Special Report from AIM’s Center for Investigative Journalism
By Arne Steinberg*
Ken Burns is known as a PBS documentary creator, but he is actually a significant cog in the left-wing propaganda machine.
His taxpayer supported PBS documentaries are shown in public schools across the U.S., presented to students as unvarnished fact. But are they?
Burns claims he displays neutrality in his work, but in 2008 he produced the introductory video for Senator Ted Kennedy’s Democratic National Convention speech, described by Politico as presenting Kennedy “as the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port.” When Burns endorsed Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency he compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln.
Burns sneers at the U.S., mentioning “our spurious sovereignty.” He omits the long racist history of Democrat politicians in his documentary “Congress,” not once identifying a pro-slavery congressman or senator as a Democrat. He omits the anti-abortion views of Susan B. Anthony in his feminism documentary since that did not fit the left-wing ideology he was pushing.
Burns’ productions are riddled with errors. His documentary about boxer Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” would be more fittingly titled “Unforgivable Lack of Familiarity with his Subject.” His “Baseball” series includes errors such as film of a player supposedly pitching in a World Series who did not play for either team.
In his June, 2016, Stanford University commencement speech attacking candidate Donald Trump, Burns hit all the obligatory left-wing mantras: “As a student of history, I recognize this type…the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling.”
Ken Burns: Student of History—or Left-Wing Gasbag?
“More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source,” commented the late historian Stephen Ambrose.
“Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period,” said critic David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun. “That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.”
Burns’ taxpayer-supported PBS documentaries are heavily marketed in public schools across the U.S., presented to students as unvarnished fact. But exactly what kind of “history” is Burns handing out? A careful examination shows his work is both partisan and surprisingly careless with facts.
A Democrat Partisan
Ken Burns claims, “For nearly forty years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously maintained a conscious neutrality in my work.”
This “neutrality” includes the following: In 2008, the Democratic National Committee chose Burns to produce the introductory video for the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s Democratic National Convention speech, which, according to Politico, presented Kennedy as “the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port.” When Kennedy died, Burns produced a eulogy video for his funeral.
When Burns endorsed Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency in December 2007, he compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln. In 2012, Burns wrote, “Like FDR, Obama has walked us back from the brink. He averted a depression, ended one war and put us on the path ending the other, rescued the auto industry…Obama has deployed the shrewd combination of speaking softly and using a big stick. Ask Bin Laden.”
Burns hammers at left-wing mantras in his documentaries, using standard and easily recognizable left-wing media techniques. He omits the long racist history of Democrat politicians in his documentary “Congress,” presenting the period just before the Civil War to the post-Reconstruction era without ever identifying a single pro-slavery congressman or senator as a Democrat. He omits the strong anti-abortion views of Susan B. Anthony in his suffrage movement documentary “Not For Ourselves Alone,” since that did not fit the left-wing ideology he was pushing.
When a white shooter killed black churchgoers in 2015, Burns said, “As most Americans were, I was stunned, shocked, reduced to tears by what had happened in Charleston and felt like all the old ghosts were all still present with all the force they’ve always had in American life.” But when a Muslim terrorist killed 50 gays in Orlando, Florida, in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Burns said of Donald Trump’s advocating a temporary halt to Muslim immigration to America: “Do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not.”
In an outright falsification, Burns, who is largely dependent on taxpayer-based funding from PBS for bankrolling his work, said he hoped that 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney “doesn’t get his way, and PBS isn’t eliminated.” However, in the real world Romney never suggested that PBS be eliminated; he merely urged ending its U.S. taxpayer support.
Burns hit all the obligatory left-wing mantras in his June 12, 2016 Stanford University commencement speech, attacking candidate Donald Trump: “As a student of history, I recognize this type…the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted…These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past…Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history.”
Playing to the Black Lives Matter Crowd
“I’ve been dealing with the question of race in every subject,” Burns admitted in an interview, and told a National Endowment for the Humanities audience, “Race percolates close to the surface in nearly every project I’ve worked on.”
In his blatantly biased documentary “Central Park Five,” Burns acts as an apologist and promoter for those convicted of the gang rape and beating in the head with a brick of a woman jogger in Central Park, presenting them as “civil rights” heroes. The attack on Trisha Meili left her in a coma for 12 days with loss of 80 per cent of her blood from deep stab wounds. Her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye hung out of its socket. She was given last rites.
When she didn’t die, the five were sentenced, imprisoned and then eventually released. When Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and killer already serving a life term (Reyes had absolutely nothing to lose by confessing to the rape), suddenly “confessed” to being the jogger’s lone assailant, two doctors who helped save the jogger’s life said her wounds were not consistent with his account of the attack, while one state investigator commented, “The word of a serial rapist killer is not something to be heavily relied upon.”
But Democrat District Attorney Robert Morgenthau quickly went into action, blocking police from questioning Reyes or giving him a polygraph and ordering other inmates not to talk to any police investigators about their conversations with Reyes.
Despite strong objections from the original prosecutor, based on the doubtful new confession, Morgenthau had the New York Supreme Court vacate the convictions of “the Central Park Five,” even though in a legal oddity they never recanted their original confessions, nor did they present additional evidence contradicting the evidence that had gotten them convicted. The New York Times states that the five were “exonerated,” a false statement since they would have to stand trial and be declared not guilty in order to be exonerated. Instead their sentences were simply vacated.
In his heavily slanted “documentary,” Burns never used hours of interviews he filmed with state investigators and others who pointed to extensive evidence that the group was guilty. Burns said his purpose in making the video was to get the five men a financial settlement. According to New York writer Nicholas Stix, Burns “simply airbrushed every fact that incriminates the defendants out of the movie.”
Later, working in tandem with Burns’ campaign for the five, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio handed “the Central Park Five” over $40 million for “wrongful imprisonment.” At the time, businessman Donald Trump bought newspaper ads calling the settlement a “disgrace.” Today Burns’ heavily biased documentary is shown extensively in U.S. public schools, promoting “white guilt” in impressionable students, with PBS promoting it as “a revealing portrait of one of our nation’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.”
Ignoring the legal oddity that the assailants were never proved innocent, Ken Burns tweeted: “Apparently Mr. Trump is unfamiliar with the concept of wrongful conviction.”
“They should be very thankful I wasn’t mayor because they wouldn’t have gotten a dime,” Trump said.
Meanwhile Trisha Meili lives today, making occasional speeches on coping with head trauma.
Living Off Taxpayers
PBS receives taxpayer funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also gives money to member stations around the country to buy programs such as Burns’ films. Private and corporate donors also support PBS programs. Its executives are well paid, with PBS CEO Paula Kerger, an avid fundraiser, receiving $779,954 in salary in 2012. After the programs are produced, PBS aggressively promotes extensive marketing of its videos.
Although its charter requires strict non-partisan programming, PBS has long been criticized for its liberal slant. For example, PBS repeatedly runs fawning documentaries on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro while refusing to run Cuban-American filmmaker Agustin Blazquez’ documentaries on Castro’s atrocities, causing Cuban-American political commentator Humberto Fontova to comment sarcastically, “Seems that if Agustin Blazquez wants assistance from PBS or the American Film Institute, he’ll first need a glowing reference letter from Fidel Castro.”
In his 14-hour World War II film, “The War,” Burns completely ignored contributions of Hispanic veterans, who have won more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group in proportion to their numbers involved. When outraged Hispanic groups asked private donors Anheuser-Busch and General Motors Corp. to end their sponsorship of the film, Burns insisted that re-editing the film was out of the question, with PBS defending him in the name of artistic freedom. Eventually some mention of Hispanic soldiers was added.
Author and journalist Raoul Lowery Contreras points out that Burns also ignored Hispanics in his special PBS series, “The Civil War,” although two of the very first Civil War Medal of Honor recipients were Hispanic. He similarly ignored Hispanics in “The Roosevelts,” even though Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite company commander, Maximiliano Luna, led the charge of Company A up San Juan Hill.
Sloppy and Careless
In “How Ken Burns Murdered Jazz,” critic Jeffrey St. Clair writes, “Burns doesn’t really like music. In the 19 hours of film, he never lets one song play to completion, anywhere near completion. Yet there is a constant chatter riding on top of the music…In a film supposedly about music, the music itself has been relegated to the background.”
Burns’ “Jazz,” contains a host of shortcomings, including further demonstration of Burns’ apparent lack of affinity for Hispanics with his complete omission of Latin Jazz from the 19-hour film, over-reliance on Louis Armstrong, dismissal of jazz after 1960 and the slighting of Bill Evans, Miles Davis’ influential pianist, possibly due to Burns’ narrator Stanley Crouch’s long history of animosity toward Davis. Alex W. Rodriguez writes, “Ken Burns’ Jazz ultimately does a disservice to the jazz community because it presents such an inaccurate, flawed, rigid, politically biased framework.”
In his productions, Burns often displays a puzzling carelessness with facts—for example, giving boxer Jack Johnson’s conqueror Jess Willard’s age as 27 and weight as 250—when in reality Willard’s age was 33 and his weight 238 when he dethroned Johnson. These are facts that any student could easily look up. Burns’ “Baseball,” includes errors such as film of a pitcher supposedly pitching in a World Series who did not play for either team. The blog, “So many mistakes in Ken Burns Baseball,” lists many more.
When PBS viewers complained about Burns’ choice of documented plagiarists Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin as narrators for his baseball sequel, “The Tenth Inning,” PBS ombudsman Michael Getler defended Burns’ choice: “We all, of course, make mistakes, and most of us, I think, believe in redemption and second chances.”
Boston writer Mark Leccese didn’t agree: “The ombudsman for PBS nonchalantly classifies plagiarism as a mistake most of us are ready to forgive. Not so fast…Plagiarizing is one of the most immoral things a journalist can do. It involves not only the theft of someone else’s work, but the deliberate deception of readers…I do object ‘loudly’ to the ombudsman for PBS brushing off plagiarism as a mistake we should stand ready to forgive and forget.”
Punched Out and Down for the Count
A typical example would be Burns’ critically acclaimed documentary on heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness,” which could be more fittingly titled “Unforgivable Lack of Familiarity with his Subject,” complete with conveniently omitted facts, wrong picture descriptions and a parade of “experts” with little or no background in the subject.
In an amusing display of utter cluelessness, Burns presents Johnson and a sparring partner in a reversed film clip with both fighters working away in “southpaw” stances, each with his right foot and right arm out in front, a laughable mistake obvious at a glance to anyone familiar with the most basic techniques of boxing.
Burns’ narration includes actor Samuel L. Jackson speaking as Johnson, reading from Johnson’s autobiography in a drawn out southern drawl with often excruciatingly lengthened vowels. Apparently ‘historian’ Burns couldn’t be bothered to find Johnson’s real voice, easily available in recordings (1914, 1929, 1944) where Johnson speaks in a strongly articulated, rather educated-sounding and decidedly non-Southern manner with traces of a New York-New Jersey accent, pronouncing the er sound as oi (“say a few woids,” “foity years ago”).
In a special feature, Burns’ expert Randy Roberts demonstrates Johnson’s supposed fighting stance, holding his chin up high with his entire throat and the point of his chin completely exposed, a position no competent boxer of any style would use. Keep your chin down, Randy.
Beating the racial drums, Burns goes into paroxysms over Johnson’s fight with former champion Jim Jeffries including the strange comment, “In the minds of most white Americans this boxing match would decide whose country America really was.” Those familiar with boxing know as a boxing match this bout had little significance, with a long retired, bloated Jeffries who hadn’t fought for six years, losing over 100 pounds in a short period of time and having no warm up fights to see if he could even beat a mediocre fighter. Yet it took Johnson in his prime 15 rounds to beat the shell of Jeffries.
Eager to present Johnson as a black mistreated by white society, Burns avoids the real story of Johnson as a fighter—that he disgraced himself and his heavyweight championship by refusing to fight his most dangerous challenger, fellow black fighter Sam Langford, rated by RING magazine founder Nat Fleischer as one of the 10 best heavyweights in history. Johnson blocked him from his chance at the title.
In a blatant falsehood ignoring Langford’s existence, expert Gerald Early smugly comments, “Johnson was on top of the world athletically after he beat Jim Jeffries. There was no one on the horizon.” Meanwhile, Langford rates only three sentences and not even a still photograph during the 3 hour and 25 minute “documentary.”
Laying his hard sell of Johnson on thick, Burns repeatedly runs films at the wrong speed in order to make other fighters look ridiculous. He conveniently omits anything which would make Johnson look bad, such as his loss to Marvin Hart which disqualified him from a chance at the title earlier in his career. In a childish attempt to denigrate a later champion, Joe Louis, Burns shows two very short clips, first of Louis getting hit with punches by a sparring partner followed by the last seconds of his only loss before winning the title, to Max Schmeling. Of course Burns’ transparent attempt to tear down Louis omits that Louis won 23 of 27 title fights by knockout, and knocked out Schmeling in the first round in their rematch.
Other Burns “experts” are the clownish Bert Sugar, making grotesque faces and stabbing at the camera with his cigar, and actor James Earl Jones, whose qualifications were that he played Johnson in a stage play. Stanley Crouch, Burns’ heavily criticized expert from his Jazz documentary, appears here as a boxing expert and sums up, explaining that the way Johnson wore his hat “was perfect” and that “Johnson is there with people like Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong. These whole main guys. These guys whom you couldn’t figure out.”
This accumulation of errors, bias and twisting of facts does not end with its circulation to PBS viewers. PBS sells the video to schools, complete with a study course where Burns instructs that “Any serious study of American history engages the study of race and the monumental hypocrisy born at our founding.” Teachers are directed to have students write essays “to explore historical influence on American life, including race and racism.”
Ken Burns’ reputation is that of a PBS documentary creator, but as his works show, he is actually a significant cog in the left-wing propaganda machine. His partisan agenda is only matched by his carelessness with the facts.
The new Trump administration should consider pulling the plug on left-wing propaganda and inaccurate programs masquerading as “documentaries.”
*Arne Steinberg is a freelance writer who has written several reports for Accuracy in Media which have received favorable coverage in such publications as Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.