Ken Burns on PBS Funding, Being a "Yellow-Dog Democrat," and Missing Walter Cronkite


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"In a perfect world," says legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, "we'd want government support [for the arts] and a lot more of it."

Burns' new PBS documentary, Prohibition, was made with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick and explores the causes, failures, and legacy of the nation's "Noble Experiment" in banning alcohol in the early 20th century. His previous works on topics such as the Civil War, baseball, and jazz were critical and commercial successes, helping to revitalize the documentary form and start rich conversations about race, history, and politics.

The Prohibition documentary will likely do the same. "There were all these factions, left and right, black and white, that were for [banning alcohol]…. It [is] too easy to dismiss it as purely a retrograde, conservative attempt back to some good old days that never existed. It was a much more complicated dynamic." Indeed, the documentary stresses the role of Progressive legislators in pushing the 18th Amendment.

"The telling of history need not be Castor Oil, the dry recitation of dates, facts, and events" says Burns, who rejects doctrinaire activism in his art despite calling himself a "Democrat for life."

Burns says the proliferation of cheap production and distribution technologies for creative expression is a cause for optimisim but worries about audience fragmentation. "When I grew up, there were four or five channels and people basically shared a common canon of knowledge….Now people can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge [which] is hugely dangerous."

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 one of the major funders of his current documentary, he says that in a non-public-television setting the company would have likely exerted editorial pressure on his product. Corporate money and commerical outlets even on niche cable channels come with too many strings and compromises attached, says Burns. He notes that highly praised documentarians such as Errol Morris "work a great deal of time doing commerical work on the side, which I don't have the time or the luxury or the talent to do."

This wide-ranging and sometimes-heated conversation is about 22 minutes long and was filmed by Jim Epstein, Anthony Fisher, and Meredith Bragg, who also edited the piece. Watch a discussion with Gillespie and Burns specifically about Prohibition here

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