Media Circus: Ken Burns on his new PBS documentary, Jackie Robinson

After unsatisfactorily covering Jackie Robinson in his seminal documentary on baseball, Ken Burns decided to take a more comprehensive look at the man who broke MLB’s color barrier. Burns discusses his new film Jackie Robinson in this week’s Media Circus.
Publish date:

Get all of Richard Deitsch’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns says he is guided by a simple philosophy: He is looking to tell stories that defy the superficiality of our conventional media wisdom. Such is the case with Jackie Robinson, who Burns says the American public too often views as a “mythological figure encrusted with the barnacles of sentimentality and nostalgia.”

“We have turned Jackie Robinson into shorthand for our own wishes and desires when the real person is so interesting and so contemporary,” Burns said. “Do you want to know him in his full dimension, or would you rather it just be the superficial, syrupy, sugarcoated, Madison Avenue version of the past?”

The Gordometer: Can these ex-top prospects go from bust to breakout?

If you are interested in one of the great civil rights figures of our time, I’d urge you to watch the two-part documentary on Robinson’s life that debuts on PBS Monday night. Part Two will air Tuesday night. Burns made the film (titled Jackie Robinson) with his daughter, Sarah Burns, and filmmaker David McMahon, who also happens to be Sarah’s husband. It’s a fascinating and complete picture of Robinson from birth to death. Among those the filmmakers interviewed for the film: Rachel Robinson, the 93-year-old widow of Jackie Robinson, Robinson’s children, David and Sharon, and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

“You have these four individuals, two couples, hurtling through space and time, who are nonetheless talking about the same moment, and that is going through a door that you are the first person to go through and having a lot of stuff heaped on you because of the color of your skin,” Burns said of the parallels between the Obamas and Robinsons.

Burns covered Robinson’s story in his seminal 18.5-hour PBS series on baseball which premiered in 1994, but the filmmaker believed he too often repeated the hagiography and old tropes about Robinson’s life. Rachel Robinson approached Burns last decade to pitch him on a standalone documentary on Jackie. Burns told her that he had other projects; Robinson said she’d wait for him. Rachel Robinson ultimately found other filmmakers for the project but there were creative differences between the groups. Finally, the two Burnses and McMahon had some air between projects a couple of years ago and agreed to do the film. Burns said he actively courts the media to see his work, which is a necessity given his films appear on public television. His 2014 film, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, was seen by 35 million viewers.

“If you make a good film and nobody watches it, it’s not a good film,” Burns said. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that you are the lonely artist and you did a good job. I feel a huge part of our job is the evangelical dimensions, the shoe leather of getting out and having conversations about it. We don’t have the budget of an HBO to plaster all of this on every bus, but I do think you can reach people to tell them that this is a good story. What I have enjoyed with my nearly 40-year relationship with Public Broadcasting is that I am able to dive deep and go deep and do the stories in the sort of detail and complexity of the undertones they deserve.”

Burns said there were no arguments among the filmmakers despite the family dynamics.

The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox


According to Burns: “Sometimes Sarah and Dave would go, ‘Oh, come on?,’ and I’d go, ‘You are right.’ Or sometimes Sarah and I would agree on something or Dave and I would. It was never about winning but always a part of doing something better. It was a real treat to work with them, and they happen to have made during the process two other co-productions—my two grandchildren.”

For more from Burns, check out the SI Media Podcast with the filmmaker.

The Noise Report

( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Given the historic nature of the Warriors’ season, the NBA’s national television rights holders have not been shy about letting the league know they are willing to pick up as many Golden State games as they can. In a major coup, ESPN will air the Golden State–Memphis game on Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. ET, which will have historic implications regarding the NBA’s single-season regular-season win mark. The network was originally scheduled to air Lakers-Jazz, which is Kobe Bryant’s last NBA game, but that game has been moved to ESPN2. The ESPN broadcast of the Warriors will be blacked out in the Golden State area to protect Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, which has the local rights to the game. The announcing team of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy will call Warriors-Grizzlies. Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown will get Kobe’s last game.

Make no mistake: Warriors locked in on quest for 73 wins

Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s VP of league sports programming, said that her network (and obviously the other carriers) has spoken with NBA officials throughout the season regarding adding Golden State games. She said the NBA has been excellent about getting the Golden State product to the biggest possible audience (as the league should). ESPN picked up Saturday’s game between the Warriors and Grizzlies while sister network ABC aired the Cavaliers and Bulls. “This has been an ongoing process we have had with the NBA,” Sobieski said. “As we started to close in on the idea that the Warriors could tie or break the record, we all had all of our eyes on the last 10 games of the season.”

Sobieski said that had Golden State lost on Saturday to the Grizzlies, ESPN would have waited until the conclusion of Warriors-Spurs on Sunday night to make a decision on Wednesday’s game. In the event of a tie or a chance to set the single-season record, ESPN would have picked up Wednesday’s game. If there was no record at stake, ESPN would not have picked up Golden State–Memphis and would have aired Kobe’s finale on ESPN.

“For us it’s a fantastic opportunity to have both games on our air on the last game of the season,” Sobieski said. “We knew we had a blockbuster night no matter what. The appetite for the Warriors across every platform has been fantastic. It’s been a nice gift for us.”

•​ Chase for 73: Tracking Warriors’ pursuit of 1995–96 Bulls’ record

The Sports Media Watch website noted that ESPN has added four Warriors games beyond the maximum 10 it is allowed under the NBA’s current television deal, including games against the Nuggets and Suns during the first half of the season and two against the Grizzlies this month. The site noted that prior to this season, ESPN went three games above the maximum for the 2012–13 Miami Heat and ABC went one game above the max for the 2007–08 Los Angeles Lakers, in order to add a game against the then-streaking Houston Rockets.

On Sunday the league granted a one-day free preview of NBATV, so anyone with a cable subscription to a provider that offers NBATV could watch the Spurs-Warriors game.

1a. Here’s another interesting note by the Sports Media Watch site on the 15 most-watched games this season—nine involve Golden State.

1b. Part of the drama of golf—and as I’ve written, most of my viewing is reduced to the majors—is watching how the best of the best handle nerves on the grandest stage. On Sunday CBS had an excellent sequence covering Jordan Spieth’s quadruple bogey on the 12th hole of Augusta National. The 2015 Masters champion knocked two balls into Rae’s Creek and saw a one-shot lead turn into a three-shot deficit. It was painful and mesmerizing to watch and CBS was quick to show a highlight of Spieth having trouble on the same hole in 2014—excellent for viewers. Then main analyst Nick Faldo took over after Spieth’s second shot in the drink. “Oh, my goodness,” said Faldo. “This is unbelievable. The Iron Man is having an absolute meltdown.” CBS had a great slow-motion replay showing how far Spieth hit his third shot, which landed in the water. It ended its sequence by showing Danny Willett​ making a par to take the lead. Very nice work.

2.This is worth reading from Vice’s Sean Newell on ESPN’s Greg Hardy coverage last week.

2a. As is listening to this: ESPN’s Adam Schefter spoke with Boston’s WEEI Radio about his Hardy interview and addressed some of the concerns in the above piece. “I have no regrets about the interview or the questions we asked,” Schefter said.

•​ JACOBS: Hardy’s interview on ESPN does nothing to help his reputation

3. Some ratings of note:

Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp reported that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is averaging 7.1 million viewers after six races on FOX and FS1, down 12% from 8.1 million viewers at the same point last season.

The Syracuse-UConn women’s NCAA hoops title game drew 2.972 million viewers, down 3.5% from last year’s 3.081 million for UConn–Notre Dame and down 30% from 4.27 million viewers in 2014 when UConn and Notre Dame played.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• If your team has ever lost, you will appreciate this multimedia effort from the NY Times.

• This Eli Saslow piece on Rangers prospect Matt Bush is excellent.

• From New York Times writer Sarah Lyall: A triathlete is accused of cheating.

This is the house that Augusta National’s millions cannot buy. From columnist Steve Politi.

• NYT Magazine’s Jay Caspian Kang, on the unbearable whiteness of baseball.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay on Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn.

Some nice work from Villanova–North Carolina included:

Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski

• SI’s Luke Winn.

• The Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper.

• SI’s Michael Rosenberg.

• Vice’s Patrick Hruby did a deep dive on the racial injustice of big-time college sports.

• The NYT’s Ben Shpigel had an interesting look at the 1990 NHL draft.

• From Michael Abelson of Cageside Seats: The fall and rise of wrestler JT Dunn.

• From ESPN’s Zach Lowe: How the New Jersey Swamp Dragons almost happened.

The NFL has seen the future and it is WWE wrestling.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Gerald Foos bought a motel in order to watch his guests having sex. A remarkable story by Gay Talese, with questions about a journalist’s complicity.

• Via The Globe and Mail: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl.

• A photographer hung out with the KKK in Tennessee and Maryland, here’s what he saw.

• From Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: An escalating health crisis in rural America.

• Via New Yorker: The lives of the immigrant women who tend to the needs of others.

• One woman helped the mastermind of the Paris attacks. The other turned him in.

• GQ’s Carrie Battan on how and why clubs pay for celebrity appearances.

• From The Daily Telegraph: Archbishop of Canterbury learns who his real father was—Winston Churchill’s private secretary.

Congratulations: You’ve been fired.

5. Enjoyed Charles Barkley’s reaction to Kris Jenkins’s game-winner over North Carolina.

5a. “Is he a media member? An analyst? An advocate? Does it even matter?” The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on Jon Gruden.

5b. ESPN’s E:60 will dedicate a show to Bobby Hurley’s playing and coaching career this Tuesday.

5c. Fox Sports is looking to bring political ads to its regional baseball coverage, reports Bloomberg.

5d. The Boston University College of Communication is hosting a Sports Communication Summit titled “Play It Forward,” which will examine what’s next in areas such as sports law, sports safety, sports technology and sports journalism. The day-long conference will be held on Friday. The conference is hosted by HBO and NFL Network staffer Andrea Kremer, who is also an Andrew R. Lack Fellow at the school.

5e. From This Is Some Noise: The Story of an Alternative Wrestling Show That Says “F--- the Fans.”

5f. U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch will be a guest of The Men in Blazers Show on Monday at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The full Men in Blazers podcast featuring Lynch will be released on April 21.

5g. Re/code had an interesting look at the NFL-Twitter partnership.

5h. This Joe Rexrode piece on covering Michigan State coach Tom Izzo lets readers under the hood of a coach-reporter relationship.

5i. Connecticut man wears a blue, red and yellow t-shirt on a sports radio show. Company that employs the Connecticut man tells the man to zip up part of his t-shirt. Company rightfully finds itself in an extended news cycle after ordering such a silly directive on a non-story, given many of the company’s employees engage in political commentary daily on Twitter. Summary: Connecticut man should have threatened a former NBA MVP while wearing a suit or should have had a fall guy. There would have been no issues.