A group of local documentary filmmakers sent a letter to GBH this week holding "Beat the Press" longtime host Emily Rooney accountable for comments she made on her show suggesting that work by filmmakers of color does not stand up to that of documentarian Ken Burns.
The letter from the Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast demanded she apologize for relying on “derision, racist tropes and more ignorance than fact” in discussing the lack of diverse filmmakers on PBS.
The response was swift. Rooney recorded an apology broadcast at the beginning of “Beat the Press” Friday, according to Jeanne Hopkins, spokeswoman for GBH. But staff inside say people are furious with what they feel is an insufficient response to handle what is just a symptom of a larger toxic culture.
In her video apology, Rooney said she understood her remarks 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."
GBH General Manager Pam Johnston rebuked the comments in a statement:
“Emily Rooney’s comments on the April 2 edition of Beat the Press did not meet GBH’s standards for opinion journalism, or our commitment to being an anti-racist organization that respects all people.”
The letter from the Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast was written in solidarity with a larger effort by hundreds of award-winning filmmakers who called out PBS for its lack of inclusion.
That initial letter, sent March 29, prompted the conversation and questions around how much funding and airtime filmmaker Ken Burns has received over the years in comparison to Black, indigenous and filmmakers of color, and demanded access to specific data around equity across the board.
In Rooney's conversation with Beat the Press panelists on April 2 about the issues of diversity on PBS, she made statements implying that perhaps the other documentaries, including "Asian Americans" by filmmaker Grace Lee, were just not as good as Burns’ work, though she admitted she hadn’t seen the five-hour film.
“For the record, it’s all about Ken Burns, regardless of what this group says, it’s resentment that a white guy is getting all this time," Rooney said at the end of the show.
She argued there was no acknowledgement of Burns' place in history as well as his contribution telling the stories of people of color.
“The only other thing I want to say is, I didn’t see "Asian Americans" but there’s a possibility it wasn’t as good as some of Ken Burns’ films," Rooney said. "You’ve got to throw that out there.”
Callie Crossley, host of GBH's "Basic Black," was one of the panelists that day and one of several that made the point that there are Oscar-nominated BIPOC filmmakers as good as Ken Burns who signed the original letter. Some of them have gotten as much air time for their documentaries as Burns, and can still acknowledge there's a problem of representation behind the lens.
"Don’t talk to me about credentials and quality," Crossley said. "It’s amazing, it’s stunning the kind of talent that they have, and yet we are still here talking about this."
Rooney replied, “Well that doesn’t mean they’re all good.”
"People are disturbed by what Emily Rooney felt comfortable saying on air to a Black colleague, and really want WGBH leadership to show they're not just paying lip service to equity and inclusion," said Katie Worth, a former reporter for GBH's "Frontline," who sat on the organization's diversity, equity and inclusion council until this month.
Several members of Documentary Producers Alliance-Northeast, which represents non-fiction filmmakers from across New England and upstate New York, have produced for GBH and indicated they expected more of the organization.
"Representation on screen is insufficient,"said Sara Archambault, an independent producer who signed the letter. "It's insufficient inclusion, it needs to be in all aspects of the media making universe, so it needs to be behind the lens, it needs to be among the gatekeepers. It needs to be among the people who make funding allocations. We need to see equity and representation in all of these spheres in order to truly have a public media."
A local affinity group inside GBH called Catalyst that has been focused on inclusion and retention sent leadership a letter late Friday condemning Rooney's remarks.
GBH President Jonathan Abbott announced the appointment of Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates as Chief Inclusion and Equity Officer in March as a sign of their "ongoing efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive organization."
Lack of representation isn't new, nor is a tendency for white filmmakers to control the narrative. Archambault noted that some of the earliest documentaries were created by white anthropologists heading out to other lands, seeking to study other cultures.
"They would make these summaries from their observations about who these people were, how they lived and what it meant," she said. "And somehow that history of the white colonial gaze has permeated the art form."
Sabrina Aviles, director of the Boston Latino Film Festival, serves on the Community Advisory Board of GBH. "It struck home, you know I'm an ex-employee of GBH," she said. "It just brought back a lot of my own, I guess, PTSD, but not only GBH, but in other scenarios. I don't want to just exclusively point the finger at them. But for me, it was that sort of dismissal and that feeling of 'less than.' It triggered a lot of microaggressions that as a BIPOC filmmaker I have experienced over the years."
Editor’s note: WBUR and GBH collaborate on the local and national news podcast “Consider This” in partnership with NPR.