Grace Lee on diversity and PBS
A talk with the filmmaker about her critique, PBS' response and BIPOC representation in public media
Public television is an enigma in the public media ecosystem. It receives nearly 70 percent of CPB’s annual funding. Yet PBS’ flagship programming has a relatively tiny audience. Similarly, as DEI became the industry defining narrative, public TV seemed lost. Look closely. Public radio and NPR have seen movements for diversity in newsrooms and content. NPR’s John Lansing and others in leadership have openly acknowledged the need for change. In contrast, PBS has at points aggressively denied any role. Although it reversed course later, the damage was done.
In other media spaces, such responses would be seen as a green light for cancellation. Why not here? In part, because public television’s presence in American culture (for those who care about it, at least) remains notable. As the nation’s television of record, what it does matters for future generations.
Grace Lee is a Peabody award-winning filmmaker. She most recently directed and produced programming broadcast on PBS. Other film credits include American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (POV); Makers: Women in Politics (PBS); and K-Town ’92 Reporters (World). Her 2020 critique of Ken Burns and PBS sparked a new movement for diversity and public TV. Lee has since stepped away from film to become an advocate for more equitable work in public media. She's today a co-founder of Beyond Inclusion and host of the Viewers Like Us podcast.
For OIGO, we get into her activism and why everyone should be more involved in addressing public television’s future. 👇🏽👇🏽👇🏽
How did your life influence this path you are on?
I grew up as the daughter of Korean immigrants in central Missouri in the ‘80s. Like any kid, I tried to fit in with the mainstream, but was also acutely aware of how I was different. And being different wasn’t a bad thing. I had a lot of curiosity about the world and different perspectives and cultures, mostly because I didn’t see a lot of what I was used to at home reflected at me through classes or media. That’s probably what motivated me to seek out journalism in high school and then eventually study history and then work in film. I make a lot of different kinds of work, but my interest in historical documentaries and non-fiction in general probably stems from wanting to make work I wish I had seen growing up, be that about Asian American history, women, immigrants, and how richly diverse this country is.
For me, it speaks as well to the Latino experience. How has that journey been for you?
I went from being surrounded by mostly white Midwesterners to moving to Korea after college where I was confronted with my family history and heritage and where I was, for the first time, not a minority. Those experiences shaped the kinds of stories I was interested in, filling gaps of knowledge. For example, while living in Korea after college, I worked on a short piece about prostitution around American military bases near the DMZ. I wanted to use storytelling to fill in the gaps of the history I hadn’t learned in school. It also pushed me to explore more intersectional stories and communities when it comes to looking at America. “Asian America” -- like the “Latino experience” encompasses an incredible diversity and complexity. Using filmmaking to understand the commonalities and distinct differences has been an incredibly rewarding effort.
Let's talk about the movement around representation and documentaries. Why do you think that means so much?
One of the things I've thought about a lot is people don't read books anymore. And they get so much of their knowledge and information through film, whether it's feature films or documentaries. It’s a powerful tool, because it's not just text. It's visual, it's audio. And, as a storyteller, you have all kinds of tools at your disposal to tell the story in compelling ways. These films reflect who we are back to ourselves. And that's why this conversation about who gets to tell the story, through whose lens, is so important. If the same lens keeps telling us who we are, how will be able to experience a diversity of perspectives and appreciate that diversity?
What do you feel public media organizations should be doing more of?
How we are reflecting the communities that we serve? Are we serving who we say we are? Who is our audience, especially when the demographics of where you live don’t reflect the content on public television or who’s making what we see? Are public media organizations doing anything to stem the exodus away from public television? Young people don’t watch it and the constant focus on older, white college-educated demographics feels out of touch with a generation is already majority BIPOC.
My whole reason for writing this essay about Ken Burns, and how we need more than one lens on America’s stories, is because public television says one thing with its mission but continues to act in the same way. It doesn’t feel like a commitment to systemic change, which is what is required to make things truly reflective of today’s America.
Speaking of that, it seems there may be institutional resistance in some quarters of public television. Why is that?
I’m asking questions as an outsider, as somebody who has not just created stuff that's been on public television, but also as a viewer. I do see public television as a trusted institution, a pillar of democracy. We look to PBS Newshour for unbiased news. I would prefer to watch a debate on PBS rather than Fox or CNN. How is it that the same players 14 years ago, when this controversy erupted over Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, are saying the same things to us now? There’s a lot of talk about wanting to “do better,” but how can you trust that things will become better when the same leaders from 14 years ago are charged with making things better? I don't know why they haven't learned. It's part of the systemic issues that we're talking about.
As Beyond Inclusion, we're wanting to get real data. That's why we keep asking for it. If you don't think things are bad, then show us how they aren't. Then we can have a real conversation based on information that we can all agree on.
How do you find that energy to keep pushing forward, even though this might not go anywhere?
Great question. Episode two of Viewers Like Us really hit me, because of the parallels from 14 years ago with today. I do see there is an evolution happening. It's because people like Maggie Rivas Rodriguez and Loni Ding started asking questions back then. I'm fueled by those women and what they did. And its why we must stop this cycle now. So perhaps these systemic issues won't be as entrenched in 20 years. How can we move the needle a little bit further now? Loni, Maggie and people like them created avenues so me and others could have more opportunities in public television. And as I often say, I care about public media’s future. I feel like there is so much potential if it invested in the people -- the filmmakers who have put their blood, sweat and tears into making films for the system. They might just have an inkling of how to make it better.
I appreciate people’s frustrations…
This whole George Floyd uprising aftermath gives us a window of where people need to talk about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. But will they continue, or are leaders just waiting for the moment to pass to go back to business as usual? I put my filmmaking on hold for the time being to raise questions because I feel like we're in this critical moment. And if we don't keep pushing now, we might lose all of it.
It should be a lot easier to move public media than Netflix or the New York Times. But there's something bigger at stake. It's for the public. And it's also this larger argument where we are talking about who is telling our history. How do we understand who we are as a country? How do we understand where we've been, and where we going, if we've only had a very narrow view of what that is? This history is so important we can’t just gloss over it, because and then we forget that there have been these movements fighting for these changes for years.
How can people support this effort?
People can still sign the public letter at bipocmakers.com to show their public support of these efforts to collect data and hold PBS accountable to its mission. Reach out to us via social media or the website. I also would encourage people to check out the Viewers Like Us website, which will be a platform beyond show notes. And keep the stories coming. 🟢
La próxima ⌛
The next OIGO is in your inbox Dec. 10. Kassidy Arena joins us. She focuses on Latino/a/e/x communities for Iowa Public Radio. You may have heard her on Katie Couric’s podcast and elsewhere. She’s a dynamic early-career leader to learn from.
Due to the actual (rather than suspect) holidays hitting back to back Fridays, the next OIGO will be all for 2021. We'll be back Jan. 7. I'm in the midst of a piece on KPCC's Latino/a/e/x engagement efforts 10 years ago. It will run then, barring breaking news. If you have insights from the effort, drop me a note. You’re also welcome to write me about the newsletter, or to recommend people to talk with.
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