Longtime GBH-TV host Emily Rooney apologized Friday for on-air comments she made in response to concerns raised by filmmakers of color about PBS’s decades-long relationship with documentarian Ken Burns.
On the April 2 episode of GBH show “Beat the Press,” Rooney appeared to minimize the complaints of a group called Beyond Inclusion, which last month released a letter critical of PBS’s ties to Burns and its effect on nonwhite filmmakers.
Rooney characterized Beyond Inclusion’s grievances, which were sent to PBS President Paula Kerger and posted on the group’s website, as “resentment that a white guy is getting all this time.” She went on to say “there’s a possibility” that the PBS series “Asian Americans,” whose director, Grace Lee, signed the letter, “wasn’t as good as some of Ken Burns’s films.”
Rooney’s taped apology, broadcast during Friday’s episode of “Beat the Press,” came after a group calling itself Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast sent GBH executives a letter this week protesting what it called Rooney’s “demeaning and racist commentary” on the April 2 show.
In her statement, Rooney, who’s worked at GBH since 1997, said “in an attempt to defend PBS and Ken Burns, I suggested that perhaps some of the other documentaries, like the “Asian Americans” series, weren’t as good as Burns, and that could be the reason they did not get more air time.”
After hearing from viewers, Rooney said, she “now understands my comments were uninformed, dismissive, and disrespectful. While my intention was to offer further balance to the discussion, my comments did not accomplish that, and instead I crossed a line.
“I want to sincerely apologize for my offensive remarks,” she said in conclusion.
Separately, Pamela Johnston, GBH’s general manager for news, issued a statement saying Rooney’s comments “did not meet GBH’s standards for opinion journalism, or our commitment to being an anti-racist organization that respects all people.”
For 40 years, PBS has been a generous benefactor of Burns, a two-time Oscar nominee, airing over 200 hours of his work, including such celebrated documentaries as “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Vietnam War,” “Country Music” and the new, six-hour “Hemingway” series.
But some have complained that the network’s continued investment in Burns has come at the expense of deserving, nonwhite filmmakers. Writing last fall in Current, Lee, director of the “Asian Americans” series, said the “decades-long interdependence of PBS decision-makers, philanthropists, and corporate funders with one white, male filmmaker highlights the racial and cultural inequities perpetuated by this system.”
Lee noted that she had five hours to tell 150 years of history, while Burns had 13 hours for his series “The Roosevelts.”
In Beyond Inclusion’s March 29 letter to PBS boss Kerger — and signed by more than 300 film and TV professionals, including Oscar-nominated director Garrett Bradley, Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras, and MacArthur Fellow Stanley Nelson — the group characterized the network’s “over-reliance” on Burns as “uninvestigated privilege,” calling it “troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans.”
“How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity?” the group wrote. “Your commitment to diversity at PBS is not borne out by the evidence.”
PBS has responded to the filmmakers, issuing a statement that, in part, says, “we use our national platform to amplify a broad array of perspectives shared by diverse storytellers. This year alone, we are airing more than 200 prime-time hours of documentaries, and 55% of those hours feature (black, Indigenous and people of color) talent, are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Of the 200 hours, 35% are produced by diverse filmmakers.”
The broadcaster went on to acknowledge that, “We recognize that there is more to be done, and we welcome ongoing dialogue on this critically important issue.”
GBH CEO Jon Abbott echoed that point, adding the station has taken many steps to diversify its staff, contributors and programming.
“As a public media producer we feel a special responsibility to advancing understanding, tolerance and justice, in the work we create, and also in how we do the work,” Abbott said.
Among those who agree with Beyond Inclusion is Callie Crossley, host of the GBH show “Basic Black” and a panelist on “Beat the Press.” On the April 2 episode, she and Rooney had a tense exchange over the letter.
“It’s about how much space [Burns] has,” Crossley said.
“No, it’s resentment that a white guy is getting all this time,” Rooney said.
“It’s about how much space he has,” Crossley replied tersely. “I’m telling you what it’s about.”
In their letter this week to GBH executives voicing concern about Rooney’s comments, the Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast asked not only that Rooney apologize publicly, but that GBH devote an episode of “Beat the Press” to the issues raised by Beyond Inclusion and include filmmakers of color, with Crossley as guest host.
It was signed by 21 filmmakers from around New England and upstate New York, many of whom have produced for GBH.
“It has long been true that structural barriers give continued access to certain privileged groups and individuals, while hundreds of highly qualified, accomplished non-fiction filmmakers struggle to sustain their careers,” the letter states.
The group pushed back on some of Rooney’s comments, including her statement that Burns “had 200 hours (of programming), but that averages out to five hours a year, over 40 years.”
“Anyone with any knowledge of independent film knows that five hours a year is a monopoly,” the letter states.
On Friday, several of the filmmakers said they were pleased to see Rooney’s apology but hope the situation leads to deeper systemic change in public media.
“This is not a one-off, this is a very public-facing kind of example of the larger problem that we are talking about,’ said Kavita Pillay, a director and producer from Cambridge.
The focus is too often on a star who does something wrong and is then reprimanded, but the deeper problems remain, she said.
“The star is saying these things and doing these things because they’ve been allowed to, because there is a culture that allows it,” Pillay said.
The pace of change at any large institution can be glacial, said Sara Archambault, a producer from Providence, “but we are in a moment where they need to be responsive to the community they serve. Our hope is that the apology is the beginning of a deeper conversation and some real change.”
During an appearance earlier this month on the CBS News podcast “Facing Forward,” Burns said he’s aware of the concerns raised by Beyond Inclusion, and he’s sympathetic.
“I don’t take it personally. In fact, I wholeheartedly support the need to invest in filmmakers of color and to increase the diversity and inclusion in PBS,” Burns said. “PBS already does it better than any other place, but we have room to improve … PBS is committed to working on and having a real conversation and not just a, you know, a Band-Aid approach.”
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.