Ken Burns: People are making lots of money off ‘the big lie’ of US election fraud

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3-min read

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, known for expansive movies on quintessential American subjects like "Jazz" and "Baseball," said in a new interview that former President Donald Trump and his allies have damaged the country by promoting the "big lie" of widespread election fraud — and worse yet, they've made money off of it. 

Burns said the media environment allows people to make significant amounts of money off of false public comments, and he contrasted such misinformation with his accurate and complex stories about major events and themes of American history.

"There are a lot of people out there making lots of money on [lies], and it's being exploited — and the big lie is part of the combination of that," says Burns, whose new three-part film "Hemingway" premieres on April 5.

"If you look at the big lie, the ex-president's team raised something like $250 million between the election and the inauguration to just support something that is just factually not true," he adds. 

'You can't say we're in a post-fact place'  

He cited the defense made by former Trump attorney Sidney Powell in a court filing last week that "no reasonable person" could believe her false statements about the supposed role of Dominion Voting Systems in election fraud. Dominion is suing Powell, ex-Trump lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Fox News for defamation over assertions that the voting machine company rigged the election for President Joe Biden.

"You can't say we're in a post-fact place. It is in the financial interests of a lot of people to promote that," Burns says. "You can't do it. You have to continue to tell the truth."

Just last week, Trump defended the rioters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, saying they comprised "zero threat" and that law enforcement was "persecuting" them. The remarks align with false claims about voter fraud repeated by Trump over the months since he lost the November election, including a public address late last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando where he said the vote was "rigged." 

Trump and the Republican Party raised about $255 million over an eight-plus week period following the Nov. 3 election, a New York Times report found. Moreover, the individuals charged in the Capitol riot upped their political donations by 75% over the five-week period following the election, compared with the five-week period preceding it, NBC News reported.

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

A U.S. intelligence report released earlier this month said the false election fraud claims spread by Trump will "almost certainly" fuel further acts of domestic terrorism this year.

Burns spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

A two-time Oscar nominee, Burns has made made films for four decades on a range of topics that span "The Vietnam War" and "The Civil War" to "Country Music" and "Brooklyn Bridge." In addition to the upcoming film "Hemingway," Burns will release later this year "Muhammad Ali," a four-part documentary on the legendary boxer and social activist.

For years, he has lived and worked in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Burns said he makes his films for a wide audience and intentionally leaves out his political preferences.

"I am in the business of trying to tell stories," he says. "I hope they're good. And I speak to everyone. I do not put my politics on display in my films."

"I've got yard signs when the elections are coming," he adds. "People in my little town know how I feel."

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