How Ben Affleck's Shame Over a Slave-Owning Ancestor Screwed Henry Louis Gates and PBS' Finding Your Roots

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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.” —Joint statement from PBS and New York’s WNET public television, on Tuesday

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Anyone who has regularly watched PBS’ Finding Your Roots—a show hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that traces the family history of celebrities using genealogy and genetic research—knows that once in a while, a white person will discover that an ancestor owned slaves. This is inevitable—trace the past of enough people, and you will find southern roots, and some of those southerners will have owned slaves before the Civil War. It’s an ugly historical reality, but also an inescapable one, and it’s led to some fascinating moments on the show. Gates handles these revelations with great tact, and there’s no overwhelming sense of guilt or shame foisted onto the guest. At least on an individual level, there’s no responsibility to be shouldered 150 years down the line.

When Ben Affleck appeared on Finding Your Roots in an episode that aired last October, Gates found that one of his forebears, Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves in Georgia as late as 1850. Affleck responded normally, but after the taping, his PR people reached out to Gates and asked him to remove that segment from the final broadcast—an almost literal whitewashing. Gates had a difficult choice to make—on one hand, he could stand up to Affleck, risk angering him and perhaps compromising his future goodwill with celebrities, to uphold PBS’ journalistic standards.

Instead, Gates capitulated, wiped the Benjamin Cole segment, and has backed himself into a corner due to a confluence of strange events that may end up costing him nothing less than his integrity.

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The reason any of this came to light, and spread beyond Gates and Affleck’s circles, goes back to the Sony email hack that exposed more than 30,000 private documents (which are now searchable on WikiLeaks). It seems that there’s no end to the fallout from the North Korean cyberterrorism, and Gates is the latest victim.

As it turns out, Gates emailed Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton for advice when Affleck first requested that he remove the slavery content from the program. The relevant exchange, now available due to the leaks:

Gates: Here’s my dilemma: 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: On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. 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: As for the doc: all my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know. To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.

Lynton: then it is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity.

Gates: It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity. I think he is getting very bad advice. I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through.

Lynton: yeah,, the past is the past…..

Gates: And he wasn’t even a bad guy. We don’t demonize him at all. Now Anderson Cooper’s ancestor was a real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him. Of course, the slave was promptly hanged. And Anderson didn’t miss a beat about that. Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.

Lynton: yes, bad idea.

There’s no gray area here: Gates knew it would be against PBS policy to remove the Benjamin Cole content, period.

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But remove it he did. Gawker obtained a copy of the original script, complete with the slave-owner segment, and published it today. The surprising thing is that the deleted scene isn’t hugely incendiary, and Affleck appears to comport himself well:

AT THE SAME TIME THAT ALMON WAS TRYING TO OFFER THE BEREAVED SOLACE… ANOTHER OF BEN’S ANCESTORS WAS LIVING 800 MILES DUE SOUTH. WE LEARNED THAT HIS LIFE HAD ALSO BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECTED BY THE CIVIL WAR—BUT FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS.

THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.

COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.

AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.

GATES: Really?

AFFLECK: Yeah.

GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?

AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.

COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.

WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.

AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.

GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.

AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.

GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.

THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.

ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.

AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.

GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That’s amazing.

AFFLECK: That’s pretty cool.

GATES: That’s pretty cool.

The two go on to discuss Affleck’s mother and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and that’s the end of it. It wasn’t until afterward when Affleck (or his PR people) made the unprecedented request.

At some point last summer, the script entered “picture lock,” after which, typically, no changes to the actual content are allowed. An exception was made for this episode, however, as we see from the show’s introduction after picture lock, and the introduction from the final script in August. Relevant changes in bold:

After picture lock: “IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.

THEIR ROOTS HIGHLIGHT A UNIQUELY AMERICAN PARADOX: EACH DESCENDS FROM A PATRIOT WHO FOUGHT FOR OUR NATION’S INDEPENDENCE—BUT EACH ALSO DESCENDS FROM AN ANCESTOR WHO OWNED SLAVES.

Final script: “IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.

THEIR ROOTS LEAD TO ANCESTORS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHAPED BY THE TWO DEFINING WARS IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CIVIL WAR.”

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PBS and WNET got wind of the emails, and the whole episode, last Friday. An internal investigation began, and Gates released the following statement to Michael Getler, PBS’ ombudsman:

“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.”

Considering the evidence up to this point—particularly Gates’ emails to Lynton and the late script changes—it’s hard not to think of this statement as an outright lie.

You can read Getler’s blog here calls it an “embarrassing story”—which makes it clear that PBS and WNET were not involved in the decision-making process.

“It was and is unacceptable,” Stephen Segaller, vice president for programming at WNET, told Getler. “Doing so without Thirteen’s knowledge of those circumstances is also unacceptable.”

Getler sums up his opinion thusly: “So Gates, aside from the decision he made – and it looks to me like a bad one – also, in my opinion, violated the well-known “no surprises doctrine” for public affairs programming and many other things by not informing PBS about these demands by Affleck and exchanges with Sony. The emails make clear that Gates understood the serious journalistic and credibility issues at stake, and the risks should this become public.”

PBS’ internal review continues, but it’s hard to imagine Gates not taking a very serious credibility hit at best. How this will affect Finding Your Roots remains to be seen. It’s a valuable piece of programming, and it would be a huge shame if this mistake led to its premature end. If the worst happens, though, we can safely say that Gates has nobody to blame but himself.

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