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Image: David Hume Kennerly

Ken Burns: Student of History—or Left-Wing Gasbag?

By Arne Steinberg*

Executive Summary

Ken Burns is known as a PBS documentary creator, but he is actually a significant cog in the left-wing propaganda machine.

His taxpayer supported PBS documentaries are shown in public schools across the U.S., presented to students as unvarnished fact. But are they?

Burns claims he displays neutrality in his work, but in 2008 he produced the introductory video for Senator Ted Kennedy’s Democratic National Convention speech, described by Politico as presenting Kennedy “as the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port.” When Burns endorsed Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency he compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln.

LBJ Library photo by David Hume Kennerly

Burns sneers at the U.S., mentioning “our spurious sovereignty.” He omits the long racist history of Democrat politicians in his documentary “Congress,” not once identifying a pro-slavery congressman or senator as a Democrat. He omits the anti-abortion views of Susan B. Anthony in his feminism documentary since that did not fit the left-wing ideology he was pushing.

Burns’ productions are riddled with errors. His documentary about boxer Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” would be more fittingly titled “Unforgivable Lack of Familiarity with his Subject.” His “Baseball” series includes errors such as film of a player supposedly pitching in a World Series who did not play for either team.

In his June, 2016, Stanford University commencement speech attacking candidate Donald Trump, Burns hit all the obligatory left-wing mantras: “As a student of history, I recognize this type…the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber rattling.”

Ken Burns: Student of Historyor Left-Wing Gasbag?

“More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source,” commented the late historian Stephen Ambrose. 

“Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period,” said critic David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun. “That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.”

Burns’ taxpayer-supported PBS documentaries are heavily marketed in public schools across the U.S., presented to students as unvarnished fact. But exactly what kind of “history” is Burns handing out? A careful examination shows his work is both partisan and surprisingly careless with facts.

A Democrat Partisan

Ken Burns claims, “For nearly forty years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously maintained a conscious neutrality in my work.”

This “neutrality” includes the following: In 2008, the Democratic National Committee chose Burns to produce the introductory video for the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s Democratic National Convention speech, which, according to Politico, presented Kennedy as “the modern Ulysses bringing his party home to port.” When Kennedy died, Burns produced a eulogy video for his funeral.

When Burns endorsed Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency in December 2007, he compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln. In 2012, Burns wrote, “Like FDR, Obama has walked us back from the brink. He averted a depression, ended one war and put us on the path ending the other, rescued the auto industry…Obama has deployed the shrewd combination of speaking softly and using a big stick. Ask Bin Laden.”

In speeches, Burns sneers at the U.S., mentioning “our spurious sovereignty” and “all the distracting jingoistic talk of exceptionalism.”

Burns hammers at left-wing mantras in his documentaries, using standard and easily recognizable left-wing media techniques. He omits the long racist history of Democrat politicians in his documentary “Congress,” presenting the period just before the Civil War to the post-Reconstruction era without ever identifying a single pro-slavery congressman or senator as a Democrat. He omits the strong anti-abortion views of Susan B. Anthony in his suffrage movement documentary “Not For Ourselves Alone,” since that did not fit the left-wing ideology he was pushing.

When a white shooter killed black churchgoers in 2015, Burns said, “As most Americans were, I was stunned, shocked, reduced to tears by what had happened in Charleston and felt like all the old ghosts were all still present with all the force they’ve always had in American life.” But when a Muslim terrorist killed 50 gays in Orlando, Florida, in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Burns said of Donald Trump’s advocating a temporary halt to Muslim immigration to America: “Do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not.”

In an outright falsification, Burns, who is largely dependent on taxpayer-based funding from PBS for bankrolling his work, said he hoped that 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney “doesn’t get his way, and PBS isn’t eliminated.” However, in the real world Romney never suggested that PBS be eliminated; he merely urged ending its U.S. taxpayer support.

Burns hit all the obligatory left-wing mantras in his June 12, 2016 Stanford University commencement speech, attacking candidate Donald Trump: “As a student of history, I recognize this type…the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted…These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past…Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history.” 

Playing to the Black Lives Matter Crowd

Often accused of obsession with race, Burns has described himself as “a privileged white man,” and once said, “Like the amputated limb felt long after it has been cut off, I miss Trayvon Martin.”

“I’ve been dealing with the question of race in every subject,” Burns admitted in an interview, and told a National Endowment for the Humanities audience, “Race percolates close to the surface in nearly every project I’ve worked on.”

In his blatantly biased documentary “Central Park Five,” Burns acts as an apologist and promoter for those convicted of the gang rape and beating in the head with a brick of a woman jogger in Central Park, presenting them as “civil rights” heroes. The attack on Trisha Meili left her in a coma for 12 days with loss of 80 per cent of her blood from deep stab wounds. Her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye hung out of its socket. She was given last rites.

Image courtesy of The Peabody Awards

When she didn’t die, the five were sentenced, imprisoned and then eventually released. When Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and killer already serving a life term (Reyes had absolutely nothing to lose by confessing to the rape), suddenly “confessed” to being the jogger’s lone assailant, two doctors who helped save  the jogger’s life said her wounds were not consistent with his account of the attack, while one state investigator commented, “The word of a serial rapist killer is not something to be heavily relied upon.” 

But Democrat District Attorney Robert Morgenthau quickly went into action, blocking police from questioning Reyes or giving him a polygraph and ordering other inmates not to talk to any police investigators about their conversations with Reyes.

Despite strong objections from the original prosecutor, based on the doubtful new confession, Morgenthau had the New York Supreme Court vacate the convictions of “the Central Park Five,” even though in a legal oddity they never recanted their original confessions, nor did they present additional evidence contradicting the evidence that had gotten them convicted. The New York Times states that the five were “exonerated,” a false statement since they would have to stand trial and be declared not guilty in order to be exonerated. Instead their sentences were simply vacated.

In his heavily slanted “documentary,” Burns never used hours of interviews he filmed with state investigators and others who pointed to extensive evidence that the group was guilty. Burns said his purpose in making the video was to get the five men a financial settlement. According to New York writer Nicholas Stix, Burns “simply airbrushed every fact that incriminates the defendants out of the movie.”

Later, working in tandem with Burns’ campaign for the five, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio handed “the Central Park Five” over $40 million for “wrongful imprisonment.” At the time, businessman Donald Trump bought newspaper ads calling the settlement a “disgrace.” Today Burns’ heavily biased documentary is shown extensively in U.S. public schools, promoting “white guilt” in impressionable students, with PBS promoting it as “a revealing portrait of one of our nation’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.”

Ignoring the legal oddity that the assailants were never proved innocent, Ken Burns tweeted: “Apparently Mr. Trump is unfamiliar with the concept of wrongful conviction.”

“They should be very thankful I wasn’t mayor because they wouldn’t have gotten a dime,” Trump said.

Meanwhile Trisha Meili lives today, making occasional speeches on coping with head trauma.



 

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