The Arcadian calm of PBS was shattered Tuesday in the wake of leaked Sony emails that revealed Ben Affleck had demanded references to a slave-owning ancestor be excised from a segment on him in the program, "Finding Your Roots." The System -- which has no role in the production of this Henry Louis Gates-hosted series -- was forced to address the controversy Tuesday, saying it was "moving swiftly to conduct [a] review."
Meanwhile, Affleck said on Facebook:
"I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth."
He then added this: "It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. 'Finding Your Roots' is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family. I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story."
Yes, this is all highly unusual -- PBS simply never airs its soiled laundry, largely because there is none to air. PBS is a distribution system, not a network, which means that it has only nominal, or largely symbolic, control over the shows which go out over the system. The real power in public television lies in the hands of the big producing stations, like WNET or WGBH, and of course in the hands of the almighty donors.
In other words, PBS's internal investigation does sound as if it will have all the investigative energy of Captain Renault's roundup of the usual suspects. Nevertheless, PBS is a proud institution and this strikes a blow -- or at least a minor and glancing one -- at that justifiable pride.
The damage however may be to Affleck -- who has already been the target of Internet trolls for years, now more than ever on the eve of his Batman. The haters look for anything to stoke their boundless meanness of spirit. This will assuredly work toward that end.
More troubling, however, are Gates' actions here. This episode presupposes that he's too cozy with powerful celebrities -- Affleck even calls him "my friend" in his statement -- who is all too willing to make the subjects of his series look good. This presupposes another question: What other editorial elisions has Gates been forced to make by his Hollywood friends?
Gates, in fact, has become in fact one of the most important suppliers to PBS -- and a valuable one, too. His recent "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" is one of his more recent, and honored, series here. Will that output be imperiled? Of course not, but it may force Gates -- as it probably should -- to examine his editorial procedures on "Roots."
Affleck? His point is only partly accurate. No, this is show not "news," but it is "informational," and viewers have every right to assume that what they are seeing is not an exercise in lily-gilding or apple polishing. In hindsight, his segments appear to have been exactly that.
Should references to a slave-owning ancestor have been made? Of course: It's the elephant in Affleck's family room, so to speak. It; s a hugely relevant part of his past.
But let him speak for himself on this. Here's the rest of his statement from Tuesday:
[Henry “Skip” Louis Gates, Jr.] decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. 'Finding Your Roots' is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family. I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. 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. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.
Meanwhile, here's the Gates' statement.
"The mission of "Finding Your Roots" is to find and share interesting stories from our celebrity guests’ ancestries and use those stories to unlock new ways to learn about our past. We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors -- never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant. Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck -- we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry -- including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
"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."