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Mediating ThomasJefferson Ken Burns as Popular Historian Gary R. Edgerton You set out with a desire to learn about Thomas Jefferson and in the course of things you enrich yourself by that process of discovery.... I go at it looking for Thomas Jefferson and the Thomas Jefferson that I found is not THE Thomas Jefferson, but my Thomas Jefferson. Ken Burns, 1997 Ken Burns's career defies all conceivable expectations. He became one of public television's busiest and most celebrated producers during the 1980s, a decade when the historical documentary held little interest for most AmericanTV viewers. He operates his own independent company, Florentine Films, in a small New England village more than four hours north of New York City, hardly a crossroads in the highly competitive and often insular world of corporately funded, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) sponsored productions . His fifteen major specials so far are also strikingly out of step with the special effects andfreneticpacing ofmost nonfiction television, relying mainly on filmic techniques that were introduced literally decades ago.1 And at fortyseven , he has already won virtually every major professional and scholarly award that is relevant for him to win, including Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, Academy Award nominations, "Producer of the Year" from the Producers Guild of America, and over two dozen honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities nationwide. Burns is best known, of course, for his eleven-hour documentary series The Civil War (1990), which achieved public televisions highest ratings ever based on national Nielsen data, when 38.9 million people tuned in to at least 170 | Gary R. Edgerton one episode of the five-night telecast between September 23 and 27,1990, averaging 12 million viewers at any given moment.2 The Civil War was an unlikely popular success, even holding its own against the major network competition, and established this documentary miniseries as PBS's prototype of "event TV." The program was mentioned on episodes of Twin Peaks, Thirtysomething, and Saturday Night Live during the 1990-1991 television season. Ken Burns appeared on The Tonight Show, and he was selected by the editors of People magazine as one of their "25 most intriguing people of 1990." The series also grew into a marketing sensation as the companion volume by Knopf, The Civil War:An IllustratedHistory, became a runaway bestseller , as did the accompanying Warner sound track and the nine-episode videotaped version from Time-Life. Burns reminisced during a February 1993 interview, saying, "I was flabbergasted! I still sort of pinch myself about it."3 He would again be surprisedjust two months later by his own mixed reception at a scholarly conference in Boston, when the largely complimentary relations that he had typically enjoyed with the academy up to that point were now becoming far more complicated as a result of his own heightened profile and success as well as that of the historical documentary in general. The two-day conference entided "Telling the Story:The Media, the Public, and American History," was hosted by the New England Foundation for the Humanities (NEFH) on April 23 and 24,1993. The impetus for initiating such an event came from "the phenomenal public response to Ken Burns's public television series, 'The Civil War,'" according to JoAnna Baldwin Mallory, the then-executive director of NEFH, and the "truly astonishing work, a fluorescence of documentary filmmaking and historical programming that has come to national attention ... in a mere decade."4 Clearly this wellspring of new made-for-TV histories was not only attracting large audiences , but also the notice of the professional historical establishment. In a recent article in The Public Historian, Gerald Herman, a history professor at Northeastern Universitywith extensive media production experience, recalled how "most historians for a long time insisted on the marginality of [film and television] presentations to their concerns, to their training, to their individualized methods of work."5 He added that, "respected historians didn't bother to list their work with media-based presentations on their curriculum vitae for fear of having their reputations as serious scholars diminished by the association."6 In contrast to this attitude, a small but committed group of scholars, led by John O'Connor and Martin Jackson, formed the Historians Film Committee at the 1970 American Historical Association annual conference, publishing its first issue of Film £sf History the following year. Still, a majority Mediating ThomasJefferson | 171 interest in "film and television as historian" never reached a critical mass among professional historians until the...


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