Lifetime Achievement for Producer Who Has “Too Much Stuff” Left To Do

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

With a face young enough for a milk carton, how does Ken Burns qualify for a Lifetime Achievement Award?

That’s exactly what he thought when he was chosen to receive the accolade at the 29th annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards in September.

PBS’s prolific poster boy turned 55 last Tuesday. CBS veteran Bob Schieffer, 71, and NBC’s Tim Russert, who died June 13 at age 58, will also be honored.

“I was tremendously surprised,” says the acclaimed documentary filmmaker (“The War.”) “I thought, ‘You’re too young to get a lifetime achievement award.’ Especially someone who feels younger than the 55 years I am.”

It hit Burns even harder a few years ago, when he was similarly honored by the International Documentary Association.

“I was a little bit under water as to why it was happening,” he says. “I have too much stuff I’ve got to do!”

With Burns, that’s saying something. His latest PBS contract runs through 2025, marking an astounding 48 years with the public network.

His latest opus, on the history of national parks, will debut in September ’09. It clocks in at 12 hours. “The 10th Inning,” an update to his 18-hour epic “Baseball” (’94), is set for ’10, followed by “Forbidden Fruit: Prohibition in America” in ’10 or ’11.

Burns, who doesn’t see himself as a journalist, says historians and journalists share “an incredibly important link.” Many journalists have turned out to be good historians, and vice versa, he says.

It’s all about perspective.

“One would expect journalists not to have it because of the instant dissemination of their work,” says Burns. “In its totality, when you put together the experiences, it begins to take on a historical perspective.

“Historians begin to understand how critical these momentary reflections are when we put together our stuff. Phil Graham said journalism was the first rough draft of history. We come afterwards and try to clean it up.”

Ergo, it’s no accident that journalists like Tom Brokaw and Evan Thomas are able to write such good histories, Burns says.

A fan of network news, Burns prefers NBC’s Brian Williams “because he has the same kind of calm sense we’ve always wanted in an anchor. Brokaw had it, Cronkite had it. I feel comfortable in getting news from him.”

On cable, Burns is “totally addicted” to Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” on MSNBC.

“It’s a fantastic alternative to what Olbermann calls ‘Fixed News.’ He’s a brilliant guy. I love his quick wit.

“While he’s as partisan as Fox News is, he admits it. The problem with Fox is that it still thinks it’s fair and balanced.”