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American Journalism Review
Ken Burns on Journalism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 2001

Ken Burns on Journalism   

His 10-part, 17-and-a-half-hour series “Jazz” received media coverage before, during and after its airing in January. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns--whose previous work includes series on the Civil War and baseball--has both used the press for research and appeared in the press as subject matter. AJR editorial assistant Christopher Sherman talks with Burns about his views of journalism.

By Christopher Sherman
Christopher Sherman is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Do you consider yourself a journalist?
No. I'm a filmmaker. I'm an artist. I've chosen to work in history the way someone might choose to work in still lifes or landscapes if he were a painter.

How much of the research for your films comes from journalistic sources?
I would say a good deal of it. We depend, of course, on primary sources that would include letters, journals, diaries, military dispatches, but also newspaper accounts. We refer to contemporary and modern encyclopedic searches. We are going to deal with the literature of the age and those works of fiction or nonfiction which best reflect the story we're trying to tell. So I would say journalism is always a large part of, a way to triangulate what went on in any particular event.

Have you felt in your own dealings with the media...that you've been dealt with fairly, that they've afforded you ample opportunity to explain your work if you've wanted to?
Yes, in some ways I have. Let me just put it that I've been the subject of literally tens of thousands of articles.... And it is really a, I think, sad commentary on journalism that I would say fewer than 1 percent of them are utterly, totally, factually correct in which there is not a mistake. And that gives me pause within the fact that usually someone is writing not on a deadline about me but with some sense of the passage of time, and one begins to wonder, when we read the front page of the newspaper or listen to a nightly broadcast, how much of that has the same degree of accuracy that I've experienced. And at the same time, I've felt that most of the things have been relatively fair.

What do you think of media coverage of race right now?
I think that on the one hand it's been superb. I think this has been one of journalism's shining moments. Its willingness particularly during the '60s to understand that there was an ultimate moral right, that we couldn't claim ourselves as a country where all men are created equal if all men weren't. And I think this has been among journalism's finest hours. I detect a certain ennui today in the willingness to tackle complicated race issues. It still gets relegated to stereotyping; there is a kind of racial profiling that continually takes place on the news and in lots of its subsidiary manifestations from..."Cops" and other things in which the image of African Americans is diminished. There is almost no reporting of the huge, vast and majority black middle class.... There's almost a focus, I think some of it quite legitimate, on the failings of our society to live up to what Dr. King said...but also to focus on the most negative aspects. I've focused almost entirely on race.... Like "Baseball" and "The Civil War," ["Jazz"] is informed imperceptibly by an attempt to understand and hopefully reconcile divergent racial views in the United States.

What role do you think the media can play in race issues? Has racism just become more subtle that we don't notice it every day and we wait for an eruption before we really talk about it again?
Racism has always been subtle, you know. The thing I always find is when you unmask the Ku Klux Klan leader and his family and friends say, "But he's such a good family man." Well of course he is a good family man. It's the subtlety of racism that protects one family against the other. Inexcusable, but I think that journalism does a relatively good job of exposing that. I'm not sure that the coverage is evolving. I think in some ways that it is devolving as we move into an entertainment-based media in which the difficult questions of race get, no pun intended, boiled down to black and white.... But at the same time the New York Times, quite justifiably, won a Pulitzer Prize for an amazing series on race. It was just fantastic.

How much of an audience do you think there really is out there for more in-depth work like what the New York Times did in its coverage of race?
Well, this is journalism's great defense. It always hides behind, like a child lost in the pleats and folds of his mother's skirt--this notion that what we're really doing is following the audience.... [I]f you also throw [the public] a higher level they will respond to that as well. So if this is a chicken-and-egg situation in which the media culture and the population that devours it are sort of waiting in a Mexican standoff for the other to do the better thing, we'll get nowhere.... [I]t seems to me that it is incumbent upon the media to actually raise its own standards.

Are you working on anything now?
I finished a film on Mark Twain.

When can we expect to see that?
We're now negotiating, but I think PBS will put it on in January.

Any plans for any other big series in the future?
Right now we're in the development stage on two: one on the history of the national parks, America's best idea, and on World War II, a kind of personal, first-person account of how this war happened and unfolded for Americans.

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