A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”

A picket outside the Television Academy.

Ken Burns, branded as “America’s Storyteller,” was shut out at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony on Sunday, September 9.  (The “primetime,” higher-profile Emmys were awarded later, on September 17.)  Burns’s latest project, the mammoth PBS series, “The Vietnam War,” was nominated for Emmys in four categories.  One by one, through the evening, all four prizes were awarded to other nominees.

It was a surprising conclusion to Burns’s quest for recognition, and canonization, of a project that cost $30 million dollars, and which spanned 10 evenings on PBS, totalling 18 hours of viewing time.  (Burns and his associates and PBS had already failed to receive a Peabody nomination in April.)

Burns’s “Vietnam” saga was co-produced and co-directed by Lynn Novick.  It premiered in September, 2017.  TV critics were almost unanimous in their fulsome approval.  

A sample, from the Washington Post: “Astounding and sobering. … I’ll go so far as to call it required viewing, before you watch anything else on TV … this fall season.”

From Salon: “All of it folds together into an immersive and wrenching creation….”  

And from CNN.com: “PBS has again provided Burns with a huge canvas, and he has responded by painting a masterpiece….”

The review-collection site Rotten Tomatoes gathered the appraisals of 43 reviewers  and calculated a 98% Approval Rating for the “Vietnam” series.

In addition to the critical acclaim, “The Vietnam War” attracted an impressive number of viewers, especially for a public television program.  PBS claimed an average audience of 6.7 million, across the ten nights of broadcast.  The premiere episode drew PBS’s largest viewership since the final episode of “Downton Abbey.”  34 million people watched at least some portion of the 18-hour documentary.

But, along with the critical acclaim and hefty audience numbers, there was some negative response around the margins of the mainline mass culture.  Online historical journals published essays which questioned the historical accuracy of Burns’s version of Vietnam era events.  Some commentators objected to Burns’s refusal to assess moral responsibility for the millions of Vietnamese casualties and the massive physical destruction caused by the American military.  

The organization Veterans for Peace (VFP) published personal responses to Burns’s series by a few of its members, some of them Vietnam veterans.  Unlike most of the U.S. veterans interviewed by Burns and Novick, these Vietnam veterans were highly critical of what their military had done to the people of Vietnam.  And they were highly critical of the historical innaccuracies and the lack of moral clarity they perceived in Burns’s filmmaking.

In Los Angeles, the organization Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) decided to take action to expose the half-truths, distortions and omissions they saw in “The Vietnam War.”  The group concluded that the best way to call attention to the failings of Burns’s series would be to challenge Burns and PBS’s campaign to win Emmy recognition for their series.

In 2013, ICUJP had allied itself with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) in an effort to call attention to the condoning of torture in the feature film “Zero Dark Thirty.”  (CounterPunch helped to raise public awareness of the torture theme in the film.)  ICUJP and NRCAT urged members of the Motion Picture Academy to consider the moral issue of torture when they voted for artists and films that year.  On February 24, 2013, the critically applauded “Zero Dark Thirty” failed to win a single Oscar outright.

In early 2018, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace reached out to Veterans for Peace and VFP quickly responded, particularly the VFP team which produces the webpage/blog Vietnam Full Disclosure (VFD).   VFP decided to create, and raise funds for, an advertisement to run on a full page of the weekly print version of the venerable show business trade paper, Variety.  The ad was scheduled to run in July, shortly after Emmy nominations were to be announced.

For its part, ICUJP took out an ad (co-signed by VFP) in June, in the Los Angeles Progressive, an online news-and-politics journal.  The ad began running before the 2-week voting period for the Emmys Nominations Round.

And both organizations worked to circulate the informed critiques which had already been published in academic and small political venues online.

Veterans for Peace and ICUJP wanted to reach the American public with their message about the grave shortcomings of “The Vietnam War.”  But they also wanted to reach the voting members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the body which confers the Emmy awards.  VFP and ICUJP knew that an Emmy gives credibility and honor — and marketing power — to television programs and their creators.  (Some of Burns and PBS’s investors had already provided a significant sum of money to distribute free copies of “The Vietnam War” to high schools across America.)

Six days before the voting in the Emmy Nominations Round began (June 11 through 25),  the Television Academy published its official bi-monthly magazine, emmy.  The issue contained a four-page article about Burns’s co-director Lynn Novick and the making of “The Vietnam War.”  The article reported favorably on the series, and could plausibly be seen as a free, four-page, “For Your Consideration” advertisement.  The Academy’s timing raised ethical questions.  No other documentary candidate for Emmys received such favorable publicity so close to the nominations voting period.  

But the emmy article was also an indication of the power of the Ken Burns “brand.”  Burns and Co. clearly benefitted from the article being published just before Emmy balloting.  But emmy magazine also gained stature from having such a prestigious subject as Burns’s close partner, Novick, sit for a friendly interview and discuss their series, which happened to be a leading candidate for Emmys.

The mainstream media and the show business trade papers refused to cover the political, academic and moral controversy building around Burns and his series.  The leading online trade journal is DeadlineHollywood.  ICUJP tried to take an ad on the site but was rejected, on the grounds that, “Deadline is a trade that focuses on celebrating entertainment and Management believes the tone of the message is negative for our environment.”  (Deadline has frequently covered negative events, like the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Leslie Moonves.)  ICUJP reached out repeatedly to the AwardsLine editor of Deadline, proposing various newsworthy storylines, but was consistently rebuffed.

There is a plausible motivation for the Deadline editor’s refusals.  On June 4, Deadline published an embedded advertisement for “The Vietnam War.”  (An “embedded” ad is one which is placed in the center of the screen, blending it in with news/editorial content.  The reader is encouraged to think of the ad as “news,” not the usual advertising, which runs along either side of the screen.)  The embedded ad for “The Vietnam War” consisted of two parts.  The first was a 4-minute, 45-second video of highlights from the series.  The second part was more interesting, from the perspective of journalistic ethics: it consisted of a written description/promotion — written, surprisingly, “by The Deadline Team.”

So the controversy around Burns & Company’s series, and the small, grassroots efforts to expose its defects never reached the center of American culture — no coverage in the NY Times, the LA Times, the show business trades; not even the larger online blogs, like the Huffington Post, Salon or Politico.

However, some members of the Television Academy may have been aware of the small ripples of dissent from the general political/cultural reverence for “The Vietnam War.”  Were some voters moved to join in that dissent?  Were others swayed, in favor of Burns and Novick, by the four-page favorable article in the Academy’s official magazine, and all the other respectful commentary?  It’s impossible to know what the members were thinking when they cast their ballots in the nominations round.

Nevertheless, the July 12 announcement of the nominees contained several surprises for those who were following the fate of Burns, his collaborators and their series.  Academy voters declined to give “The Vietnam War” their nominations in several important categories: 

(1) Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking 

(2) Outstanding Documentary Series 

(3) Narrator (Peter Coyote) 

(4) Music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) 

(5) Cinematography 

(6) Picture Editing.

The only nominations Burns and Co. did receive were Outstanding Directing (Burns and Lynn Novick); Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program (Geoffrey Ward), Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.

The nomination results could be interpreted as a rebuff to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and their collaborators, including Coyote, Reznor and Ross.  (Was Coyote penalized for being the voice of what many saw as Burns and Ward’s historical disinformation?) 

The Veterans for Peace ad came out in Variety on July 25, two weeks after the announcement of the Emmy nominations.  The ad was headlined, “Does the Burns/Novick Vietnam War Documentary Series Deserve an Emmy?”

(Meanwhile, the publishers of LA Progressive continued to run the ICUJP ad on the front page of their news site, free of charge, making an important ongoing contribution to the counter-campaign.)

Two articles by Veterans for Peace members were published on the website Common Dreams (May 31 and July 16).  Both articles questioned whether the “Vietnam” series was worthy of Emmys.  And both were republished on other internet websites.

ICUJP turned the Veterans for Peace full-page Variety ad into a letter-sized leaflet.  

On July 28, the Television Academy held its annual ceremony for the awarding of local, LA-area Emmys.  Access to the grounds of the Academy was severely restricted, but members of VFP and ICUJP stationed themselves at the two driveway entrances to the grounds, holding placards and passing out leaflets.

Subsequently, the VFP/Variety leaflet  was distributed in front of the theatres of the Writers’ Guild and the Directors’ Guild, during regular membership screenings at both venues.  The reverse side of the VFP leaflet bore a message from ICUJP, calling attention to Burns’s failure to take note, in his 18-hour saga, of the role of religious groups in opposing the Vietnam War.  

The History News Network, an online publishing site run by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, posted two articles which criticised “The Vietnam War,” in the context of Burns & Co.’s campaign for Emmys (August 10 and 19).  Those articles were widely shared on social media.  One, by an author and academic historian, was titled, “Emmy Voters: It’s time to brush up on your history.”  It provided a scholarly series of arguments criticising Burns’s version of Vietnam history.

The Final Round of Emmy balloting began on August 13.  Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace continued its weekend leafletting at the Directors’ Guild screenings until August 26, the day before the TV Academy’s online poll closed.

Thirteen days after voting ended, the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony began, in downtown LA’s Microsoft Theatre.  The ceremony was preceded by the Red Carpet walk along the street in front of the theatre.  It was followed by the Governors’ Ball.  In between, inside the auditorium, the nominees, their guests, and hundreds of other attendees sat through the announcements of the winners in more than forty separate categories, followed by the acceptance speeches of those winners.  Each time a winner was announced, four or five other nominees had to cope with the experience of losing.  At the end of the evening, Burns and his “Vietnam” comrades had nothing to show for their time.

And who were the winners in Burns’s categories?  The award for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program went, not to Burns and Novick, but to Brett Morgan, the director of the environmentally sensitive “Jane.”  And the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program was awarded, not to Geoffrey C. Ward for “The Vietnam War,” but, posthumously, to Anthony Bourdain for “Parts Unknown,” a series which fostered understanding of other cultures, like those of Vietnam, Palestine and Iran.  The awards for Sound Mixing and Editing were received, not by “The Vietnam War,” but by the sound crews on “Parts Unknown.”   

What meaning does Burns & Co.’s defeat have for the wider world?  Why did Veterans for Peace and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace struggle so persistently, and hope so fervently, for this outcome?

It seems fitting to quote briefly from VFP’s message in Variety:

[“The Vietnam War”] pays scant attention to the millions of civilian deaths in Southeast Asia, the devastation of the land, and the enduring impact of Agent Orange contamination and of unexploded ordnance (10% of the 7 million tons of bombs dropped never exploded), all caused mainly by the American military.

Instead of being honored for its accomplishments, the profound U.S. antiwar movement is belittled as self-interested and self-indulgent, with stress on its supposed deep antagonism toward American soldiers.

In this war-torn world, what is desperately needed and what Burns and Novick fail to convey is an honest rendering of that war to help the American people avoid yet more catastrophic wars. The Emmy Award is a powerful recognition of truth in art. Crowned with an Emmy, this defective history of the Vietnam era will become required viewing for generations of young Americans—a seductive, but false, interpretation of events.

And this excerpt from ICUJP’s statement on the leaflet they shared with Veterans for Peace:

Why does it matter that Ken Burns omits the narrative of religiously inspired opposition to the Vietnam War?  And why does it matter that Burns belittles and scorns the entire Vietnam-era peace movement, religious and non-religious?

It matters because the peace movement — now and in the future — is one of our best hopes of avoiding the next catastrophic war.  If Ken Burns, and his Pentagon collaborators, can discredit the peace movements of the past, it will be easier to discredit those of the future.

The first President Bush said it very well, after he launched a savage air war against Iraq in 1991.  Bush proclaimed: “It’s a proud day for America.  And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

Ken Burns wants Americans to forget the hard, but valuable, lessons of Vietnam.  

Activists for peace and justice can feel some relief that 18 hours of soft propaganda for the Pentagon and US foreign policy was not rewarded on that evening in the Microsoft Theatre.  

Ken Burns and his collaborators, on the other hand, could ask themselves whether, in taking on a subject as large and complex and catastrophic as the Vietnam War, whether it was wise to ally themselves with the Pentagon and its ideologues, and whether there wasn’t a downside to accepting money from David H. Koch and the Bank of America. 

A shorter version of this piece ran on LAProgressive.