Thursday, April 12, 2007

Latinos Attack PBS for WWII Series

Emmy-award winning documentarian Ken Burns and PBS television are underfire from the Latino community this week over the 14-hour film "War." This film, created by Burns,(slated to air on PBS in September) focuses on 40 American WWII Veterans in 4 U.S. cities. However, not one of the 40 individuals featured in the documentary is Latino...leaving Hispanic veteran's groups and politicians in an uproar. Clearly, Hispanics fought for America in WWII--the above posted picture even shows seven Latino American soldiers grouped together after landing on Cebu Island,Philippines, during WWII. Even estimates by the D-Day World War Two Museum project that out of the 16 million Americans that served--which has come to be called the Greatest Generation--between 250,000 and 500,000 Latinos were a part of America's Greatest Generation.

Ken Burns seemingly had trouble answering this question. In fact, he completely dodged the question and further got himself and PBS into hotter water with the Latino community when during a recent NPR interview, Burns said his film included the stories of Japanese-Americans and African Americans because their "experiences had been an amazingly different American experiences." Clearly, Burns did not think before he spoke because had he had done so, he would have realized he was adding fuel to an already burning fire. His comments drew the attention of Antonio Morales of the American GI Forum, Latino politicians and Latino veterans who are now calling for changes in the film or for the film to not be aired at all. Thus, creating quite a dilemma for PBS chief executive Paula Kerger because Latino veterans feel they had unique experiences too.

But, since the film has not been aired yet, just how was it figured out that no Latinos were interviewed or involved in the project? Well, Latinos can thank former newspaper reporter Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who now runs an oral history project regarding Latino WWII veterans at the University of Texas. In TIME magazine, Rivas-Rodriguez states, "The Latino (WWII) experience is really rich and very unique. We (all Latinos) are very disappointed. This is the story not only of our parents, our grandparents, but our tios and tias. This is not a Puerto Rican issue, not a Mexican issue, not a Cuban issue, but all Latinos and Latinas. This is one of the few times we can all agree on something." According to Rivas-Rodriguez, had Burns done his research, he would have found a plethora of material pertaining to Hispanic involvement in WWII, starting with the University of Texas' website compiled by Rivas-Rodriguez herself on the subject matter.

This site provides an in-depth look at the role of both Latino men and women in WWII. Not to mention, there are links to books, movies and conferences--that are ample proof of the high involvement of Hispanics in the war. On the site, there is also a section titled "Narrative," where Latinas who worked in military installations tell their stories and Latino Medal of Honor winners personally tell their war stories--which if you take time to read them prove to be very unique Latin American experiences. Therefore, for Burns to not include Latinos in his "I wanted to tell unique stories in my war film," statemen...was in my opinion simply ignorant. Apparently, The National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus agree on this point as well--calling for Burns to change his film to include Hispanics. Not to mention, this has put PBS on the hot seat because the Latino community feels discriminated against.

But again this week, Burns made another comment that hurt his campaign. He purported in an interview that he tried to tell the stories of the overlooked WWII populations. However, following that interview, it was reported by the Associated Press that throughout history, the story of Latinos in WWII has almost never been documented--thus, making it the most prominent overlooked WWII population (that Burns himself happened to overlook--and I am betting he know wishes he could retract that statement). While Burns asserts that he did not set out to exclude Latinos from his story, Latinos feel they were intentionally ommitted. I cannot help but side with the Latino community on this one because had Burns efficiently conducted his research, he would have found the story pertaining to the role of Latinos in WWII to be very intriguing. And, I also cannot give Burns leeway (as I would a broadcast reporter who has a minute and thirty seconds to tell a story who at times cannot include all angles--but tends to mention all parties) because Burns had 14 hours to tell this story.

So, should Burns change his film? While he offers his apologies to the Latino community, his answer is no. Having taken 6 years to make the film, Burns is already traveling to promote it and says this project is finished. If Burns were forced to change his film--which has not yet occurred--he claims he would have to find Latinos to tell stories and footage from these events and that that notion would be an almost impossible task to accomplish. But I ask, why wasn't this research/work done in the preliminary stages when information was being gathered for Japanese-Americans and African Americans? And with all the uproar, Latino veterans have already come forward who are ready to tell their story. So, what is Burns' problem? Or, is it that he just does not want Latinos in his story?

Overall, what this boils down to is PBS' predicament--impose on Burns''s creative vision or cater to an enraged group of minorities with legitimate cause. And, this raises the question, if PBS changes a film because of minority complaints, will it continue this practice in the future? First and foremost, the problem most likely stems from the fact that PBS has few Latino employees. Perhaps if they hired more Latinos, when this film was in its preliminary stages, the question would have been asked, what about Latino WWII veterans? Still, I see documentaries as long form journalism. Therefore, I believe that if you are going to tell a story accurately, all sides of the story must be presented or included in some way. Just ask yourself as a journalist, in a political piece, if 4 presidential candidates spoke at a conference, would you only include 3 names of the candidates in your peice or make sure all four were included? My guess...all four would have their names in your piece or a call from your boss would quickly ensue followed by the unnamed politician.

In conclusion, while this matter will take months to resolve, it will be intereting to see how PBS hashes this sticky situation out. And, it also leads to the question, are Latinos under represented and overlooked in other media spectrums? In journalism, especially in broadcast, this is true. While television stations have their token Latino news team member--Latinosare still hold the fewest jobs in broadcast journalism. In any event, as of now, PBS has offered to create and run a separate film regarding Latino veterans that will play alongside this documentary, but I feel that the station should just drop this film from its airways. How can you air something that is unfair, unbalanced and that does not tell the whole story of WWII? Two thumbs down to PBS. And, on a further note, who decided the Latino experience was not unique enough or even worthwhile to mention in a 14 hour film?


At Friday, April 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And it's not just latinos who were left out! There's nothing in the film about left-handed lesbians, one-eyed Pakistanis, muslims, asian indians or even cross-dressers!

Burns is a monster and must be stopped before he omits again!

At Friday, April 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clearly, whoever left the above comment is a racist. How can you equate a Latino with a left-handed lesbian? Obviously, you are a coward if you cannot even post your comment with your blogger name. I agree, you and PBS and Burns should all go to hell together.

At Saturday, April 14, 2007, Blogger MW said...

Man, where are these anonymous posters coming from?

Anyway, I'm not that crazy about Ken Burns. "Civil War" was great, but his next two over-hyped, multi-part extravaganzas weren't so hot. "Baseball" was boring with way too much emphasis on the Yankees and Red Sox. "Jazz" was basically Burns serving as a mouthpiece for Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch - I'm sorry, but how can you skim over major artists like Bill Evans but highlight something like Louis Armstrong's POP recording of "Hello, Dolly"? I'll wait and see "War" before passing judgment, but hopefully this will be a return to form.

At Saturday, April 14, 2007, Blogger AJS said...

I don't think Burns left Latinos out intentionally. What would his goal be in doing that?

Also, if 250,000 Latinos served out of a population of 16 million, that's only 1 in 64. While it would obviously have been better if Burns could find room in his 40 for at least someone of every race or background, it's not as if he went out of his way to exclude Latinos. Without belittling the Latino contribution to WWII, relatively speaking, there simply weren't that many who participated.

At Sunday, April 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Ken Burns decision to add interviews with Hispanic American vets to the breaks segement of the documentary while leaving the documentary itself untouched in a good one. The documentary treats Japanese American and African American soldiers separately because they fought in segregated units, but Hispanic Americans were integrated into regular units, where they served both as officers and enlisted soldiers. The documentary does not single out other racial or ethenic groups such as Jewish American, Irish Americans or Italian Americans groups for special attention.

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