PBS has opened an internal review into the “Finding Your Roots” episode featuring Ben Affleck that chose not to include his family’s slave-owning ancestry at the movie star’s request.
“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,” the public broadcasting network’s statement began.
“This matter came to PBS’ attention on Friday morning, April 17th. Professor (Henry Louis) 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.
The investigation comes after the latest round of Sony leaks revealed email correspondence in which program host Gates asks Sony CEO Michael Lynton for editorial advice on whether to omit Affleck’s family history of slave ownership at the actor’s request.
“Here’s my dilemma,” Gates wrote in the email dated July 22, 2014, “confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
Lynton advised Gates to honor Affleck’s request: “I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out.”
Gates decided to leave it out, and when pressed on the issue, said the decision was purely on the editorial merits.
Some media industry experts are livid about the omission.
“It’s outrageous that PBS censored such vital information from its program and a reminder that public broadcasting, no less than its commercial counterparts, is too often deferential to those with money and power,” Mark Feldstein, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism told TheWrap on Monday.
Others suggested the case highlights the cushy relationship between the powerful and the media.
“You have to avoid angering them,” Jason Mittell, professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College, said. But it’s not the way a public broadcaster, even one that is always scrambling for funding, should operate, he added. “They’re supposed to be more independent and less accountable to private interests.”
Indeed, Gates registered such concerns in his emails to Lynton. In one, he worries that the censorship “would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.” In another exchange the professor says that excising that aspect of his past “would embarrass him and compromise our integrity.”