Political Pressures on PBS, from Left and Right On May 10, Ken Burns and PBS announced that Burns would re-cut parts of his World War II documentary to include the involvement and contributions of Latinos and Native Americans. The agreement came after Hispanic activist groups threatened to pressure Burns' and PBS' funders.
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Political Pressures on PBS, from Left and Right

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Political Pressures on PBS, from Left and Right

Political Pressures on PBS, from Left and Right

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Ken Burns seems to have appeased critics who complained about his upcoming PBS documentary series on World War II. They argued the program ignored the role of Latinos and Native Americans. Burns relented only after Hispanic lawmakers suggested they might oppose future government funding for PBS. An activist lobbied his sponsors.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that tactic mirrors the pressure PBS faced from very different quarters a few years ago.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Ken Burns sought to tell the story of World War II through the experience of four American towns.


FOLKENFLIK: I can only speak about why 18-year-olds from Minneapolis go to war. They did go to war because it's impossible not to.

FOLKENFLIK: The film told the stories of whites, Asians and African-Americans but not of the half-million Latinos who served in the war. There were no Native Americans either. After objections, Burns hired a Latino filmmaker to produce special segments to accompany the documentary, but said the film was finished and could not be changed.

Congressman Ciro Rodriguez says Burns has every right to make the film he wants, but says this is the latest in a long line of World War II projects to slight Hispanics.

CIRO RODRIGUEZ: So when this came out, it would just kind of like the icing on the cake, and we said my God, this is not appropriate and enough is enough. And so we're going to do everything we can to put a stop to it.

FOLKENFLIK: The Texas Democrat handles veteran issues for the two-dozen member Congressional Hispanic Caucus. PBS and its member stations rely heavily on federal funds approved by Congress, a point Latino lawmakers have made repeatedly.

RODRIGUEZ: The majority of us are very supportive of PBS. And I know that, you know, some of us are, in all honesty, tired of, you know, being taken for granted.

FOLKENFLIK: Activists and lawmakers also pressured the show's major underwriters or sponsors, saying there could be a backlash from Latino consumers. Congressman Rodriguez says underwriters carry weight with PBS.

RODRIGUEZ: And I know that they're not supposed to influence but I'm sure it does influence them in terms of those decisions.

FOLKENFLIK: A spokeswoman for General Motors wouldn't comment on that but says her company's officials did meet with PBS executives and encouraged both sides to find common ground.

Last week, Burns agreed to amend his film. PBS and Burns would not comment for this story but both say he came to this decision on his own. Still all this makes John Lawson very, very jittery.

JOHN LAWSON: Whenever we see politicians using words like federal funding in the same sentence where they're complaining about our programming it sets off alarms.

FOLKENFLIK: Lawson is the head of the Association of Public Television Stations. In a letter obtained by NPR, Lawson wrote to the Hispanic Caucus chairman admitting that public broadcasters had initially failed to take the criticisms seriously enough. But Lawson warned something else is at stake - the public's trust in PBS.

LAWSON: A lot of that trust is built on the accurate perception I believe by the public that public broadcasting journalists and producers tell it like they see it, and that we are not subject to interference by politicians.

FOLKENFLIK: The CEO of NPR, Ken Stern, has publicly joined Lawson in taking that stance. Lawson says it's not an idle concern. Two years ago, the chairman of the agency that distributes federal money to PBS and NPR member stations was forced to resign. An investigation found Kenneth Tomlinson violated ethics rules in trying to force PBS to put more conservative voices on the air.

Back then, many members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus supported PBS, liberal Democrats in particular howled in outrage. These days it's the conservatives at the National Review and the New York Post who were the ones writing that PBS's editorial independence is under assault.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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