- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Take a bow, Hispanic activists.

Not only did you persuade Ken Burns to tamper with his already-completed, 14-hour World War II documentary “The War,” but you have also set a precedent under which filmmakers will never be certain whether their work is their own or the virtual property of pressure groups.

Don’t take just my word for it.

Nina Gilden Seavey, director of George Washington University’s Documentary Center, put it this way on National Public Radio: “To find that Ken and PBS have just bowed to the demands of any special interest group is really a travesty against journalism. To my mind, that is the death of independent filmmaking on PBS.”

Not bad for a month’s work.

Granted, the genteel Mr. Burns crumbled rather easily. Initially, he balked at the idea of inserting new content into a project he’d been crafting for six years — he told the New York Times such a move would be “like a parent trying to graft an arm onto your child.” Then the master documentarian agreed to some kind of addendum to placate critics who complained that “The War” ignored the contributions of Hispanic-Americans to the war effort.

Soon after, Mr. Burns said he would revisit the core of the film itself; interviews with Latino veterans are now said to be part of the finished product. The inclusion lent itself to “the universality of this film,” he said in a statement. “It is adding another layer of storytelling that will only enrich what we already have.”

Reassured?

Don’t be.

Mr. Burns’ cautious concession obscures the fact that, far from seeing the error of his ways, he was morally bullied and financially threatened.

Sounding not a little like a protection racketeer, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. boasted of Hispanic consumer muscle: “Hispanics control more than $800 billion in annual spending power and that merits respect.”

It doesn’t get much blunter than that — and one can easily imagine Mr. Burns and the poo-bahs of the Public Broadcasting System wilting under the heat of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, which had pressured Anheuser-Busch and General Motors Corp. to pull their sponsorship of “The War.”

(Remember that the next time some pledge-driver guilts you into buying a $200 tote bag, lest our public airwaves become compromised by corporate interests.)

The desire of the Hispanic community to see itself reflected in our media is certainly understandable. On this front, there’s much good work being done by the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to promote visibility and positive images of Latinos in movies and on television.

The crucial difference there is that the NHFA brings its influence to bear on works of fiction across a broad range of programming platforms. Touting the success of Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”) and encouraging more like her is one thing; meddling in a complex historical documentary is another.

The structure Mr. Burns chose for “The War” (set to air Sept. 23) was to tell the story of World War II from varying regional perspectives. Dividing the country into quadrants, Mr. Burns focuses on Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Luverne, Minn.

Given this framework, one can see why Mr. Burns wasn’t keen on singling out subjects based on ethnicity.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right; that Mr. Burns, in all his vast experience, was callously inattentive to several significant characters in his epic narrative.

We still have a problem, Houston.

The problem is how Mr. Burns’ adversaries instrumentalized “The War” for their own (however laudable) ends.

Judging from rhetoric used by the Web site defendthehonor.org — the grassroots online campaign spearheaded by University of Texas journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez — it’s clear they consider “The War” the filmic equivalent of a permanent physical monument or museum. The site sneeringly placed the word “documentary” in arch quotes, calling it “historically flawed” and urging the public to “get involved” — crucially, “before the film is aired.”

They consider it public property, in other words.

Rep. Joe Baca, the California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for example, called it a “reflection of history that will be seen over and over and over by our children and others.”

“To say Hispanics are invisible and were there,” Mr. Baca added, “is an insult to the Hispanic community who died for this country and sacrificed for this country.”

But a good documentary film — even one made for fusty PBS — is neither a monument nor a museum. It’s an interpretive work defined by a particular historical sensibility: Just because it’s not a work of invention doesn’t mean it’s not a work of art.

Last I checked, PBS is famously not in the business of commissioning movies to suit the orthodoxies of the moment.

Improve Ken Burns’ movie today; vandalize someone else’s tomorrow: It all depends on who’s wielding the $800 billion.

This is the uncertainty filmmakers now face.

Sorry if I’m not in the mood to celebrate.

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