Nick Gillespie and Ken Burns Talk Prohibition, Pot, and PBS


“Slavery was our worst idea,” says legendary documentarian Ken Burns. “I’m not sure that Prohibition was second, but it’s really up there.” In his five-and-a-half-hour film Prohibition, which aired in three parts on PBS in October, Burns takes an in-depth look at one of the most controversial episodes in U.S. history. Working with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick, Burns explores the causes, failures, and legacy of the nation’s “Noble Experiment” in banning alcohol.

Despite the immense popular appeal of his work, Burns is no fan of “the market” when it comes to making films. While Bank of America is a major funder of Prohibition, he says that in a commercial television setting the company probably would have exerted editorial pressure on the finished product. And he worries that the proliferation of cheap production and distribution technologies, while a cause for optimism, leads to audience fragmentation. “People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.” Eitor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Burns in New York City to discuss all this and more.