PBS might be wishing it hadn’t trimmed a branch off Ben Affleck’s family tree.
The public broadcaster said Tuesday that it will conduct an internal review after questions were raised over its genealogical series “Finding Your Roots,” which is alleged to have honored Affleck’s request to delete a slave-owning ancestor from a planned segment about his family’s past.
“In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS’ editorial standards were observed ... we began an internal review,” read a statement from PBS and WNET, the New York-based member station that is behind the show.
The Affleck matter came to light in emails that were hacked from Sony last year and then more recently distributed widely through the website WikiLeaks. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who hosts the series about celebrities getting in touch with their family trees, was troubled by Affleck’s request to delete mention of a slave-owning relative. Identifying Affleck only as a “megastar,” he asked for advice from friend and Sony boss Michael Lynton, who advised him to accede to the celebrity’s request but cautioned that the situation could get “tricky” if word got out. The episode aired in September.
Once the ordeal became public late last week, Gates issued a statement saying that he retained full editorial control over “Finding Your Roots” and that the decision was made to focus on the “most compelling” elements of the Affleck family’s past. That included a Revolutionary War ancestor and a mother who marched for civil rights, but no slave owner. Separately, PBS said Friday that it chalked the Affleck omission up to “independent editorial judgment” and added that the “range and depth of stories on ‘Finding Your Roots’ speak for themselves.”
But Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, blasted the responses from Gates and PBS as “not credible.” On Tuesday, he added a new column assailing Gates’ decision as a “bad one” and noting that the scholar had failed to notify PBS of the Affleck issue when it first arose. The network, meanwhile, was “asleep at the switch,” he wrote.
PBS needs “producers to bring to their attention critical issues, especially ones that may reflect poorly on what people expect of PBS,” Getler wrote.
Viewers have hammered the network for what they have deemed an airbrushing of a celebrity’s family history. On Comedy Central on Monday night, Larry Wilmore ridiculed Affleck and PBS over the issue by summoning the ghost of the star’s slave-owning ancestor.
In a Facebook post late Tuesday, Affleck said he regretted asking that information about his ancestor be removed from the telecast but wrote that he was “embarrassed” by his family’s slaveholding past.
But Affleck is hardly the only celebrity to have a controversial family past. Baseball star Derek Jeter, news anchor Anderson Cooper and PBS documentarian Ken Burns all discovered on “Finding Your Roots” that they had ancestors who owned slaves.
The Affleck episode is no longer on the “Finding Your Roots” website but a PBS spokeswoman said that is because there is a “limited streaming window” for finished episodes.
What do you think of the Affleck genealogy scandal? What should PBS do next?