Posted on June 26, 2015

A PBS Show, a Frustrated Ben Affleck, and a Loss of Face

John Koblin, New York Times, June 26, 2015

In January 2014, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was over the moon.

Mr. Gates, a Harvard professor and public intellectual, had just finished an interview with the actor and director Ben Affleck for the second season of his PBS show, “Finding Your Roots.” The show investigates the ancestries of celebrities like Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Alba, and Mr. Affleck was apparently a dream guest.


{snip} Mr. Affleck became frustrated that his interview on “Finding Your Roots” included a discussion about a slave-owning ancestor of his named Benjamin Cole. Mr. Gates worried that if they cut that detail, it would be perceived as censorship.

By the time WikiLeaks posted a trove of hacked Sony emails two months ago, Mr. Gates’s correspondences were revealed, and his worst fears came true. Mr. Affleck had lobbied Mr. Gates to omit the part about the slave-owning ancestor. Mr. Gates had chosen not to include it. And one blatant omission had managed to hurt the reputations of a prominent academic, a Hollywood superstar and an esteemed public television broadcaster.

On Wednesday, PBS said that an investigation into the controversy showed that Mr. Affleck had exerted “improper influence” over the editorial process and that the producers of the show, Mr. Gates included, had erred by not informing the network of the actor’s “efforts to affect program content.” PBS said it would postpone the third season of the show until a fact-checker was hired and an “independent genealogist” was added to the show’s staff. PBS also will not show Mr. Affleck’s episode anymore and removed it from its online archive.


Mr. Gates still contends the omission was an editorial decision, his spokesman said on Thursday. That assertion is in stark contrast to opinions he expressed in emails to Mr. Lynton last July, in which he expressed exasperation over how Mr. Affleck “asked us to edit something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves.” He said that it was in “violation of PBS rules” and that “once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”

If it became known that he cut that part of the interview with Mr. Affleck, Mr. Gates wrote, it would embarrass Mr. Affleck and “compromise our integrity.” Mr. Affleck said in a Facebook post in April that he was embarrassed to learn about his relative and that he “lobbied” Mr. Gates, who also goes by Skip, about what should go into the show. He said it was Mr. Gates’s decision alone.


The show has featured other celebrities who have had slave-owning ancestors, including Derek Jeter, Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper.