Ken Burns Calls Foul on ESPN Michael Jordan Docu-series 'The Last Dance': 'Not The Way You Do Good Journalism'
Jordan's production company co-produced the series; Burns says that violates cardinal rules of documentary
ESPN's documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls has been a hit with viewers so far, but Ken Burns is not a fan.
The veteran filmmaker tells the Wall Street Journal he hasn't watched The Last Dance, but considers it fundamentally flawed because Jordan's production company, Jump 23, is among the producers of the series.
"I find it the opposite direction of where we need to be going,” Burns told the Journal, adding he would "never, never, never, never” consent to an arrangement where the subject of a documentary had a role in the production.
It's certainly not the way you do good history.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns explained. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism ... and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
Burns' comments came in the context of a Journal "What to Watch" feature that highlighted Baseball, the director's own sports-related docu-series that was originally released in 1994. The article noted PBS has made the Burns series available to viewers to stream for free through PBS.org and the PBS Video app.
In his WSJ interview, Burns noted one of the salient features of life during the coronavirus pandemic "is the absence of sport and the absence of that abstract, ritualized warfare that feels so good." The start of the baseball season has been delayed indefinitely and NBA competition was brought to a halt in the middle of the season.
ESPN, recognizing the deficit of entertainment for sports fans, moved up the premiere of The Last Dance. The 10-part series, directed by Jason Hehir, was supposed to debut in June, but the network switched the premiere to April 19 after the pandemic emptied the airwaves of live sporting events. The decision has paid off with handsome ratings.
"The opening two episodes... snared an average of 6.1 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 in its primetime premiere," Deadline.com reported Monday. "The Last Dance drew a total of 5.9 million viewers across its third and fourth episodes Sunday, only a slight downtick from its premiere episodes last week."
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.