The Samuel Johnson
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March 30, 2003:
"Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even
supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be
content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to
Some beliefs persist in spite of overwhelming evidence against them, or lack of evidence in their support.
Two hot topics of this genre are, one, whether or not Iraq had anything to do with the events of 9/11, and two, whether or not American media is biased towards a liberal point of view. It's not difficult for people to gather information on either topic, but too many people have lapsed into an unhealthy complacency over learning more; newspaper articles have been written, books have been published, and yet almost half of the American public feels Saddam Hussein had a hand in the deaths of 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; practically no commentators or writers can be heard who question an assumption that the media is slanted with a liberal bias. But in both cases, the commonly held beliefs deserve reconsideration.
Regarding Iraqi involvement in 9/11: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had his people looking for an Iraqi connection to 9/11 within hours of the attacks, but no evidence has been found. When Colin Powell was asked by congress if there was evidence of Iraqi involvement, he said there was still no smoking gun. Spinsanity has summed up the lack of evidence nicely. (Why does the myth persist? Well, 9/11 was horrible; Saddam Hussein is horrible; President Bush frequently uses the idea of preventing future 9/11's as reason to disarm Iraq... It's not difficult for a listener to simplify what (s)he hears into the conclusion that Iraq was behind 9/11. But again there's no evidence. If there were evidence, wouldn't the administration be putting it out and playing it up?)
Now, it's not difficult to learn that there is a lack of evidence: all one has to do, is read a variety of news sources, read them carefully, and digest the available evidence. The persistent belief about Iraqi involvement in September 11 is probably having serious impact on our world, since the percentage of Americans that supports the invasion (without UN approval) (about 50%) is just a little higher than the percent that believes Iraq was involved (42%). I don't know if that support for the forced disarmament would crumble if it were known that Iraq was not involved; if pollsters have asked that question, I haven't seen it. (A suitable question would be something like, "if Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, would you support..." If you have poll results on this, please let me know.)
The extent of liberal bias in the media: "The media has such a liberal bias" is a frequently-heard formula. For years, it's been used to explain why conservative viewpoints don't hold greater sway with the American public, and it's been repeated by conservative politicians, conservative columnists, conservative radio talk show hosts so often and so loudly that it's become an accepted truth. Books have even been written about it, with scads of footnotes (so they must be true). But is the belief true? And if not true, why isn't it being done away with?
Well, it's not as if the counter-argument hasn't been laid out. Eric Alterman (columnist for The Nation and web logger for MSNBC) has written a careful examination of the prominence of liberals and conservatives in the media, called What Liberal Media? In it, he accepts the logical fact that bias cannot be proven without comparing reporting to a verifiable, objective "truth." All he can do, he admits, is present evidence, and the evidence he presents is copious, thorough, well-reasoned, and persuasive. Alterman...
Personally, I think you should buy his book, but don't take my word for it, you can read reviews here, here, here, here, here, and here. (And if you don't even click to read a review, Johnson would complain that you're not even taking a little effort.)
Why does the belief that the media has a liberal bias continue? Well, first, it's too early to say what the long term effects of Alterman's book will be. But honestly, I'd love to know more about who is buying it, and why, in order to predict. Too often books like his are bought by those who are already convinced of his argument, and skeptics aren't willing to spend the money or the time on an argument that they already don't believe and against which they have strong prejudices. (It's easier to not re-think your beliefs.)
Which, of course, brings us back to Johnson's comment on being "content to be ignorant."
March 23, 2003:
"Every desire is a viper in the bosom, who, while he was chill, was harmless; but when warmth gave him strength, exerted it in poison."
— Samuel Johnson (Boswell: Life of Johnson)
Corruption, Johnson tells us, is lying inside and just waiting to be aroused. The slippery slope we descend when we listen to our desires is something which advertisers have long been aware of. For example, in the late 1970's Anheuser-Busch had a successful campaign for its Michelob brand beer with the slogan, "Weekends were made for Michelob." Once this beginning proposition was accepted, it proceeded further with "put a little weekend in your week," finally arriving at the non-specific " some days are made for Michelob." (Michelob is a registered trademark of the Anheuser-Busch Corporation, by the way.)
Now, I'm not against having a beer, and do so myself on occasion, but note that the marketing process is to nurture a desire for a special consumption occasion, and then to generalize that occasion throughout the week.
Similar marketing processes occur elsewhere, not just in spreading usage occasions throughout the week, but also with the goal of enlarging the target market for a product, by insinuating that needs might exist when they really don't. For instance, an article in Slate discussed Alzheimers: how few people have it, how many more fear it, and how a memory drug could make everyone feel better about the threat.
Generally, these types of approaches work best when they are subtle. If the fear appeal is too strong, the market could shy away from the message and the name of the salvation — the brand — may not be heard, and the ad dollars will have been spent in vain. A similar rejection can occur when claims are too wild: a claim too strong can seem ridiculous, and every other claim made in the product's behalf will be seen as less credible.
In Idler 40, Johnson made the famous statement that "promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement." In his day, that was probably true; 18th century Britain didn't have the benefit of consumer psychologists, graduate level marketing programs, and hosts of advertising copywriters and account executives.
March 16, 2003:
"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty
among the drivers of negroes?"
Johnson always had a way of pointing out hypocrisy succinctly, and with a turn of phrase that would ensure the listener was just as revolted as he was. Of course we all know about his famous statement on false patriotism, but in this statement on liberty and slavery, he was taking aim at those who are arbitrary in how they grant freedom. Here, he was talking about the American colonists (we had yet to sign the Declaration of Independence), but he later made a similar remark about people in general. In the Lives of the Poets, writing on Milton, he wrote, "They who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it," and proceeded to chastise Milton for the tyranny he exercised on his family.
This whole brouhaha over the Dixie Chicks is yet another example of how many Americans fail to see that Freedom of Speech will sometimes mean you hear something you don't want to hear. I'd like someone to find a line by one of the Founding Fathers to the effect that the purpose of Amendment One in the Bill of Rights is to limit the exposure of diverse opinions.
This of course is not the only recent incidence in which a U.S. citizen has been chastised by fellow citizens for expressing their views. A shopper at a mall in upstate New York, for instance, was asked to leave because his T-shirt carried an anti-war message, and arrested because he refused to remove the shirt or leave. Similarly, a student in Michigan was told to remove his anti-war t-shirt.
As a nation, we're clearly heading into uncharted territory with all this pre-emptive war stuff. The heads of the various churches have mostly come down against striking Iraq, seeing it as an unjust war. As a country, we are supposed to believe in dissent, and support its expression (that's how the country got started!) Silencing it, or throwing out CDs in response, is not just silly, it's misguided.
March 9, 2003:
Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
The United Nations is a wonderful achievement in world history. Think about it. Prior to the UN, we had feuding blocs, satraps, and principalities. And following World War I, the decisions about how the world would be carved up and national boundaries redrawn came about as a result of the opinions of victors. Instead of national boundaries defined by peoples, mountain ranges, or rivers, we got crazy cookie cutter shapes like those seen in Jordan and Iraq. The United Nations couldn't prevent the birth of the Cold War, but its presence helped defuse the tensions which resulted from it. No one would ever have asked if Colin Powell was going to have an "Adlai Stevenson moment" if Adlai Stevenson hadn't had one himself, bringing to the world's attention the photos displaying Russian missiles in Cuba. Where would Adlai Stevenson have had his Adlai Stevenson moment, were there no U.N.?
In spite of the difficulties which the United States has sometimes faced in dealing with the U.N., by and large I think the U.N. is a positive force in the world. And I'm glad we're part of it. And like a marriage that has its rough spots, I don't think it makes much sense to treat the overall relationship lightly, which is what I fear our President is doing. As I mentioned last week, it feels as if the Bush administration is willing to risk the longer term stability of the U.N. to further its goals with respect to Iraq. (Let me be clear, I think Saddam Hussein is a horrible dictator who needs to provide a better demonstration that he's disarmed, or disarm now.)
But there are reports that the Bush administration is only willing to provoke a U.N. split so long as it won't hurt U.S. prestige. That's right, there are rumors that the U.S. will only go forward with a 2nd resolution if we are confident we would get nine votes (regardless of veto). That is, the U.S. seems to recognize the wisdom of not proposing a resolution which isolates it from the majority of the Security Council, but if it isolates us from nations like France, Germany, China, and Russia, why, that's OK. (I would hate to be the US diplomat who has to go to one of those countries later on some other deal, hat in hand, saying, "noooo, we really doooo want to work with you.")
Here's what it says in today's New York Times:
So much for the principle: the Bush administration is willing to destroy the marriage, but only if they have more friends after the divorce than France, Germany, Russia, and China. Marriage has many pains, gang. Get with it.
March 2, 2003:
"To youth, therefore, it should be carefully inculcated, that
to enter the road of life without caution or reserve, in
expectation of general fidelity and justice, is to launch on the
wide ocean without the instruments of steerage, and to hope that
every wind will be prosperous, and that every coast will afford a
Make no mistake about it, the Bush administration can't afford any missteps while pursuing its negotiations with the United Nations Security Council members. Everyone on the Security Council is a serious negotiator, though, and no one is naive about the process. I'm sure none was surprised to learn that the US is launching a covert operation to learn their thinking, by tapping their phones and the like.
You have to wonder, though, if we aren't pushing too hard when we negotiate with our international partners. Senator Chuck Hagel (R, Nebraska) has pointed out that Iraq is still an early goal, that there will be other nations afterwards, and we will need our partners; it is not in our interest to alienate them. It does seem as if that high risk is a strong possibility, since there are reports that the US strategy is to gain nine votes and then force partners like Russia and France to abstain, rather than veto, in the interest of maintaining credibility for the UN. But how much credibility will there be if it becomes an organization which is led by the nose, by one especially forceful partner? Does this 'credibility' plea really work?
Now, I know that all the parties of the negotiations expect the U.S. to play hardball, but we have to think about some of the longer term implications of not being seen as benign. You may recall that last September the US released a document detailing its National Security Strategy. (The document is here; if you don't have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can get it for free.) One of the themes in that strategy is that "we must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge." If we're seen as benign, no one will worry about us and there won't really have an arms race. But if other countries do worry about us, and don't want to risk being bullied, then they may mass into alliances against us, requiring us to spend more and more on arms in order to be "beyond challenge."
Alliances are incredibly important, even when we don't always get our way. They are not easy to form, and shouldn't be cast off lightly. Last week one pundit seemed to think that France and Russia were making the UN a charade, and that we should just let the UN wither, and then form a new alliance with those who we agree with. That idea just seems so cavalier; no one ever said that alliances would always be smooth, and it's silly to throw them off capriciously.
February 23, 2003:
"As man can be in but one place, at once, he cannot have the
advantages of multiplied residence. He that will enjoy the
brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade. He
who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what
he leaves in Europe. He, perhaps, had a right to vote for a
knight or burgess; by crossing the Atlantick, he has not
nullified his right; but he has made its exertion no longer
possible. By his own choice he has left a country, where he had a
vote and little property, for another, where he has great
property, but no vote."
Wait. Let me get this straight. You... mean... we... have... to... choose? We can't spend our lives in a state of suspended ambivalence, and still progress?
Yes, we must. We can't get the best of both worlds. It's even more important to commit, I guess, when our indecision is causing harm to others. This has long been the case with respect to cell phones, and the disturbances they create for others around us. (There just may be a reason why restaurants and bars place the pay phones near the rest rooms. Ya think?)
It doesn't always require a militant position in order to keep some boundaries in lives... My favorite independent bookstore has an idea of the importance of atmosphere, and frowns on cell phones. But they accept them to a degree. They do not ban them, but a sign at the door asks that you take your calls outside. I think that's pretty reasonable.
In other situations, such as stage performances, even the ring of the phone can be disturbing. That's why I think it was great news when, earlier this month, the New York City council passed a law banning cell phones from places such as Broadway theaters. Merely asking people to turn them off before the show wasn't enough, apparently.
Help me out with this. According to Newsday, Broadway ticket prices have "catapulted into the $100 range", and there are some schmucks out there who think the price is so low that they should be talking on the phone during the show, not just distracting themsleves — but annoying others?? I'm not going to ask whether or not these people have no shame (answer is clear), but have they no brains? (Perhaps not. Findings on the effect of microwaves near the brain may not have been established yet, but in their case I'm willing to make an exception.)
It really is astonishing. Some people just haven't learned that life involves making a choice.
February 16, 2003:
"Where, then, is the wonder, that they who see only a small
part should judge erroneously of the whole? or that they, who see
different and dissimilar parts, should judge differently from
Why do people disagree? How much of it is due to viewing different pieces of information, vs. viewing the same information differently?
The disparate opinions about Iraq and possible UN intervention make for a great case in point. Some basic facts are agreed upon — for instance, that Saddam Hussein is a horrible tyrant and has worked hard to acquire biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. But after that, disagreement intrudes into the discussion, due to both different sets of facts and different perceptions of the existing facts.
Certainly, the US has made it difficult by withholding its most sensitive intelligence, out of a concern that its sources would lose their lives. Understandable that they would hold some back, and understandable why other countries would want to hear more.
But even the information which the U.S. has shared seems equivocal at times, even when accompanied by information which is less so, and cause for alarm. The intercepted telephone communications certainly sound like a red flag, but the "shock value" is discounted when the U.S. cites British intelligence based on a magazine article, and continues to point to a tenuous link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
Under the circumstances, there's certainly room for disagreement — some say Europe's memory of WWII provides a different context for viewing war, and I can't help but wonder if Bush's background in Texas (with its relative propensity for executing capital criminals) hasn't led to a different threshold for taking serious, irreparable actions. But the confidence with which some people hold their opinions surprises me, as well as what people will do to justify their opinions.
Former education secretary William Bennett, for instance, relies on his Catholic faith for guidance in his opinions about abortion, but does not consider the opinion of the Vatican that a war against Iraq would not be a just war. Bennett's willingness to reject the Church on this one is because the Church's guidance "is not a doctrinal teaching on faith and morals and we are not obligated as Catholics to follow it." Perhaps that distinction means more to Bennett than it does to me, but in my book, even as an ex-Catholic, when a church with as long a history as the Roman Catholic Church identifies a war as unjust, that should shake my certainty just a bit, don't you think?
On a far less serious note, can you believe that there are some people out there who use Samuel Johnson quotations to justify going to war against Iraq? Imagine that!
February 9, 2003:
"I must entreat you to be scrupulous in the use of strong
liquors. One night's drunkenness may defeat the labours of forty
days well employed."
Occasionally our image of Boswell is stuck in time — the young, 23-year old Scot who met Johnson in a bookstore, and impetuously became Johnson's friend. In reading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" we see Johnson go through diseases and age, but we don't see Boswell age so closely. It's too easy to read a line like that above and guess that Boswell is still a man in his 20's, carousing around London and having trysts with the you-know-who's of the night.
But Boswell was no 20-something when Johnson wrote this: Boswell was 43, and considering a run for Parliament. It says something about Johnson's impressions of Boswell that he felt it necessary to caution Boswell at age 43! about his dissipation and the impact it could have on his career.
Of course, there's no need to wait until you're 43 years old and running for Parliament to arrest your drunken behavior. I don't know enough about the behaviors of alcoholics, but Boswell could have found more for his life, in addition to his bio of Johnson, had he started to focus at an early age.
I guess the next bit pales in comparison to squandering your life's potential, or a drunk driving accident. But it seems that the phenomenon of the drunken phone call to friends is becoming more prevalent with the ready access to cell phones. And while these calls are bothersome for the recipient, and embarrassing for the caller later, it seems the potential embarrassment is now heightened by the mating of digital camera technology and mobile telephony. Imagine those fiery emails you send and wish you could retract — ugh! Drunk dialing could become of the same ilk, if not worse, because of the visual aspect. (That facial expression, forwarded to the world!!)
So, the long and short of it, Mr. Boswell, is that if you're going to run for Parliament, and you insist on drunken behavior, don't take your cell phone with you!
February 2, 2003:
Among those whose reputation is exhausted in a short time by
its own luxuriance are the writers who take advantage of present
incidents or characters which strongly interest the passions, and
engage universal attention. It is not difficult to obtain
readers, when we discuss a question which every one is desirous
to understand, which is debated in every assembly, and has
divided the nation into parties; or when we display the faults or
virtues of him whose public conduct has made almost every man his
enemy or his friend.
In this Rambler essay, and elsewhere (Idler 59, for example), Johnson complains about ephemeral writing which, if it ever makes it to the library shelf, is soon forgotten. A writer should strive for lasting fame by dealing with universal, perennial topics, not the disease of the month.
You can see his point: Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco were once the rage, and the rage itself became a joke.
But Amy and Joey have now receded to the darkness inhabited by all trivia. It's ever been thus. Different day, different topic.
These thoughts were triggered by an article in Slate, in response to biographer Claire Tomalin's comments after winning an award for her work. She was pleased that her biography of Samuel Pepys was singled out because, in comparison to so many other books which have movie tie-ins and currency, hers is a "pure book." Meghan O'Rourke makes her points well in the Slate article: Tomalin shouldn't feel singled out (other "pure books" get awards, too, and are well read), or that writers of pure books should feel endangered.
Perhaps Tomalin is a little overhwelmed by the periodic, temporary fame which books like "The Hours" get when a movie is out. That's understandable. But while "The Hours" may be a rage now, and deserves to be read, much that is the rage goes quickly to the remainder bin.
Gotta go now. I'm currently engrossed by O.J. Simpson's I Want To Tell You.
January 26, 2003:
Of a great and complicated design, some will never be brought
to discern the end; and of the several means by which it may be
accomplished, the choice will be a perpetual subject of debate,
as every man is swayed in his determination by his own knowledge
Having the team on the same page is essential to the successful completion of any project. Part of keeping everyone on the same page is to agree, in advance, what the proper reactions are to foreseeable, probable events. At the very least, that limits the amount of time lost to indecision.
Back in the days when Henry Kissinger was the U.S. Secretary of State, it was common for a negotiation to conclude with the interested parties having differing opinions regarding the treaty they'd signed. (It may have been common with others who facilitate agreements, too, but I mention Kissinger because of the prominence this method seemed to play in the way he handled the Middle East, as detailed in Conor Cruise O'Brien's book "The Siege".)
That method of diplomacy is great for scoring headlines, but it can backfire when a disagreement has merely been delayed. That's what we're seeing now, with respect to United Nations Resolution 1441 and potential reactions to Iraqi failure to comply with prior resolutions regarding the destruction of weapons of mass destruction.
Criticism against President Bush's "go it alone" position was mitigated when Bush approached the United Nations last fall, and agreement was reached, resulting in Resolution 1441. Yet, nowhere in the resolution is it specified what constitutes a breach (aside from inadequate documentation). The resolution mentions "serious consequences," but doesn't set standards for what triggers these consequences.
The U.S. failed to obtain agreement regarding what constitutes a breach, even at this late date, and time will be lost over the indecision. This kind of failure is surprising, since it's basic business and project planning. Bush was touted as a different kind of President, because he's not a lawyer, but an MBA. It's beyond me, though, how such an undergrad business principle could have been bypassed.
(This is not meant to suggest that I feel we should invade Iraq, so much as to register a complaint at shoddy negotiations which, as I said, garner headlines but often fall short of true objectives.)
January 19, 2003:
Slow rises worth,
Society is not as subject to intermingling as people would sometimes like to believe. The concept of the United States as a great "melting pot" has been replaced by the concept of the rainbow, not just because it's appropriate to celebrate diversity, but because distinctions are stable.
Money is not alone in creating tiers in our society: not just distinctions, but genuine tiers. The structure that was in place in the first half of the 19th century — slavery — still has residual effects to this day, some 140 years after its abolition.
Its residual effects are insidious. A widely-reported recent study indicates, for instance, that if the first name on a resume suggests the job applicant's race, "white" sounding job applicants get more interviews than "black" sounding job applicants. (Didn't see it? Try here, here, and here.)
Thus, worth is also slow to rise when race obscures a person's worth. Minorities are at a distinct disadvantage. And without some concerted, corrective action on all of our parts, it's not going to change any time soon.
In this light, I happen to like the idea that universities give preference to minority applicants, as a way of overcoming racially skewed preferences of society in general, which have an impact on the academic quality of minority applicants.
The Supreme Court says minority preference is okay, but quotas are non-Constitutional; however, the Bush administration thinks that the law is too vague — and that mere preference, however exercised, amounts to quotas. So, on Martin Luther King's birthday, coincidentally (not!), Bush announced his opposition to preferential treatment for minorities, even though he received preferential treatment as a legacy applicant to Yale, and might not have gotten in otherwise.
Legacy preference policies, of course, work to continue the demographic characteristics of prior student bodies. They are not discriminatory in their intent, but they are discriminatory in their effect. For all we know, Bush could have made it into Yale over an equally qualified black applicant; or, for that matter, maybe non-legacy students with Bush's academic records wouldn't even have tried.
January 12, 2003:
"Governors being accustomed to hear of more crimes than they
can punish, and more wrongs than they can redress, set themselves
at ease by indiscriminate negligence, and presently forget the
request when they lose sight of the petitioner."
In the process of prioritization, issues get set aside, and sometimes they are forgotten, even if it's unfair to say that governors put themselves "at ease." But I haven't always agreed with the resulting agenda, and for years it's upset me that the capital sentencing process didn't get adequate attention.
I grew up in Florida in the 1960's, and the case of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee shaped much of my feeling that the Death Penalty should only be used in the rarest of cases, because of the uncertainty involved in some convictions. An unjust execution, as I'm sure you know, allows for no recompense. (Over time, my feelings against the death penalty grew stronger because of the biases I saw, as well as a feeling that the state just shouldn't be using death as a punishment. I won't be discussing the latter today.)
Thus, I was encouraged when the outgoing governor of Illinois, George Ryan, ordered a review of his state's criminal code: not just on the fairness of the convictions of those who are on death row, but also for lower tiers of criminality. On Thursday, January 9, he accepted a committee's final report, saying, "If we've sent innocent people to death row because of ineffective counsel, jailhouse informant testimony, prosecutorial misconduct or mistaken identity, then there are probably people sitting in prison for other crimes of lesser penalties who have fallen victim to the same systematic errors."
He has moved swiftly since then, because his term ends on January 13:
I am additionally encouraged by Governor Ryan's recognition that problems are probably not limited to capital crime convictions, and there could well be innocent citizens imprisoned elsewhere in the Illinois penal system. How very different this sentiment is from that expressed by the US Attorney General some 15-20 years ago! Attorney General Edwin Meese made a statement which indicated that a presumption of innocence was unnecessary: "The thing is, you don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That's contradictory. If a person is innocent of crime, then he is not a suspect."
(A comparison of Meese's attitude at that time to the US's handling of foreign nationals since September 11 will have to wait for another time, I'm afraid.)
January 5, 2003:
I am engaged to write little Lives, and little Prefaces to a
little edition of The English Poets.
The genesis of The Lives of the Poets is fascinating, as a marketing venture, and further because of what it might suggest to copyright holders in today's world.
The interesting parallel to the publishers' 18th century situation is that in Europe all sorts of recordings are about to come into the public domain which have been cash cows for the labels for years — Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and such. (Copyrights on recordings only last 50 years in Europe, vs. 75 in the U.S.) Understandably, the labels are not happy and are doing what they can to avert the cheap competition they anticipate.
As the article states, it has been difficult for a label like Mosaic to come up with a re-packaging of old recordings which is sufficiently valuable that it can withstand the competitive intrusion from less-expensive European releases. (Mosaic, if you're unaware, is a label based in Connecticut which licenses old recordings, does careful research to make sure what they have is exhaustive, and releases comprehensive collections of an artist's work from a specific period. I have several of their sets, and am glad I do.) In my view, it would be a shame if the potential profit for a company like Mosaic is diminished, leading to fewer releases from them.
It would be great if the labels could take a route like the 18th century publishers took, and find some definitive, well-known cultural critic who could create an edition of biographies and recordings that would stave off the expected influx of European releases. But that would require a critic as well known as Samuel Johnson was in his day, and I don't think that person exists.
Is Ken Burns the closest we have? It's tempting to look at the PBS/Ken Burns series Jazz and point to it as being analogous to Johnson's Lives of the Poets. But that series alone isn't comparable, because the snippets of music it offered were not as complete as the poems collected in the original edition of Johnson's Lives. Perhaps if you somehow included the box set of CDs which could be purchased to accompany the television series, or the individual CDs which Sony put out as part of the effort you would be closer... But then, the discussions offered by Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, et al would have to be even more detailed than what's currently in the series. (Perhaps not as detailed as Gunther Schuller's analyses in The Swing Era, but something like that.)
One point Ken Burns does have going for him in this comparison is that "Jazz" was a lightning rod for criticism, just as Johnson was in his day. Burns' series was criticized for giving short shrift to some artists and some aspects of jazz, such as free jazz. For instance, in his liner notes to his excellent recording Inside Out, Keith Jarrett wrote,"People who don't 'understand' free playing (like Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns, etc.) are not free to see it as an amazingly important part of the true jazz history."
Burns has also become important to PBS as a marketing icon, much in the way Johnson became for the publishers. Old shows he worked on which were previously broadcast under the title "The American Experience" such as profiles of Huey Long are now reappearing under the moniker Ken Burns American Stories.
All Burns needs now, I guess, is a young Scot jotting down every word from his lips.
Speaking of Burns — er, Robert Burns — if you're thinking of hosting a Burns night later this month, I recently discovered a US supplier for haggis.