Ben Affleck Regrets Slavery Omission, PBS Launches Investigation

This isn't looking so good for Henry Louis Gates Jr either.

Ben Affleck took to Facebook to express his embarassment after finding, through the PBS show Finding Your Roots, that he has a slave owner among his ancestors. The discovery prompted his request that the show keep mum on that element of his family history, which has kicked up some trouble for the show and the network. Now PBS has launched an investigation into how the situation was handled.

“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story,” Affleck wrote. Saying the thought left a “bad taste” in his mouth, he continued, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”

Affleck said he “lobbied” the show the way he would a director for a film. He justifies the move by noting that Finding Your Roots isn’t a “news program.”

However, as CBS News notes, it is a documentary show where facts and real life share the spotlight with the A-list stars who appear. So an omission like this is a big deal.

In a statement to the AP, the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr, a Harvard scholar that Affleck calls “Skip,” says the show has more material than they can use. This detail about Affleck’s past was discovered after Wikileaks disclosed leaked Sony emails from last year’s massive hacking. Gates says in a message that the omission would violate PBS’s rules “even for Batman.”

“[O]nce we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand,” Gates continues in one email. Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton also predicted that it would be an issue if anyone ever found out they cut the bit. But he and Gates honored Affleck’s request.

“We decided to go with the story we used about his fascinating ancestor who became an occultist following the Civil War,” Gates said in his AP statement. “This guy’s story was totally unusual: We had never discovered someone like him before.” Other stories have included histories tied to slavery.

Now that PBS has this information, they say they’ve launched an “internal investigation.”

“This is a brand that is known for great work of all kinds and certainly a lot of integrity. So certainly when something like this comes along, it’s a cause of great concern,” said Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein in the CBS clip.

The PBS investigation has to uphold its standard for truth in storytelling. We wouldn’t be surprised by a strong response once the investigation is over. Already, the network’s ombudsman has put out a strong response:

“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.

“…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.

Oh snap. Sounds like there could be more editorial involvement from the network in the show’s future.

Gates, who says he has editorial control over the show, admits that this bit of editing would break the rules but did it anyway. He and the show will have to reassure viewers that this sort of “lobbying” doesn’t have the same result for future episodes. His job and his personal rep stand to lose quite a bit from this episode. A more formal apology will be in order here.

There are worse things that could have been revealed. Ultimately, it’s clear that Affleck realizes that. All Hollywood superstars should take heed: Sometimes you have to sit back and let others take control of the story.

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