Bad Decision, Weak Response

Posted by Michael Getler on

Late this afternoon, London’s Daily Mail posted an “exclusive” story online that says that movie star Ben Affleck “wanted his slave-owner ancestor ‘censored’ from ‘Finding Your Roots,’” a popular PBS documentary series, and that “the show’s host covered it up, leaked emails revealed.”

The leaked emails were part of the huge batch of Sony Corp internal emails that were hacked and then leaked and posted by WikiLeaks. The Mail story says the embarrassing disclosure raises questions about PBS’s editorial integrity and that of the Emmy Award-winning host of the popular series, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The emails, according to the Mail, show that Gates was seriously troubled at the time by Affleck’s insistence that the fact that one of his ancestors owned slaves be removed, believes it would violate PBS rules, and asks his friend, Sony USA chief Michael Lynton, for advice. Lynton’s advice, according to the Mail, was “all things being equal I would definitely take it out” but warns that if the move becomes public then “it gets tricky.”

The Mail story was quickly picked up by the New York Post and some others.

In response to the Mail disclosure, the following statements were issued by Gates and PBS.

Statement from Gates

The mission of "Finding Your Roots" is to find and share interesting stories from our celebrity guests’ ancestries and use those stories to unlock new ways to learn about our past. We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors—never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant. Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry—including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Statement from PBS

It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.

Some Quick Thoughts

My initial reaction to the responses above is that they are not credible, at least as far as I know right now, which is nothing more than what I’ve read. It is hard to read the Mail account and the emails and come to a different conclusion, as I read it. This, it seems to me, should have been a slam-dunk. Assuming the emails are accurate, this censorship should have been stopped cold and mistakes should have been admitted publicly, including today in the response to the Mail story. How much PBS knew, as opposed to the producers of the program, and when they knew it, that proverbial cover-up question, I don’t know and I have asked questions about that.

Late on a Friday afternoon, there is not much that I can do with this except try to make readers of this column aware, as quickly as I could, of this situation. I hope to come back to this with additional information and perhaps responses early next week. And, if I’m overreacting or the circumstances were different, I’m sure PBS or Gates will make their case.

Posted on April 17, 2015 at 6:37 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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