The Mailbag: Viewers React to 'Roots' Decision

By Michael Getler

June 26, 2015

Viewers reacted quickly to the PBS announcement on Wednesday about the actions it was taking as a result of a two-month investigation into an episode of the “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series hosted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The investigation stemmed from controversy over the removal of information from the program about a slave-owning ancestor of movie star Ben Affleck after Affleck requested that it be omitted and after Gates had sought the advice of a top executive at Sony but did not consult with PBS or station executives. This was also the subject of an ombudsman’s column yesterday. The mail was heavy and reflected different views but most of those who wrote to me expressed backing for the program and opposed postponing scheduling of the third season.

Here’s a Representative Sampling of the Mail

Seems like an overreaction. Throwing out the baby with the bath water? An excellent show that made a mistake and corrected it going forward is suspended? There is such a thing as redemption but the show has to be on the air in order to redeem itself.

Robert Tucker, Garden City, NY

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“Finding Your Roots" was one of my favorite programs. However, I fully support PBS and its efforts to restore complete veracity and integrity to the program. I am shocked at Professor Gates' apparent enchantment with stardom (and higher ratings) in his willingness to allow Ben Affleck a 'pass' on revealing the truth about his ancestry. This has also destroyed my admiration of Mr. Affleck. History is about discovering the truth. It is in this discovery with its requisite lessons that we gain humanity and evolve both as individuals and as nations. I pray that Professor Gates and Mr. Affleck will fully embrace the sometimes difficult truths of the past. The truth will set us all free.

Gerry O'Scannlain, Portland, OR

(Daughter of former Dutch slaveholders from Nieuw Amsterdam)

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I was dismayed at the revelation about Professor Gates' pandering to Sony Corporation and Mr. Affleck. Mr. Affleck can certainly make a request, presumably from his embarrassment regarding slavery, but making such an editing decision is an affront to PBS and viewers. Wasn't someone at PBS enforcing its Standards of Editorial Integrity or did PBS give the distinguished professor complete control because he is "distinguished"? In any event, Professor Gates has, in my opinion, sacrificed any credibility he possessed at the altar of celebrity. One hoped he wasn't like so many others who have been overtaken by their hubris. He doesn't deserve this program to continue.

Bob Wilison, Crucible, PA

‘Ridiculous’

The delay in 'Finding Your Roots' and any continued investigation into the episode with Ben Affleck is absolutely ridiculous and a waste of time and money. I believe PBS has the highest editorial standards for its programming, and the attention to detail and integrity for journalistic media are particularly excellent. However, this pursuit is over the top and calls into question your decision making more than it does the producers and host of 'Finding Your Roots'. Please find something more worthy of your skills and responsibilities.

Stacia Daniel, Arcata, CA

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I am writing to express my dismay at the delay in production of "Finding Your Roots" and the conclusion reached that Ben Affleck had undue influence about deleting his family history of owning slaves. It seems hypocritical of PBS to reach this conclusion or use this conclusion to delay production of Season 3 and question whether or not there will be a Season 4 based upon whether or not the production companies meet PBS demand for influence in future content and even staffing at these production companies. Is PBS not violating its own production standards to make these demands and threaten the future of the series? Also, the removal of episode #204 from all viewing platforms seems like needless overkill. Did Mr. Affleck sign a contract agreeing that all research findings are required to be broadcast?

Earl Hawley, Milwaukee WI

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OMG, don't you really have anything better to do than spend months investigating "Find your Roots." This TV show is amusement. AMUSEMENT!!!! I'm just flabbergasted at reading the editorial. If Justin Bieber's 8th cousin was Hitler and he didn't want me to know it, that's OK. When did PBS become the National Inquirer? Must you reveal all, if the celebrity doesn't want it so? It ain't Snowden and NSA, it's amusement. Get a grip on your own importance and that of the show.

T. Tepper, Chokoloskeem FL

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I'm writing to express concern over the suspension of a wonderful program. I am a History teacher and I greatly enjoy the program, its format and the host and guests. It's unfortunate that a guest, Ben Affleck, was permitted to affect the content of his segment. It's understandable that he would want to edit something as dreadful as a family contact with slavery, but PBS should be free of the taint of such interference with its content. Please, please, allow this program to continue to air! It teaches so much history and does it so enjoyably.

Sandy Tutton, Willistown, PA

‘Favorite, All-Time Program’

Please do not let PBS take control of the editing of this major important program of Finding Your Roots. This is my favorite all-time program and I have seen every show. I honor Henry Gates and his work. Not time for PBS to be so sensitive that they insist on micro-managing an issue about which they know little. The Afflecks and the press do not deserve the power you are giving to them. Please allow the program to continue on time and without Monday-Morning Quarterbacking.

Alfreda Weiss, Fair Oaks, CA

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RE: "Finding Your Roots" and Ben Affleck. I think you are over-reacting. This show is for entertainment not meant for historical accuracy. In doing genealogy research, you will find many inaccuracies and unknowns. Also, I don't think the public has any "RIGHT TO KNOW" if someone wants to close a branch of his family tree and search another one. All branches have a historical interest. ALL people have something they do not tell everyone and rightfully so. It is not my business to KNOW the whole world in every sterling detail. I just want to be entertained and this show does that. The truth is now revealed and are we any better or worse off for it. I think not! Society’s ills are deep and this show is not a format for healing them. We can see for ourselves how far we have come. I censor what I say to people every day and so do you. The public will eat you alive if you reveal too much of yourself and the public will make you feel small and insignificant, with little or no provocation. Just a big old gang-bang and the public moves on and you are left beat up.

Jody Nelson, Maple Park, IL

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I find it very disappointing that you feel it is necessary to postpone the airing of "Finding your Roots." Though Ben Affleck has a right to keep his ancestry private in part or in whole, why must Dr. Gates and viewers be punished? As a member of both Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org I also have the right to share or privatize any part or all of my tree from the public. I do not agree that Ben should have hidden the fact his ancestor was a slave owner, but that was his right no matter how dumb he was to do so because anyone could figure that out if they have done any genealogy of their own.

So I am asking PBS Please do not punish your viewers because Ben Affleck cannot own his ancestry in the fact his ancestor owned slaves. "Finding your Roots" is much more than just genealogy! It's history, life and knowledge. Do not postpone and from now on make a subject sign an agreement that if any unfavorable finding is found it will be aired regardless how it makes them feel and if they do not sign they will not be on "Finding your Roots."

Ripley, TN

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It seems to me that the only MORAL way to handle the Finding Your Roots Gates & Affleck scandal is to AIR THE SHOW as it was originally planned and include the information that was cut out. Perhaps Affleck would desire to be filmed doing an introduction, talking about why he pushed to nix the piece? Perhaps he might want to apologize for over-reacting, if given a chance? Who knows? I think people would be willing to listen. Perhaps also in the introduction, give Gates a chance to talk about the complexities of American heritage when it comes to race and slavery in America. Gates might want to offer an apology or an explanation for his actions and decisions before or after the show? Sweeping race issues under the rug yet again seems to me to be the WRONG thing to do, especially given recent events.

Lincoln, NE

No ‘Credibility’

PBS needs to cancel "Finding Your Roots" now. Prof. Gates no longer has the credibility to participate in any PBS program.

Cranford

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Just finished reading the news that Henry Gates will be assisting with the development of new guidelines for show production. Shouldn't he and his boss, Michael Lynton, be fired for not displaying any ethics at all and violating the trust placed in PBS?

Bob Garbarino, Denton, TX

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Please don't cancel "Finding Your Roots". It's a wonderful show that my parents and I enjoy. We've been looking forward to it. It would be a shame to cancel the series due to one error in judgement.

Leyla Kayi, South Hadley

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A problem with genealogy is that most people drop FACTS about their past. You have made your point. You have stated the facts. You have made a case for doing it correctly. Now, schedule the new season and move on. I find the show good, but being an amateur genealogist, I know things will never be correctly true. Time to move on.

Van Jones, Raleigh, NC

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I just heard about the issue with "Finding Your Roots" and withholding of information on a guest's slavery roots. I agree - that's wrong to have removed the info. But it's the guest who's being a jerk. I love this show. Please don't cancel it. Seems to me this is an opportunity for education, not censure.

Pat Larson, Salt Springs, FL

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That's part of genealogy, you take the good with the bad. You may have ancestors who owned slaves, or murdered people or did something horrible. You may have ancestors who did something great. Likely you have a little of both. If you are going to be on a show like Finding Your Roots, knowing the show's format, you have to expect to find out some things that you might find embarrassing or that you make you cry, etc. In my opinion, Affleck should have just borne it like all the other celebrities have on the show, but his choice to ask. I don't think Dr. Gates did anything terribly improper by agreeing to Affleck's wishes. Genealogy is about people, living and dead, taking the good and the bad. He instead, as he said, focused on the more interesting aspects of Affleck's ancestors. That's what they do on those shows - try to make them interesting to viewers, and show a mix of backgrounds. I don't know him personally, but I think the world of Dr. Gates and his shows. I'm a little surprised at PBS though - they have a problem with the show eliminating part of Affleck's background but they don't have a problem with Chris Rock stating emphatically that he hates all white people in African American Lives 2. So racism doesn't violate their standards? It sounds more like what they were upset about was not being consulted, being out of the loop. Sounds like more of a PBS ego problem to me. And they are dependent on donations aren't they? Dr. Gates, I love your shows. Please keep them coming.

Greensboro, NC

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I am disturbed by the suspension of Gates' wonderful program due to his overly solicitous response to Affleck's request re slave-holding ancestors. This is a superb program that highlights the multi-racial/multi-cultural aspects of our society at a time when we most need it. Yes, some sanctions were required, but this is too severe and serves the interests of those who would want to see a non-complex US.

Imperial Beach

‘Humanized Our National History’

I don't feel that the choice not to air his negative family heritage is large enough to cancel this show. The show has humanized our national history and in doing so helped to open much needed dialogue about national history. You will do our nation a dis-service by not allowing this show to continue to air.

Lin woodruff, Lee's Summit

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I am concerned that the show, Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., is on hiatus because Ben Affleck was so disturbed by finding out his family had slaves, he asked for that information to not be aired. I totally agree with his right to make this request. This isn't a news show with totally different standards of integrity. This is an entertainment show and Mr. Affleck had every right to request that not be aired and the initial decision to not air was totally appropriate. I am confused why others are confused about this, and further, why this is preventing a great show from continuing. I feel that PBS is bowing to a misguided thought by both the public and PBS itself about Finding Your Roots, in that it is clearly not a news show. I would think any person of integrity would be very disturbed to find out this information and it was up to Mr. Affleck to divulge this painful information or not, not the PBS show. He did not owe the viewers this very private information about his family and perhaps needed time to sort this out for himself. The first-rate programming that PBS has offered through the years should not be affected by an individual's right to privacy, which is what this is about. I ask PBS to reconsider their decision and to continue with this excellent show.

P. Bayer, Mason, MI

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I am extremely disappointed to hear you are suspending the show Finding Your Roots. Even though I was disappointed regarding the Ben Affleck story, I believe you are over-reacting with your decision. Please reconsider your decision and bring back Finding Your Roots.

Fremont

Posted on June 26, 2015 at 1:29 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
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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