PBS, Ken Burns to add Latino voices to WWII series

by Charlie McCollum and Javier Erik Olvera, San Jose Mercury News

PBS and noted filmmaker Ken Burns have agreed to expand Burns' forthcoming documentary epic on World War II to include the stories of Latino veterans. The decision comes in the wake of protests that the Latino contributions to the war effort had not been included from the 14-hour film.

While stressing that "The War" as originally conceived by Burns will be shown in its entirety, PBS said in a statement released Wednesday that after meeting with Latino groups, Burns and the film's co-director Lynn Novick had decided to "create additional content that focuses on stories of Latino and Native American veterans of the Second World War.

"PBS supports this decision and believes the additional content will make the viewers' total experience of this outstanding series even more powerful."

The announcement also noted that PBS has provided funding for local public television stations to produce their own films about the war and its impact on their communities. KQED (Ch. 9) and San Jose-based KTEH (Ch. 54) plan to do local documentaries, with KTEH's focusing on the area's Latino community during the war.

Burns said he was `extremely pleased that such a positive solution has been found to address the concerns of the Latino community," adding that "we're not changing the film" and people should think of the new material as "an amendment to the Constitution."

"This is a great victory for the Latino community and for our veterans and their families who

have sacrificed so much for the defense of this nation," said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas journalism professor and one of the leaders of the Defend the Honor Campaign that been formed to protest the lack of Latino voices in Burns' film.

"When we started this campaign in February, many people told us that we would never get PBS to change its mind on this issue, given its poor history with the Latino community," added Rivas-Rodriguez, who is overseeing an oral history project about Latino World War II veterans.

"But it is a tribute to PBS president Paula Kerger that she listened and took our concerns seriously. We look forward to working with her."

U.S. Navy veteran Gus Chavez, another leader of the campaign, said that "the unity in the Latino community on this issue was unprecedented. We were part of a movement that demonstrated how powerful our Latino community could be when we work together in common cause."

The controversy around "The War," which will air over seven nights and on PBS starting Sept. 23, began a month ago after Rivas-Rodriguez, Chavez and others learned that Burns' film did not include any Latino veterans. (An estimated 500,000 Latino-Americans fought in World War II.) There were, however, segments about racism and the black community during the war and about the internment of Japanese-Americans.

"It wasn't fair," said Victor Garza, a veteran of the Korean War and chairman of San Jose's La Raza Roundtable. "It angered me that they thought Latinos were not worthy to be in the documentary."

Initially, Burns declined to alter "The War," which he has been working on for more than five years. Contending there was no intent to exclude any group, he said the miniseries was designed to "explore the human experience of war and combat based on a handful of stories told by individuals in only four American towns": Sacramento; Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Luverne, Minn.

That put Kerger, who has been head of PBS for less than a year, and other executives in a rough spot.

On one hand, they had an escalating protest, including threats of a boycott and pointed questions from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

On the other, they could ill-afford to alienate Burns, whose critically-acclaimed and wildly-popular documentaries - "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz" - have made him public television's top draw. (Over the years, the filmmaker has repeatedly been approached to move his productions to such cable channels as HBO but has always chosen to stay with public television.)

In addition, according to ombudsman Michael Getler's online column, PBS was receiving almost as many e-mails backing Burns and his original vision for "The War" as it was in protest.

In the end, Burns solved the problem by agreeing to add material, which will also include segments on Native-Americans during the war.

"We knew that there would be untold stories and that's exactly what happened," he said. "Rather than turn this into an argument that has no end, we basically had not an argument but a dialogue."

As for telling those stories, Rivas-Rodriguez said that her group "will do anything we can to help. "Our main interest is to get the Latino experience incorporated into this documentary."

article originally published at http://origin.mercurynews.com/breakingnews/ci_5643959.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey