Who Knew? Not Us, PBS Now Says About ‘Roots’ Controversy

Posted by Michael Getler on

First, some breaking news. This was just announced by PBS:

Statement from PBS and WNET on FINDING YOUR ROOTS Episode "Roots of Freedom" 

PBS and WNET are conducting an internal review led by our respective programming teams of the circumstances around FINDING YOUR ROOTS episode "Roots of Freedom." 

This matter came to PBS' attention on Friday morning, April 17th. Professor Gates and his producers immediately responded to our initial questions.

In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS' editorial standards were observed, on Saturday, April 18th, we began an internal review. We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review. 

Anne Bentley, PBS Vice President, Corporate Communications

~ ~ ~

Here is the column I was about to publish before this new statement came out. I feel it remains relevant as PBS and WNET undertake their own investigation.

The Ombudsman's Column

PBS is a complicated beast. Millions of people watch its television programs but my guess is that relatively few understand that PBS does not produce any of these programs. The Public Broadcasting Service is basically a distribution system for films and programs produced by independent filmmakers or by a handful of big member stations in cooperation with other producers.

I think one reason many people don’t realize PBS is nothing like a broadcast or cable network is that PBS rarely, if ever, explains itself publicly, other than to ask for money. So when something goes wrong, PBS gets hammered—and there are a fair number of people always ready to hammer PBS—by story after story in the media even when the primary reason for the failure lies elsewhere. Sometimes PBS deserves to get hammered. Sometimes it is more complicated. And sometimes we are never really sure where the fault lies because PBS doesn’t explain much.

These thoughts are simply a prelude to following up on what turned out to be a high-profile story that surfaced late Friday afternoon in an online posting by Britain’s Daily Mail that laid out, using leaked Sony Corp. internal emails previously posted by WikiLeaks, that movie star Ben Affleck wanted his slave-owner ancestor “censored” from the popular PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” which is hosted by well-known Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. That ancestral factoid was, indeed, not included in the program.

The Background

I posted a quick ombudsman’s column about this late on Friday after PBS posted statements from Gates and PBS. I wrote that I found both statements to be “not credible” and that it was hard to read the emails laid out in the Daily Mail story and come to a different conclusion. Though Gates clearly seemed to know the editorial and credibility stakes, he did not, after discussion with Sony Pictures Chief Michael Lynton, use the ancestor link in the program. This, I said, “should have been a slam-dunk,” with the censorship stopped cold, and that PBS, in its initial statement, should have publicly acknowledged whatever mistakes were made.

But I also said that I only knew at the time what I had read and that I would ask more questions and come back to this episode with whatever additional information I could gather, and that’s what I’m doing in this posting.

New Stuff Emerges

Right after PBS posted its initial statement and that of Gates on Friday, I emailed Anne Bentley, PBS vice president for corporate communications, and asked this:

“Were you (pbs) aware of this situation and these exchanges between Gates, Sony and Affleck? If so, when? Were you aware that Gates felt it was censorship? Did PBS approve of the decision to take the slave-owner material out? Did Gates tell PBS about it at the time? If you were aware of it, why did you approve it? ”

On Saturday, I got these replies:

“No, PBS did not know of the exchanges between Professor Gates, Sony and Mr. Affleck. We learned of the exchange on Friday, April 17th. No, PBS was not part of editorial decisions made by Professor Gates and his producers. No, PBS was not told at the time.”

That is a heck of a lot more candid than the initial PBS statement the day before that said only: “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.”

I was also told by PBS officials that PBS learned of the situation and email exchanges on Friday morning when The Daily Mail contacted PBS for a comment on a story that they were writing. Later that day, PBS officials spoke with Gates and Dyllan McGee, one of the executive producers, and posted the two statements on PBS.org.

On Friday evening, Gates shared additional background information with Boston.com, telling them: “I would only add that we had several stories about ancestors who owned slaves in the last season, and we couldn't use them all. Ben Affleck's just wasn't as interesting as the two others we used, and so we decided to go with the story of his ancestor following the Civil War. It made for a stronger story arc.”

The PBS officials said neither PBS nor WNET/Thirteen—the big New York City PBS member station that was among the producers—was told at the time of Affleck’s request to Gates and the producers of Finding Your Roots and were not part of that specific editorial decision made by Gates and his producers.  

I also sent a series of questions to WNET/Thirteen in New York. Here are the responses, which throw more details and light on the process, from Stephen Segaller, vice president for programming at WNET. The questions are in italics.


Were you aware of what had been found re Affleck’s ancestors with respect to the one who had owned slaves? 

Yes, the segment was in both the rough cut and the fine cut, was the subject of discussion between Thirteen and KMP [Kunhardt McGee Productions]. On April 22, 2014, Thirteen Executive Producer Julie Anderson sent notes on the rough cut to John Maggio and Dyllan McGee, questioning whether there was a danger of repetition in including slave-owning ancestor stories in three separate celebrity profiles – Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns and Ben Affleck, and recommending that they not air in sequence. On the same day, KMP Executive Producer Dyllan McGee responded: “I think your point about spacing them out in scheduling is right and I reiterate what John said that these are milestones in our histories so we will see these stories again and I would argue that it's the different way we hear them is what makes it so interesting - we are hearing familiar history for a completely different perspective and unknown story.”

Did you know about Affleck’s demand to not use the history of his slave-owning ancestor?


If so, how did you find out and from whom? 

Not until last Friday [April 17] – when Beth Hoppe [PBS’s chief Programming executive] called to alert me to the Wikileaks release.

Were you aware of Gates’ contacts with Sony’s Lynton on this issue, and of the email exchanges? 

Not at all.

Were you aware of Gates’ concerns about PBS guidelines and Lynton’s advice? 

No, we were not advised or consulted by Dr. Gates, Dyllan McGee, producer John Maggio or anyone from KMP. Any important discussions with a source, program guest, or interviewee should be disclosed to co-producers.  

Gates says that he maintains editorial control and that he “with my producers, decide what will make the most compelling program.” You are among the producers: do you consider that you were part of the decision process?

That is not quite accurate. Our co-production agreement with Inkwell (Gates's company), KMP (Dyllan McGee's) and Thirteen, specifies that editorial control is shared between the three companies. To quote the agreement: “THIRTEEN, Inkwell and KMcG will have approval over scripts, music and effects, all rough and fine cuts, and the final completed Programs. If despite good faith efforts to resolve any editorial difference, the Parties are unable to agree in any particular instance, Stephen Segaller (THIRTEEN Vice President Programming) will make the final determination.

Yes, we are among the producers or co-producers. But this (the request from Mr. Affleck regarding removing the slave-owning ancestor segment) was regrettably not an issue that was brought to our attention – so that we could be part of that decision.

What do you think about the outcome to drop the ancestral link now that you know it was Sony’s favored approach? 

Dropping that segment of 2 minutes is not important in itself. As noted, the same revelation was true of the family histories of Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, and others. Thirteen production executives questioned the repetition – but Dr. Gates's producer colleagues insisted it would stay in. But if the decision to drop the segment was based on Mr. Affleck's request, it was and is unacceptable. Doing so without Thirteen's knowledge of those circumstances is also unacceptable.

Sony has no standing in the matter. They have and had no role in the production.

Were there complications during this process that have not been disclosed and should be disclosed? 

Thirteen was not aware of the complications relating to Mr. Affleck and the emails with Mr. Lynton – so we could not disclose them.

When did you learn about the decisions Gates had made and the discussions with Sony leading up to it? 

As noted, we learned of the editorial decision to remove the Affleck slave-owning ancestor on August 11, 2014. We learned of the emails between Dr. Gates and Mr. Lynton of Sony, and Dr. Gates's concerns, only last Friday, April 17.

Didn’t anybody ask at that time (August 11) why or how that decision was made, and isn’t that something that PBS should have been informed about? 

We didn’t ask how or why the decision was made, as it was a question the earlier discussion about redundancy had implicitly raised. And we don't inform PBS of each individual editing decision. Remember, we had no idea that there were behind the scenes discussions that we were not privy to.

My Thoughts

First, in the grand scheme of things, and considering the news of our time, this was likely to be a two-day blip. On the other hand, we also live in a huge celebrity culture and this story had all the explosive power that is needed these days to get lots of attention, which it did; numerous stories on TV news broadcasts, dozens of newspaper and online articles and more than 60 emails and phone calls to me. PBS took a beating in every one.

On the broader points, it seems to me that any serious program about genealogy, especially dealing with celebrities, cannot leave out a slave-owning ancestor. It also seems clear from the emails that Gates knew the stakes involved in terms of PBS credibility yet went with the advice from the Sony executive to squelch the factoid about a slave-owning ancestor and try to keep it quiet. And, although Gates said that he and his producers decide things about the program, there is no evidence so far that this issue of cutting that segment and explaining what led up to it was presented to one of those producers, WNET/Thirteen in New York.

So Gates, aside from the decision he made – and it looks to me like a bad one – also, in my opinion, violated the well-known “no surprises doctrine” for public affairs programming and many other things by not informing PBS about these demands by Affleck and exchanges with Sony. The emails make clear that Gates understood the serious journalistic and credibility issues at stake, and the risks should this become public.

As for PBS, they just struck me as asleep at the switch when this broke. It was pretty apparent from the leaked emails what had happened and to put out a statement that said essentially nothing and very quickly looked pathetic, as if they were hiding something.

So PBS, in my view, deserves all the articles and TV reports that have PBS in the headline. PBS invests a huge amount of responsibility, and faith, in those who produce programs for it. They need producers to bring to their attention critical issues, especially ones that may reflect poorly on what people expect of PBS or might damage their credibility.

Posted on April 21, 2015 at 3:35 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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