David R. Henderson  

Nick Gillespie's Interview with Ken Burns on Prohibition

PRINT
Pre-Tax and Post-Tax Candy on ... A Conversation with Jeffrey Fr...

Reason TV has up two parts of an interview that Nick Gillespie did recently with interviewee Ken Burns. Burns has a new 3-part PBS series out on Prohibition, which my economist/historian friend, Jeff Hummel, tells me is excellent.

These interviews are excellent too. In part one, Gillespie and Burns are basically sympatico as they talk about the horrible effects of Prohibition. Gillespie, quite rightly, sees parallels to today's prohibition of some drugs.

In the second video, Gillespie broadens the topics to talk about such issues as whether PBS should exist and whether Burns thinks he could have done his many works without government funding. Burns's energy and heat rise a notch or two. The fireworks start at just after the 6:00 point and go pretty much to the end. Surprisingly to me, but maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, Burns is quite confident that he would not have been successful without government funds. I think this could be an example of a phenomenon that Milton Friedman often noted: that people who are used to something have trouble imagining the world without that thing, in this case, government funding of Burns's documentaries.

I think Nick Gillespie is coming into his own as an interviewer. It's true that later in the second video, Burns call Gillespie on the fact that Gillespie interrupts a lot. Gillespie acknowledges the point and almost apologizes. I noted, though, that Burns often interrupts Gillespie after Gillespie has asked a question and then tries to give background for the question.

HT to Bill Courtney


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (9 to date)
Foobarista writes:

That's odd. I've seen many doc series on the "for-profit" cable networks (History, Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, the Military Channel, etc) that aren't that different in form from Kevin Burns' documentaries. It's hard to see what's special about his work that he couldn't get one of these to sponsor him.

ChrisJA writes:

Note for British readers: "Prohibition" headlines the start of "PBS UK" on Sky channel 166 & Virgin channel 243 tomorrow (Tuesday, 1st November).

Note for US readers: PBS are using the same ruse as BBC Worldwide with "PBS UK". Both the BBC and now PBS claim the international entities are separate and run to make a profit. However, these channels wouldn't be possible without the infrastructure that the capital of taxpayer funds provide. Rather than reducing the burden on the taxpayer any profit from the international channels is used to increase the size of the media empire. Few publicly traded companies get to retain all of their earnings when profitable and their capital is voluntarily acquiesced. It is egregious for PBS (and the BBC), who garner a large proportion of their capital through coercion, to then presume any profit is theirs to keep. This structure institutionalises the left-wing bias of the BBC and PBS: labour receives 100% of any profitable proceeds and the capital providers are worthy of nowt.

Patrick writes:

I had this sense that Ken Burns did not like Nick Gillespie from the start and it was just a matter of time.

keatssycamore writes:

foo wrote:

"That's odd. I've seen many doc series on the "for-profit" cable networks (History, Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, the Military Channel, etc) that aren't that different in form from Kevin Burns' documentaries. It's hard to see what's special about his work that he couldn't get one of these to sponsor him."

This seems right. But perhaps looks more obvious/right in hindsight?

I'm trying to think back to 1990 (when The Civil War came out) and remember if I could watch a documentary on the Discovery channel or the History channel. I suspect there were some things, but how they were funded and how many of them were 6 to 12 hours long (aside from, I think, various war series by TimeLife that I believe you could get on VHS) is unclear to me.

All of which is to say that perhaps Burns-esque documentarians have an easier time getting Burns-esque documentaries made because of ground Ken Burns & PBS plowed in the early 90s?

Again, I'm in general agreement that, in today's voracious information consumption society, your view seems to reflect reality better than Burns. However, I'm not sure I completely agree that the 1990 environment was sufficiently similar to justify extending your claim twenty years into the past. Maybe. I'm just not sure.

I really wouldn't necessarily take Burns' or Gillispie's word as gospel. I suspect there's some truth to both. Possibly a continuum from the three network sixties (Burns view holds) to the broadband aughts (Gillispie view holds). Regardless that's mostly a nit I'm picking as I do think foobarista has basically outlined the contours of today's reality with the above comment.

John Thacker writes:

@keatssycamore:

It's a difficult counterfactual. Who knows how many long documentaries the market could have supported in 1990? If PBS is already subsidizing some, that makes it less likely for private networks to produce their own. Who wants to compete with something subsidized?

It's true that some types of competition can grow the market in the long run, but I don't think it's an easy question.

Glen writes:

The first episodic entertaining but educational documentaries I saw were on pay cable back in the early 80s and funded via the standard (at the time) advertising/cable fee model. Most of the shows on PBS (except the children's shows) were pretty boring and not very educational (there were some good ones but they were the exception). When PBS started doing those episodic entertaining but educational (ie, Burns-esque) documentaries, that is actually when I saw a slip in the quality of what the cable shows offered.

D writes:

1)Always frame an interview as a "discussion". Get the other party to aggree to it. This allows two-way communication to be implicitly agreed to.

2)Invent a word counter. (seriously, someone should invent and utilize one for things like this).

3)Point to said word counter to remind a guy like Burns of the current 20 to 1 word ratio when he starts complaining, then remind him you thought this was supposed to be a discussion.


drobviousso writes:

Wow, he doesn't have any shame for his love of groupthink, does he?

Mark Bahner writes:
Again, I'm in general agreement that, in today's voracious information consumption society, your view seems to reflect reality better than Burns. However, I'm not sure I completely agree that the 1990 environment was sufficiently similar to justify extending your claim twenty years into the past. Maybe. I'm just not sure.

Certainly the Civil War was very new. But when he did Baseball and WWII, it's hard to imagine that somebody wouldn't pay good money for those.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top