On the Record Blog
Written on Monday September 24, 2012
By the age of eleven, Ken Burns already knew what he wanted to do for a living. His goal was to become a filmmaker. Now, almost 50 years later, Burns has achieved his boyhood dream, and then some.
Burns produced his first major film, The Brooklyn Bridge, in 1981. He earned the first of two Academy Award nominations for the story about the city where he was born. The Shakers followed in 1984, and in 1985, The Statue of Liberty. It also brought him national acclaim and an Oscar nomination.
Over the course of 30 years, Burns has established himself as one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of all time. In 2009, David Zurawik of "The Baltimore Sun" said:
Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period. 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 has made 21 documentaries, including the epics Baseball, The War, and The Civil War. His latest documentary, The Dust Bowl, will debut on PBS and OETA on November 18, 2012. In April, Burns came to Oklahoma to do advance screenings of The Dust Bowl, and while he was here, I had the opportunity to visit with him about his career and craft for the OETA series with outstanding journalism and media figures, On the Record.
Burns decided to do The Dust Bowl after reading the book, "The Worst Hard Time," by Timothy Egan. The book describes the devastation of the Dust Bowl by following half a dozen families trying to eke out a living on the hostile southern plains as dust storms choked their throats and drought parched their crops. The desperation of people in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado was only made worse by the era's other disaster, The Great Depression.
Burns was attracted to the Dust Bowl through Egan's book, and found that the period was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, and it did not have to happen. Burns and his Florentine Films production team gathered photographs and films from the Farm Security Administration and interviewed numerous survivors. While many people left the southern plains during the "Dirty Thirties," Burns found compelling survivor stories that helped him craft what is considered his most intimate oral history.
In Ken Burns On the Record, Ken told me about what he looks for in a topic and how he developed his story-telling style. We talked about his craft – how he weaves words, pictures and evocative music together to create a unique, emotional viewing experience. He not only creates a historical record, but encourages his viewers to see history in a different way, by making a human connection with the people who lived through the time.
It's that heroism, honesty and humanity that distinguish Ken Burns documentaries and have earned Ken dozens of awards and the status as one of the nation's leading historians. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said of Burns' films, "More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source."
During Ken Burns On the Record, Ken relates one of his favorite stories – that of a letter from a soldier in The Civil War. It's a great moment, and underscores why Washington Post critic Tom Shales called The Civil War "heroic television."
Ken also discusses why his documentaries are so important in today's fast-paced media worlds. And, he tells what he has learned about the American "character" and what defines Americans.
Ken Burns given his loving touch to diverse topics in programs including The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Prohibition, Jazz, and The West. He has featured American originals like Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jack Johnson, Lewis and Clark, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
Ken has several more productions in the Florentine Films pipeline. Upcoming projects include documentaries on the Central Park Jogger, The Roosevelts, Jackie Robinson, The Vietnam War, and Country Music.
Ken Burns On the Record debuts on September 23, 2012 at 9:30 p.m. on OETA.
Until next time,
Written on Wednesday March 7, 2012
He learned the lessons of a hardscrabble life in Hugo, Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Born into a working class family, he was raised by his mother and grandparents following his father's early death. He worked his way through college and divinity school, becoming an ordained Baptist minister. He served the poor through the Peace Corps. He went on to become editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, an advisor to the President of the United States and one of the most influential and decorated broadcast journalists in U.S. history. Known as an American who tells the truth, he is a champion for the common man, human dignity, fairness and American democracy. He has been married to the same woman, his professional partner, for 55 years.
In a paragraph, that is Bill Moyers. But, it hardly tells the story of this Oklahoma-born journalism icon. When I met Bill on October 26, 2011, we had less than an hour to get acquainted and tape On the Record, but within five minutes I felt an easy rapport with him. Starting with, "call me Bill," he did what the best communicators do – he asked questions, listened to the answers and showed empathy.
He asked me about my family and job and the show. He showed a sincere interest. Asking questions sometimes puts people off, but it gave us a few minutes to get a feel for each other, which is important in interviewing. It identifies how we form thoughts, how we talk and how we respond to questions. I had a chance to ask Bill about his early years in Hugo and how his parents and grandparents had influenced him even after his family moved across the Red River to Marshall, Texas. Through our "green room" conversation we established a comfortable familiarity. Clearly, Bill is a critical thinker, a communicator, and a person who likes people.
For those wondering, I found Bill to be approachable, very likeable, obviously caring, and a willing "giver." By "giver" I mean that he's the kind of person who is willing to give his time and talent to help others succeed. A "giver" provides strong, thoughtful answers in interviews, and makes others look good. In this case, I was the "other" whose program would depend on Bill's full-throated participation, responsive answers and thoughtful insight. He did not disappoint.
We talked about his new public television program, Moyers & Company, scheduled to debut in January, 2012. He told me it would be similar to the long-running Bill Moyers Journal, but with a greater emphasis on in-studio interviews due to a smaller budget. We talked about why he keeps returning to public television. Answer: He was in the Johnson administration when public television was created, and he's always been a believer in the kind of experiences and service that public broadcasting provides.
Moyers prefers "news of the mind" that employs evidence, not ideology, and he is not afraid to challenge viewers to think. He told me that a different funding approach could help avoid the political pressure that looms constantly over public broadcasting; pressure that leads to "safe" programming.
We discussed what has informed his journalism and how he reacts to personal attacks rendered against him. And, we talked about the state of journalism today, the lack of civility in public discourse and how "big media" influences the news and information we, as citizen-viewers, receive.
Now, I know Moyers has his detractors, people who don't approve of his style and his views. Some see political motives behind what he does and detect a "liberal" agenda; others see him as an indispensible force in our public square - a man who asks questions that are not easily answered, exposes his viewers to different ideas, and uses his intellect and experience to reach informed opinions. He has a large group of loyal fans. And, despite his great accomplishments and high profile, he maintains his common touch. Indeed, I think it is his basic humanity that fuels his optimism and regard for America...and Americans.
Having spent some time visiting with him, face to face, I see Bill Moyers as a man with a curious mind, who is not willing to accept conventional wisdom...or the status quo. He does what journalists are supposed to do: he questions, challenges and speaks truth to power. He produces programs that provide information and analysis relevant to all people, not just the majority or the privileged. He understands that professional journalists have an obligation to address issues affecting "under-served" audiences. He particularly relishes analysis of "corporate power" versus "people power."
His approach is not necessarily a formula for popularity. But, Bill knows that journalists are not players in a popularity contest. His speeches and writings clearly show that Bill takes journalism seriously and uses his programs to teach regular people about the policies and issues that affect their lives.
The over-arching goal of journalists is to seek the truth and hold people in power, including government officials, accountable. That may make some uncomfortable, but tension is to be expected in newsgathering and public discourse, and Bill is not afraid to jump into the middle of controversy. Moyers is able to poke and prod and peel back layers of issues and take guests to a personal place in order to achieve greater understanding, which he believes is essential in a robust, functioning democracy.
Moyers is passionate about journalism, the promise of America and our basic, shared humanity. While that can put him at odds with people who disagree with his worldview, his passion is what, in my opinion, drives his journalism. After a distinguished career in government and print journalism, he has produced high-quality television programs for more than 40 years – winning more than 30 Emmy Awards. Yet, he strikes me as a man who has not fallen victim to cynicism, but who thinks we will work better together when we understand each other better. Bill Moyers is committed to facilitating the personal growth that leads to greater understanding – what he calls "the conversation of democracy."
Moyers & Company can be seen Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. on OETA. The program repeats on Sundays at 5:00 a.m. on OETA and Sundays at 6:00 p.m. on OETA OKLA. Check OETA's program listings (http://main.oeta.tv/schedules.html) to find the next showing of Bill Moyers On the Record.
Written on Wednesday December 30, 2009
My 23 hours with Marvin Kalb began on October 28, 2009, over dinner at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City. With friends from FOI Oklahoma, Inc. and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation (underwriters of The Kalb Report), we talked about Oklahoma and Mr. Kalb's remarkable career in journalism. He told us about his days as a correspondent in the Soviet Union, CBS News, and his second career as a journalism professor.
He formed his words carefully and spoke with the authority that more than 30 years in broadcasting conveys. After a couple of hours we called it an evening, in part so the Bronx native could get to his room to catch the World Series game between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.