- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It took Ken Burns six years to make the 15-hour PBS documentary “The War.” It may take another six years to sort out the project’s public reactions.

The program has inspired a visceral cross section of opinions since debuting on Sept. 23. Vexed ethnic groups, gushing journalists, overwhelmed veterans, nostalgic baby boomers and sharp-eyed critics all have had their say.

“Ken Burns provides entry-level history. He’s not a great historian — he gets stuff wrong. But he is a great packager of history,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University communications professor and director of the school’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

“If anyone is hoping for the last word on World War II — or jazz, the Civil War or other subjects he’s covered — they’re not going to get it,” Mr. Thompson said. “But Ken Burns provides a good starting point for discussion, as long as we remember we’re not watching history, we’re watching a presentation of history.”

Others perceive the documentary as a way for Mr. Burns to make a quick buck.

“Burns doesn’t do this as some nonprofit national cinematic poet. He does it for the cash. Once again, Burns fans are quickly urged by retailers to buy the eight-DVD set for $130, the four-CD soundtrack for $50, the companion book for $50. For favored liberal filmmakers like Ken Burns, the prestige and national reach of the taxpayer-subsidized network is a very large golden goose,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.

“Has anyone asked PBS how Burns can debut his film on PBS on September 23 and release it on DVD October 2?”

Mr. Burns, who early on emphasized that his artistic “manipulation is done in the service of honorable ideas,” faced another war before the series aired. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and several advocacy groups took him to task for overlooking the contributions of 250,000 combat troops and 12 Medal of Honor winners of Hispanic descent. The filmmaker added an extra 28 minutes to the epic, which included personal stories of three veterans: two Hispanics and an American Indian.

No Hispanics — not to mention Filipinos or female troops — came forward to share their experiences, Mr. Burns later said.

“We could not have told the story of the Second World War if we had burdened ourselves with seeking every single group,” he said at the National Press Club in mid-September.

Partisan buzz hummed on talk radio, blogs and news channels. Conservatives shook their heads that Mr. Burns “caved” to special interests and put a pacifist spin on the film. Liberals condemned him for glorifying war in any form.

The series received multiple press reviews proclaiming it “magnificent” and “overwhelming,” even as the Public Broadcasting Service was taken to task by the Los Angeles Times for inflating its initial audience numbers from 7 million to 19 million — requiring the network’s ombudsman Michael Getler to parse the situation.

PBS, he said, should have been more “straightforward,” as the series was an “event that didn’t need to be hyped.”

At a veteran’s blog (www.armyairforces.com), “The War” inspired much discussion from those who lived through it, including some who complained that the series dwells too much on the European theater of operations, to a former 8th Air Force ball turret gunner who said the film is “more a sociological study with a strong anti-war undertone than an objective story of the war.”

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