Fault Lines Chapter X

Send by emailChapter 10a: What's Hot -- Ken Burns and 'The War'

A  Fault Lines workshop for the Maynard Institute's Editing Program, focused on two 'hot' issues:

-     The controversy over the Ken Burns documentary about World War II.
-     The presidential candidacies of U.S. senators Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Jean Marie Brown, a managing editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and also a Fault Lines trainer, led the session. Here's her setup for the Ken Burns discussion:

Officials with PBS announced they had brokered a deal with famed documentary-maker Ken Burns that runs through 2022 and includes three major documentaries.

The deal was announced as PBS touted Burns' latest effort, 'The War,' a seven-part series that chronicles World War II through the stories of whites, blacks and Japanese Americans in four communities around the nation.

By all accounts, Burns and PBS were expecting his latest effort to be met with applause and cheers, which it was. What they weren't expecting were brickbats and protests from Hispanics.

Hispanics complained that by not including their story Burns had produced a flawed telling of the war. They demanded that the show be amended. Initially, Burns refused to make any changes to 'The War.' After months of protest, he agreed to incorporate Hispanics into the program.

Brown asked the Editing Program participants:

-    Which Fault Lines tripped Ken Burns up?
-    How did the mainstream media do with this story early on?

'They understood that the mainstream media missed it coming out of the chute,' Brown said. 'They understood that the Hispanic press understood it from the outset, but the mainstream missed it and that PBS seemed to think it would go away.'

So, what Fault Lines did Burns miss?

A news release from PBS stated, in part, 'This epic 14-hour film focuses on the stories of citizens from four geographically distributed American towns - Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and the tiny farming town of Luverne, Minnesota.

'These four communities stand in for - and could represent - any town in the United States that went through the war's four devastating years. Individuals from each community take the viewer through their own personal and quite often harrowing journeys into war, painting vivid portraits of how the war dramatically altered their lives and those of their neighbors, as well as the country they helped to save for generations to come.'

It is not uncommon to tell the story of the many through the few, to look for so-called universal experiences. The documentary includes the experiences not only of whites but also of Japanese Americans, African Americans, and people of various ethnicities.

On the face of it, Burns hit all the Fault Lines.

But by excluding the Southwest, he left out a significant geographical segment - communities that sent large numbers of Hispanic residents to fight the war. When these servicemen returned, many were treated as second-class citizens and as targets of discrimination. To address their grievances, a Mexican American physician and World War II veteran, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, organized the American GI Forum, a civil rights group, in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1948.

Some history: The GI Forum gained national attention in 1949, when the remains of Army Pvt. Felix Longoria were returned from the Philippines to his hometown, Three Rivers, Texas. The funeral home director there refused to allow Longoria's wake to be held in the funeral home chapel, because, he said, 'the whites would not stand for it.' He offered to bury Longoria in the segregated Mexican cemetery, separated from the 'white' cemetery by barbed wire.

Dr. Garcia of the GI Forum contacted the funeral home director, but was rebuffed. Next, Garcia contacted U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson about the matter, and Johnson arranged for Longoria to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. It was a national story. (Garcia continued his civil rights work while also practicing medicine. In 1984, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Ronald Reagan. Garcia died in 1996 at age 82.)

The original content of the Burns documentary prompted a debate about artistic freedom. One pundit wrote that Hispanics have more pressing issues to worry about-such as immigration reform, equal employment opportunity, education and health care, than something that happened 60 years ago.

We have a Fault Lines issue here. Is the columnist confusing ethnicity and class? And what about generation? And patriotic pride of Hispanic Americans?

History shows the impact of World War II, in which an estimated 750,000 Hispanics served, on the civil rights movement. A good source is the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project, spearheaded by Prof. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez at the University of Texas in Austin, who was an early critic of the Burns documentary's omission of Hispanics. Since 1999, the project has collected more than 500 interviews nationwide.

Chapter 10b:  What's Hot? Hillary, Obama, Duke University case

The Editing Program group also examined the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which have been framed mostly in the context of gender and race.

Brown pointed out that two-thirds of the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency are in the 10 states that have the highest number of residents who identify themselves as multiracial.

'When you talk about generation, the question comes up, 'Is Obama black enough; is he white enough?'  Brown said. 'The older generation of blacks such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have questioned his credentials as a black man. But some of their white peers have these (mixed-race) grandkids. Perhaps they see the possibility of a grandchild becoming president and Obama becomes more palatable.

'You go down on the generational scale, and in the '35 and under' generation there are a great many people who Obama looks like. And while his upbringing does not match his generation's upbringing, it does match that (younger) generation. So it is just kind of looking at things and breaking it down.

'Same with Hillary Clinton. Women under 35 may not know what the Equal Rights Amendment was, much less have a grasp of the feminist movement, which is what propelled Hillary. They may not feel same kinship or urge to have a woman president.'

(On the other hand, results of a New York Times/CBS News Poll showed not much difference in favorable attitudes about Hillary Clinton between generations of women, with 47 percent of women age 45 and younger expressing a favorable opinion of Clinton compared with 46 percent of women age 45-64 -- which includes the baby boom generation. The percentage of women with a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, however, drops to 40 percent for women 65 and older. The poll was based on nationwide telephone interviews with 1,554 adults from July 9-17, 2007.)

The Editing Program group also applied Fault Lines to an example of their own: the Duke University case, in which charges eventually were dropped against three white lacrosse players indicted for the rape of a black exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party.

The discussion focused on how the national media initially framed this story.

'We talked about race and class, and about how Fault Lines can be frozen and not talked about from a relevant standpoint,' Brown said. 'The Duke story was framed as a historical Southern problem of white males exploiting black females. But these guys (the lacrosse players) were not from the South. Saying they were behaving in a Southern way did not jibe.

'You can stereotype your Fault Lines, but you need to move away from stereotypes.'