In the wake of writing a magazine article, Texas journalist and professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez has been interviewing Hispanic members of the "greatest generation" for eight years, and now has a leading role with the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. That put her in the front ranks when controversy erupted over documentarian Ken Burns' latest epic for PBS, a 14-and-a-half-hour series on World War II that originally omitted the Hispanic contribution to the U.S. war effort. Joining giants such as retired professor Gus Chavez in an effort dubbed Defend the Honor, Ms. Rivas-Rodriguez helped ensure that the Hispanic contribution was not ignored – "The War," which airs later this month, was recut to add a half hour of new material. "This," she reflects, "is really about us not remaining invisible in our country any more." Ms. Rivas-Rodriguez, a former TV reporter and border bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, currently teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where she's also associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies.
How do you see the Hispanic community portrayed in the U.S. news media?
They're portrayed? I don't see it. My interest in looking at how Latinos are portrayed in the news media goes back to when I was a college student, and we're talking 1973, 1974. I remember one professor saying your news product should be a reflection of your community. If someone's coming in from outer space and they picked up your newspaper, would they know who was living in your community by looking at your newspaper?
Is part of that because there aren't enough members of the total community in the newsroom?
Absolutely. But, I don't think automatically because somebody is Hispanic that they bring a special sensitivity.
How is the Web changing this dynamic – or is it?
The dream of the Web, way back 10 years ago, was that it was going to usher in a new era of equality for those news operations that had very little in resources. It is true that those small operations are able to magnify that. But the reverse is still true – those big news operations still have the resources and the ability to do things like put up the fancy Web sites and put video on those sites. The one thing that I think is really an interesting new development is the blogs. What blogs have allowed people to do, for better or for worse, is to critique the political system in a way that these people wouldn't have had a chance to be heard otherwise.
Are you satisfied with the conclusion of the Ken Burns saga?
I think a lot of good has come out of it, but no, it's not finished. ... As long as I feel they're not upfront about what changes have been made and whether this is something that's substantial and meaningful and is about the Latino experience, not just one or two people they've inserted, then I can't be satisfied and neither can the other people in our Defend the Honor campaign. I'm not asking for him to capitulate. And I'm not asking for him to say, "I've really messed up." I don't care if he does this willingly and happily or if it's not. All I care about is that he does the right thing on this documentary.
How do you assess his claim of editorial freedom?
He absolutely does have the editorial freedom to do his vision, and so does Michael Moore. But if he's going to do it with taxpayer money, that's different. ... He also had an NEH grant, and we got a copy of his grant proposal, and in that document he does talk about this documentary is going to celebrate diversity of America. Are Latinos not part of that diversity?
Do his actions reflect a larger picture, or was this a one-off occurrence?
Latinos have been left out of our country's history books for so long, over and over again. ... When the Tom Brokaws of the world are writing their book about the "greatest generation," they're looking around for what's already been written and what they're seeing are books that largely omit the Latino experience. So, over and over and over and over it gets repeated. And finally, this is our time to say, "This is enough. We are not going to put up with it any more." We're not asking for any favors – we're just demanding what's right.
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