Rodolfo F. Acuña weighs in
on the PBS/Ken Burns Controversy
Dear Ms. Mazur:
Please forgive me if I sound a bit exasperated. It is my understanding that the controversy is about the Ken Burns’ documentary and its failure to integrate Mexican Americans and Latinos into the mainframe of the documentary. Mr. Burns has said in the past that he has a right to artistic freedom and has even claimed that he has a constitutional right to his opinion. I don’t disagree with him — and if this were a novel or a work of fiction that would be great. However, we are talking about a historical documentary.
In defense of your showing the Burns documentary, you have listed a half dozen projects that KCET will offer to California viewers, which is great — but it does not absolve the Ken Burns documentary nor the fact that you will be featuring it. That you are advertising it. That you are touting it as true story of World War II.
Just like the warden said in the film, “Cool Hand Luke,” what we have here is a failure to communicate. You would probably understand me better if you had ever been involved in civil rights. The present controversy is analogous to having the premier school in the school district segregated.
When incensed parents complain, you add a bungalow to the premier school and say, “well you have a bungalow.” When the parents further criticize the school, the response is well Mexicans have a half dozen other schools that are integrated, and we just painted them for you.
Frankly, I am too old to buy the cover up. The damage has been done and you are compounding it. Public television did not do anything after Burns arrogantly disregarded Latinos in his baseball and his jazz documentaries. We were promised that next time there would be more care given to accuracy.
Well, you messed up again.
It just shows a basic “I don’t give a shit attitude” on KCET’s part. What should have been done is to send the documentary back to the editing table and Mexican Americans and Latinos integrated into the storyline. It did not happen although in cases involving other groups you have done it. I applaud you for being sensitive to the Jewish, women and African American communities — but you know what — you disrespect Mexican and Latinos.
Rodolfo F. Acuña, PhD
Chicana/o Studies Department
California State University at Northridge
Mare Mazur responds:
Dear Dr. Acuña:
I am very sorry you were insulted by the Ken Burns letter that ran in our September magazine. As the person responsible for the broadcast schedule and our production slate, including the magazine, I can say with certainty that offending our viewers was anything but my intention.
California Connected, which just received the Alfred I. duPonte-Columbia University Award for journalism, just concluded production on a special one-hour episode titled California at War. California at War premieres August 23rd, and will be repeated several times leading up to our broadcast of The War. This program looks at the impact World War II had on California, and more importantly, the impact California had on winning the war. To that end, it includes the history of contribution from the Hispanic community who struggled with racism on the home front while being the most decorated group of the war.
In addition to airing California at War, we renewed the rights to Valor a 30-minute documentary on Latino stories of heroism during World War II, which KCET produced as part of the LA Stories project in 1989. We have also acquired a film by Mario Barrera, Professor Emeritus, Chicano Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez served as the academic advisor on both of those projects.
We are also running Valentina: Mexican-Americans in World War II from our sister station in New Mexico. All of these programs will be heavily promoted in and around The War. It is our expectation that this will give us the opportunity to introduce a wide audience to the history of contribution from the Latino community.
KCET has a long record of representing the Hispanic community in our productions and programming. In 1996 my colleague Joyce Campbell was the Co-executive producer of Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement which won the Nosotros Golden Eagle Award for Outstanding Documentary. She was also the executive in charge of American Family, the first Latino family drama to air on broadcast television, which KCET co-produced with Greg Nava.
In 2006 KCET was recognized by the National Hispanic Media Coalition for Excellence in Television Programming.
Ms. Campbell now serves as our Vice President of Education and Children’s Programming. In that capacity she oversees programming designed to reach the diverse audience represented in the eleven counties we serve.
This department is also responsible for the two shows that give me the greatest satisfaction: A Place of Our Own and Los Niños en Su Casa.
These are companion programs produced in both English and Spanish designed to help caregivers of pre-school aged children better prepare the children in their care for early learning.
These two series were originally developed for California distribution. While running regionally they were recognized with a George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in media, and a local Emmy. The website, which is completely bi-lingual, received the Japan Prize, an international commendation for best website. Based on our success in California, we are
able to make the programs available nationally, and are now being carried in nearly 70% of the country.
As a native Angeleno I have made the commitment that our programming, local and national, reflect the unique and diverse voices of Southern California. Again, I regret that Ken’s letter offended you. My colleagues and I work very hard to create a spirit of inclusion in all that we do, and as I began, I’m sorry that you did not find that spirit adequately communicated.
I do hope you choose to watch California at War and our other programs; we are all proud of the work and hope they resonate with our viewers. I would greatly appreciate your feedback and welcome your call should you have the