There Needs to be a Ken Burns Documentary About…Ken Burns?

Vern Scott
7 min readJan 9


…I get it, the Ken Burns/PBS Orthodoxy has grown into a giant franchise on the order of Walt Disney, together creating their own adjectives such as “Burnsian” and “Disneyfied”. But in the wake of the Burns-treatment, there is some sanctimonious fallout and distortion of truth. If you asked Ken Burns himself, he’d probably say “Whatever, why don’t you make your own documentary”, so I’m now asking for an impartial “60 Minutes” treatment on Burns to set the record straight. 100 years from now, will there be a documentary about Ken Burns stating “Though he tried to tell the story of the true America beginning in the 1980s, he ended up accidentally amplifying the “Lost Cause” movement* while guilt-shaming America into submission to Chinese Totalitarianism”?

The Ken Burnsian orthodoxy has served us well in teaching “true” American history (and funding many a PBS telethon). But is it time to investigate the perceptional bias of…(gasp) Ken Burns?

Naturally, Ken Burns deserves historic credit for mostly telling the story of America through the eyes of African Americans and other rather disenfranchised elements, who don’t get enough credit for building America. Since African-Americans are front and center in an integration experiment that is essentially the first of its kind in the history of the world (humanity previous to us basically said “you’re different…get lost!”), this story needs to be told. In fact, if Burn’s domain is only America, some Burnsian-clones need to be provided to tell the story of the world at large. A few candidates might be Jared Diamond (“Guns, Germs, and Steel”) and Yuval Harari (“Sapiens”) who are more Anthropologists, more blunt, and probably not interested in making movies that run right after some cute kid shows. Meanwhile, in the PBS Universe you’d swear the only people that existed were American Jews, Blacks, Suffragettes, and non-threatening gender-uncertain furry-puppets. I get that these stories need to be told and perhaps can only be on a public channel (our BBC), but I’m just looking for some balance and truth here! So stay with me, here is my hypothetical “Ken Burns Examines Ken Burns” treatment:

AFRICAN AMERICANS: Ken Burns is right to point out that African Americans, though perhaps 12% of our population, are about 30% of our cultural product (and about 90% of Jazz, Basketball, and “Cool”). They are even maybe 30% of the Democratic Party (Maybe 80% of what controls the Electoral College in Swing States?) and quite an interesting story as the leading element of the American integration experiment (especially since they largely started out as slaves).

WHAT KEN BURNS ISN’T SAYING: Native Americans had it much worse than African Americans, inasmuch as most didn’t survive the transition into our nationhood. Native Americans may have even contributed as much to the American cultural product, but its hard to tell as they’ve been ripped off so mercilessly (for every time the Rolling Stones ripped off Muddy Waters or Blacks didn’t get to play baseball, American Colonials ripped off corn, beans, moccasins, and ambushing five-fold). The only Burns treatment of Native Americans may have been in “The West”, as pathetic minor actors. Maybe the reason Native Americans don’t always make for a good documentary is that truth be told, as much as you want to feel sorry for them, they also did some really mean things. Perhaps the African-American story is better box-office, but some balance is in order. Granted, it would take guts for Ken Burns to make a follow-up such as “The History of Senseless African American Riot Pillage”. As an aside, Burns probably never considered making “The Struggle of Anglo-Saxon Colonial America”, since we are the de facto oppressors, but then books like “The 11 Nations of the United States” rightly point out the triumph of New England middle-class Democracy over Southern Cavalier oppression, surely a good “Civil War” follow-up. After all, without Puritan abolitionists and their struggles, there may never have been Civil Rights in the first place. Then, to knock Puritans off their too-lofty perch, he could do “HL Mencken on Puritanism: The Haunting Fear that Someone, Somewhere, Might be Happy”.

Puritans-Yes they may have been humorless and not fun, yet they generally eschewed slavery/welcomed Jews, got killed in Indian raids, gave many lives in the Revolution and Civil War to gain freedom and free slaves, now forming much of Democratic Party. Don’t look for a Ken Burns or PBS documentary on them anytime soon.

JEWS AND THE HOLOCAUST: Having just watched “The U.S. and the Holocaust”, we are reminded of the horrific actions of Nazi Germany and the in-hindsight shameful acts of some Americans to deny entry to Jewish refugees. Burns does a good job of showing the insidious elements of 30s America that claimed to be “Nationalist”, but were outright racists (among them Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” committee, Catholic leader Charles Coughlin, FDR Secretary of State Breckenridge Long) in a sort of parallel to what’s happening today with Trump-Carlson-Bannon-Alito etc?

WHAT KEN BURNS ISN’T SAYING: More American hand-wringing and guilt-tripping, but what was Roosevelt to do? He was facing a historic recession and not in a position to take on job-stealing immigrants, and he did ultimately, um, win the war against the Nazis (at great cost). He also had to observe the sovereignty of European nations, (to a point), according to international rules, and most atrocities happened in a short time (Burns says 22 months), much without FDR’s knowledge. That America took on so many European Jews in the early 1900s may also be counted as a “preventative”. That about 40% of the world’s 13 million Jews now live in the US (almost as many as Israel), also speaks to an overall friendliness to Jewish refugees. Its sad though, that Israel couldn’t have been created sooner (not discussed in the documentary), or that the Allies didn’t take Hitler up on his idea to relocate Jewish refugees to Madagascar, where they may have received charitable international support (and not starved to death, as Hitler wished). Foreign oppression is rather vast, and I don’t suppose we’d fit all (about 2.6 billion people) in our Country?

Margaret Sanger…warm and fuzzy Suffragette or cold-blooded eugenicist?

SUFFRAGETTES AND EUGENICS: The official line of PBS and Ken Burns is “Feminism and Birth Control Good, Eugenics BAD” as Burns dutifully made “Not for Ourselves Alone” about early Suffragettes and PBS ran the interesting Margaret Sanger documentary “The Roots of the Pill”. Meanwhile, both regularly chronicle the evils of Nazi eugenics in several Burns/PBS documentaries. PBS even gets kudos for pointing out that Margaret Sanger was a kind of amateur eugenicist (her partial motivation for advocating birth control). Sanger comes across much better as a PBS “champion of American free will” than “table-setter for Auschwitz”.

WHAT KEN BURNS ISN’T SAYING: Fair enough, the invention of birth control and the pill were game-changing liberators of a sizeable portion of Americans (and others). But then came abortion (for when the pill didn’t work) and with it a kind of miniature eugenics movement that no one talks about. Don’t look for a Burns/PBS documentary “American Abortion: The Rest of the Eugenics Story” anytime soon. For the record, I take the libertarian position that folks should do what they think is right with their fetuses before, let’s say, 13 weeks, and after that is maybe borderline “eugenics” and BAD? Some consistency is in order here.

PETER COYOTE: Ken Burns has perhaps overused the voice of Peter Coyote, who has become a rival to legendary “NFL Films Voice of God” John Facenda (you know, “Lombardi’s troops stormed onto the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” etc) and James Earl “Luuuuke…I am your faaa-therrr” Jones.

Peter Coyote shows up on your TV set almost as much as Wile E. Coyote?

WHAT COYOTE AND BURNS AREN’T SAYING: I actually read Peter Coyote’s autobiography. He may be the luckiest person alive, as he is sort of an overblown ex-hippie who survived all the drugs/STDs/police skirmishes and happens to have a good voice. He comes across kind of faux-modest in his book, where he claims to have invented everything in the 60s, including street theater, communes, protests, and even the Black Panthers (?) He also did too many drugs and fathered several children out of wedlock as a naked libertine, following up with some mediocre bad-guy roles in films like “ET” (so every time I hear him, it conjures up nails on chalkboard images of a sort-of dayglow Howard Cosell)

MORE KEN BURNS/PBS DOCUMENTARIES YOU’LL PROBABLY NEVER SEE: Ken Burns and others are beholden to market forces (mostly what PBS can sell back to wealthy guilt-ridden white American liberals who fall for their ubiquitous telethons). Consequently, there are relevant titles that Burns may want to produce, but may never see the light of public-access day:

1) “Germs in America: The Untold Story of our Bacteria and Fungi”

2) “The Value of Puritan Shaming in America: How Yankee Guilt has kept Cavalier Shamelessness at Bay for over 200 Years”

3) “Wait…Why Does PBS Never Talk About the Armenian, Rwandan, Bosnian & Cambodian Genocides and THEIR Effects on Immigration?”

4) “Um, Maybe Some American Jews Really Were Soviet-abetting Communists in the 50s, Starting with the Rosenbergs?”

5) “How Indigenous Native Americans Survived in Misery Under the Spanish, While Most Under the British and Dutch (Here and on Islands and in Africa) Died Miserable Deaths Related to Cheap Booze, Guns, and Infected Blankets or Had Their Lands Stolen: The Real Story”

6) “Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Were Really Systematic and Cool Cultural Warriors, But Now Bratty Gangsta-Idiot Rappers & NBA Gazillionaires Like Kanye West and Kyrie Irving Threaten to Undo All That Progress and Defund PBS: An American Tragedy”



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health