Suspension Was the Only Option for PBS in ‘Finding Your Roots’ Controversy

Its integrity was on the line.

PBS has put the documentary program Finding Your Roots on an unwanted hiatus after it was revealed that producers of the show, including host and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., granted Ben Affleck‘s wish that his segment omit his slave-owning ancestry. The request came to light as a result of the Sony email hack. Affleck has since apologized for the edit. Gates, in those emails, questioned the omission, worried that they would be interpreted as censorship, but later defended it by saying there were other things in Affleck’s past that were more interesting than this detail.

“[T]he series co-producers violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper influence, and by failing to inform PBS or WNET of Mr. Affleck’s efforts to affect program content,” executives from PBS and WNET in New York said. The show won’t been confirmed for further broadcast until, they say, “until we are satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised to a level in which we can have confidence.” PBS wants the show to hire a fact checker and an “independent genealogist.

The network clearly understands that its integrity has been thrown into question by this controversy. Even if they understood where the producers of the show were coming from when they decided to entertain the request, PBS–and the veracity of all that’s included in their documentaries–requires decisive action that conveys just how serious this infraction was.

It’s really a shame. I watched a few episodes of the show, including the one that ultimately caused all this trouble. The shows are a fascinating history lesson that covers everything from slavery to the women’s movement. Affleck held so tightly to this one tiny detail. Had he just let them include a mention of it and then move on to what was deemed more interesting, all of these issues could have been avoided.

Which teaches all of us to, once again, keep the spin to a minimum.

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