In sharply-worded essay, Lee writes PBS has marketed Burns as "'America's storyteller,' as if there were only room for one"
For at least 30 years PBS has become synonymous with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a relationship that has brought valuable programming to the public broadcaster and steady work to the director.
Producer-director Grace Lee says it's time for PBS to reexamine that partnership and to reckon with whether it has come at the expense of opportunities for filmmakers of color.
"The amount of broadcast hours, financial support (from viewers like who?), and marketing muscle devoted to one man’s lens on America has severed PBS from its very roots," Lee charged in an essay written for a Ford Foundation series of commentaries called Creative Futures. Lee urged the network to "Fund seasoned BIPOC filmmakers at the same level that PBS has supported Ken Burns for the past 40 years."
Every tentpole series from American Masters to Frontline to Independent Lens has been led by white decision-makers since inception.
Lee began her 556-word essay by writing pointedly, "Documentary series like The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and The Vietnam War have led PBS to market him as 'America’s storyteller,' as if there were only room for one."
She suggested that tight embrace of Burns has led PBS to stray from its original mission.
"In 1967, amid widespread civil unrest, PBS was created by an Act of Congress 'to expand and develop a diversity of programming dependent on freedom, imagination and initiative on both local and national levels,'” Lee wrote. "Fifty-three years later, as we undergo another societal breakdown and racial reckoning, how much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?"
Lee's critique is particularly eye-opening because, as she noted in her essay, "I largely owe my own documentary career to PBS."
"In 2020, I was a producer on Asian Americans, a groundbreaking series for which we had five hours to tell 150 years of history spanning from the Chinese who built the railroads to South Asians targeted after 9/11," Lee commented. "Compare this to 16 hours of Country Music, which also aired in 2020, or 13 hours of the Roosevelts—both by Ken Burns. His 2021 slate includes four hours each on Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin, and the American Buffalo. When bison merit 80% of the airtime afforded to Asian American history, it calls into question not only the leadership of public television but also who gets to tell these stories, and why."
In her piece, Lee asked what remedies are needed to address the issue raised in her commentary. She answered that PBS should begin by examining its hiring decisions.
"Ensure that public television board rooms, executives, local stations, and filmmakers reflect the diversity of America," Lee insisted. "Every tentpole series from American Masters to Frontline to Independent Lens has been led by white decision-makers since inception. What would these series look like with BIPOC at the helm?"
Lee also urged, "Re-assert that PBS is not beholden to one audience for its viewership and revenues. Limiting Black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American content to token one-offs and heritage months sustains the myth that our stories are something other than part of the American experience. It’s time for a new canon and new investment in audiences who can be a financial engine for PBS."
Nonfictionfilm.com has reached out to Ken Burns and to PBS for reaction to Lee's essay. We will update this space if we hear from either party.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.