Ken Burns His Film to Save It

        In 2005, when the Bush Administration pressured the Public Broadcasting System into dropping an episode of a children’s show with a sympathetic view of a gay family, liberals rightly yelled censorship, decrying the Administration’s bullying and PBS’s failure to resist it.  This month, when the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pressured Ken Burns into “amending” his upcoming PBS documentary on World War 11 to include interviews with Latino veterans, many liberals barely seemed to notice.

        Burns’s troubles started when University of Texas journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriquez, who directs a Latino oral history project, noticed that his new documentary did not acknowledge the war effort of Latinos.  Protests by Latino groups and boycott threats followed.  The Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility lobbied Burns’s corporate sponsors, General Motors and Anheuser-Busch, threatening them with reprisals if they did not withdraw support.  “They should not be associated with this documentary,” Association chair Manuel Mirabal remarked.  “If they plan to do so, to put it bluntly, they will not be held harmless.”
        If Mirabal’s approach is unapologetically thuggish, at least he can claim to be exercising his own First Amendment rights as a private citizen.  While consumer boycotts can pose de facto threats to a diverse and lively marketplace and rightly concern free speech advocates, at least they don’t pose threats under color of law.  The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, however, has no equivalent right to blackmail PBS or its sponsors.  It has government power, which it boldly abused in this case.
        Members of the caucus also threatened Burns’s sponsors.  After meeting with General Motors, Anheuser Busch, and Bank of America, caucus chair Joe Baca (who had not seen the film) declared to the New York Times, “We will not settle for separate but equal treatment in this documentary.”  (Burns had offered to include stories about Latinos in supplemental material to his film.)  Congressman Baca reported that caucus members told the sponsors “We just hate to see what happened with national boycotts in the past.”
        This unveiled threat apparently worked.  At first, according to the Times, public broadcasting officials issued a statement that “reminded Congress of the editorial independence that was guaranteed in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.”  Ken Burns vowed that he would not re-edit the documentary: “It would be destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child.  It would destroy the film.”
        A few days later Burns caved, understandably.  Perhaps he decided that it was better to destroy his child than deprive it of corporate sponsors and undermine Congressional support for PBS.  He promised to amend the film.   In a news release jointly issued with two Hispanic groups Burns stiffly said, “The role of Hispanic Americans veterans in WWII is one that lends itself to the universality of this film and merits being included in my film.”
        Like Joe Baca, I have not seen the documentary, but, unlike Baca, I have no opinion on the merits of the dispute about it.  I would not discourage any interest group from complaining about its contents or even personally lobbying Burns and PBS to make changes, although I would encourage them to use reason instead of threats.  As ACLU policy on private pressure groups states, “The right of protest is an essential element of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression and is entitled to legal protection whether engaged in by an individual or an organized group …”  

        But, as this policy also notes, “private pressure group activities” are “inimical to civil liberties” when they effectively “restrict a free and diverse marketplace of ideas.” In these cases, the ACLU should object, the policy suggests.  Still, the organization has been quiet about the threats posed to a “free and diverse marketplace” by the pressuring of Don Imus’s corporate sponsors, resulting in his firing, or the rash of firings and suspensions of other radio show hosts that have followed, or the threatened boycotts in the Burns case.   (The National Coalition Against Censorship, however, has objected, explaining "what the chocolate Jesus and Don Imus have in common" and what “we lose when we suspend free speech principles for expression considered by many as beyond the pale.”)

        Reasonable civil libertarians will differ about the threats posed by different private pressure groups and different tactics.  But none should hesitate to condemn government officials who join private groups in protesting speech they don’t like and extorting its amendment.  ACLU policy accepts as a given that the ACLU will “of course challenge any complicity by government in anti-civil liberties activities of private pressure groups.”  If the ACLU is going to challenge the strong-arming of PBS and Ken Burns by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, now would be a good time to do so.

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