takes part in a panel discussion during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on July 29, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Speaking Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, to the Television Critics Association in a virtual Q&A, PBS chief executive Paula Kerger rejected a filmmakers claim that public TVs long relationship with Burns has come at the expense of diversity. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

LOS ANGELES – The chief executive of PBS rejected a filmmaker’s argument that public TV's 40-year relationship with documentarian Ken Burns has come at the expense of diversity.

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.

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“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. 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.

Noting that she was a producer on PBS’ “Asian Americans" last year, Lee wrote that she takes seriously whether public TV reflects the diverse audience it was founded to serve because “I largely owe my documentary career to PBS.”

Kerger, who called Lee a “very talented filmmaker,” said PBS has worked with her on a number of projects “and I envision we’ll continue to work with her.”

Kerger said PBS is intent on fostering a culture of inclusion and ensuring that diverse voices are part of “every aspect of content creation." Among the upcoming projects she highlighted: a May film about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which decimated a Black business district in Oklahoma.

Burns is known for sweeping, award-winning examinations of chapters and issues in American history, including “The Vietnam War” and “The Central Park Five.” Through a spokesman, he declined comment on Lee’s comments.

In a separate panel with TV critics Tuesday about “Hemingway,” a documentary about writer Ernest Hemingway directed by Burns and Lynn Novick and airing on PBS in April, Burns was asked about choosing the subjects for his occasional film biographies.

A reporter noted they have featured prominent white people, including artists and political figures, but focused on Black athletes, among them pioneering greats Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson and coming this fall, Muhammad Ali.

Burns said Louis Armstrong deserves his own lengthy documentary but was a central figure in “Jazz,” an example of biography as “one constituent building block” of broader historical films.

As for who gets singled out, “it has be done with your gut,” Burns said, then echoed a comment by Novick, his longtime colleague. “As Lynn said, they choose us."

"The stuff that’s coming up is incredibly diverse in every sense of the meaning of that word,” Burns said.

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