Will the FCC make an issue of ‘War’ language?

Two months before the premiere of Ken Burns’ series,

“The War,” PBS CEO Paula Kerger still isn’t sure
By Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (July 12, 2007)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif – Though Kerger yesterday told the Television Critics Association that PBS would offer its affiliates unexpurgated and edited versions of the World War II series, she said she doesn’t know yet how many stations would carry the edited version.

“I thought . . . that there would be more clarity” from the Federal Communications Commission by now about the use of certain language on broadcast TV (specifically, a word that’s already gotten a pass during airings of “Saving Private Ryan” from an FCC whose makeup – and agenda – has changed since then).

“We got a lot of coverage of this documentary because it has four words in it – four out of 14 1/2 hours,” she said, noting that two of those are used to explain the origins of “snafu” and “FUBAR.”

Though the issue drew headlines at the TCA’s winter meetings six months ago and still matters to many PBS affiliates, some of which could be crippled by an adverse FCC ruling and the accompanying fines, “that seems like the quaint old days,” the PBS executive acknowledged.

That’s because of pressure brought in the interim by Hispanic groups who were upset that Burns had not singled out the experience of Latino soldiers in his examination of World War II from the perspective of four American cities and towns: Sacramento, Calif; Waterbury, Conn; Mobile, Ala.; and Luverne, Minn.

In questioning Kerger, and later Burns, critics and reporters here, usually quick to lambaste networks on diversity issues, displayed little sympathy for the groups raising this particular one.

Admittedly, none of us – and none of Burns’ critics – has yet seen the final version of “The War,” which will incorporate some interviews and material he agreed to add at what in documentary terms could be considered the 11th hour.

Kerger was a bit vague on just what’s entailed, Burns a little less so.

“We’ve produced some new material and included it at the end of three of the episodes that doesn’t alter” what was largely completed more than a year ago, he said.

The added material, which will also include a Native American narrative, will run at the ends of episodes 1, 5 and 6, before the credits, Burns said.

It will add 28 to 29 minutes to the total length.

“It was, of course, painful to us on one level” that his work was being misinterpreted, “but we didn’t have the luxury” of arguing for too long, Burns said, reminding reporters that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of about 1,000 a day.

Noting that Hispanics in America are “a group of people who for 500 years have had their story untold,” he said, “We’ve done more than we were asked and were expected to . . . honoring our own interest in doing this right.”

Asked if he expected that to be enough to satisfy his critics, he replied, “There are a lot of different people with a lot of different agendas and a lot of concerns.”

Rather than try to address all of them, he said, the filmmakers “tried to hear . . . the larger question, and that’s what we tried to respond to.”


  1. Colorblind History

    by Linda Chavez

    Creators Syndicate (July 13, 2007)

    World War II was a defining experience in my life. Although I was born two years after the war ended, I grew up hearing my father’s stories of combat
    in the South Pacific. I still remember sitting in the backseat of our 1948 Ford staring at the half-moon scar on the back of my father’s neck where a
    piece of shrapnel had become embedded. But there were other signs of his wartime experience as well, the way he’d jump out of his skin if a car
    backfired; his fear of flying, even though he’d spent countless hours as a tail gunner in the back of a B-17; his nightmares, reliving the time his plane was shot down over New Guinea.

    I loved hearing his stories about his buddies pictured in a black-and-white photo in front of their plane, Joltin’ Jane. He was the tallest — and most
    handsome — of the bunch, 6-foot-2, with curly black hair and a Hollywood smile. Once in a while, he’d take out the smooth Purple Heart he kept in a cigar box on his dresser and show me the citation awarded to “Staff Sgt. Rudolph F. Chavez, U.S. Army Air Corps.”

    The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns are now in the midst of controversy over men like my father. Burns’ 14-hour series, “The War,” will air in September on PBS stations and promises, at least from the promotion clips I’ve seen, to be as spellbinding as his first major PBS documentary, “The Civil War.” Burns hoped to capture not only what happened in Europe and the Pacific during World War II but how the war changed America. By focusing his story on four towns and the soldiers and the families who lived there, Burns humanized the scale of the war. But when word leaked out that none of the soldiers included in the film was Hispanic, several Hispanic advocacy groups cried foul.

    After extensive negotiations with Hispanic groups, Burns has now included additional footage, adding three new stories to the series to relate the experience of Hispanic and American Indian soldiers. I suppose it’s a sign of the times we live in: Every group wants its own particular story told. And Burns may have set himself up for the challenge. He was careful to include black, Japanese, Jewish and Italian soldiers, as well as Southern
    whites and Minnesota farmers in his original lineup, but neglected to include any Mexican Americans, even though Sacramento, Calif., was one of the towns he picked.

    Unlike blacks and Japanese, Hispanics served in integrated units in World War II. Fourteen Hispanics earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the war, yet many Hispanic soldiers returned home to face continuing discrimination and mistreatment. The refusal of a Three Rivers, Texas, funeral parlor to allow the use of its chapel for the burial of Pvt. Felix Longoria’s remains, which were returned to his family after the war in 1949, launched a major civil rights push by Mexican Americans. Sen. Lyndon Johnson arranged for Pvt. Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and the incident became a focal point in the demand by Mexican Americans for equal rights.

    I wonder what my father would think about the controversy over “The War.” He died 29 years ago this week and is buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, like thousands of others who served their country. Looking out over the sea of white crosses, it’s impossible to know what ethnic group the men and women buried there belonged to, and only the occasional Star of David symbolizes any difference in religion.

    My father never mentioned any ethnic tension when he talked about the war. I don’t ever remember him referring to anyone’s ancestry. I imagine he viewed the men he served with not as Irish or Italian or Polish, but as fellow Americans. Would he have watched “The War” through an ethnic prism? Somehow I doubt it. I think he would have seen the stories Ken Burns has tried to tell as his own, even if the soldiers and sailors were named Gray, Phillips, Ciarlo, Satow and Leopold.

    Linda Chavez is the author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.”

  2. My father also served in WWII as a teenager fighting in the Philippines. He also talked of his arrival in the States at the age of 17, then joining the Merchant Marines and moving up the ranks to a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. He never mentioned anything discriminatory in his war stories or his Merchant Marine stories until I was much older and, while carefully listening to him, asked specifically about some of the situations he described. He then acknowledged discriminatory acts that he endured and, for the most part, overcame because of his skills. Had I never asked, had I not carefully listened, he would have never shared those experiences.

    I think a generation ago, there was not a “listening” or a “speaking” for racial or ethnic discrimination. Today, there is somewhat a return to that past generation’s shame of acknowledging it, or listening for it or speaking it. That does not mean it did not exist, that does not mean it is wrong to acknowledge it, that does not mean it should suddenly be swept under the historical rug as an ugly part of our past as we celebrate the men and women in the armed services. What it does mean is that those men and women who were discriminated against should be celebrated even more for what they risked and suffered, not hidden from view by saying that “Hispanics served in integrated units in World War II.” That simply is inaccurate. I know of dark-skinned Hispanics who served in the black American Army and others who served in the white American Army. I know of two Puerto RIcan brothers, one light the other dark. The dark one wound up in the white army and the light one wound up in the black army.

    Chavez’ article clearly points to the degree of ignorance and misunderstanding concerning Hispanic participation in that war as well as other government endeavors.

    It is not simply a matter of “every group wants its own particular story told.” We are talking about a sizeable population of the United States. When one speaks of television, size does matter. But even if the numbers were not there, why should not every group have its story told? Actually, I would turn this question on its head and ask why should American mean “white”?

    Lastly, what is the purpose of Ken Burns’ “The War”? Is it to inform or simply to celebrate the “greatest generation” without examining the true forces at work in societies that lead to war and how war itself is symptomatic of “tensions” in those societies.

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