PBS has yanked the Ben Affleck episode of Finding Your Roots from all forms of distribution including on-air, digital platforms and home video, and has shelved scheduling of the third season until the production team implements staffing and other changes to “significantly enhance the ability of PBS and WETA to oversee the editorial development of each episode on a timely basis, and to ensure that the problems that arose in episode #204 will be avoided in the future,” the programming service announced this afternoon.
PBS also has informed the series co-producers that it has deferred any commitment to a fourth season until it is satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised to a level in which PBS “can have confidence.”
PBS has insisted the show employ an additional researcher/fact-checker, and an independent genealogist to review all versions of program episodes for factual accuracy.
PBS did not insist show host and EP Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or executive producer Dyllan McGee be replaced as a condition of continuing the series.
In April, only after PBS and show producing station WNET announced they had launched an investigation, Gates and McGee apologized to PBS and member stations and promised that “moving forward, we are committed to an increased level of transparency with our co-producing partners” and that they now “respect PBS guidelines and understand our obligation to maintain editorial integrity at all times.”
Gates’ apology came as Affleck went ahead and named his slave-owning ancestor, having earlier acknowledged he’d asked for the edit because he was “embarrassed” by the discovery.
Gates’ rannygazoo might never have been exposed had it not been for the hacking of Sony emails. In April, when WikiLeaks released a searchable archive of those hacked emails, among the eyebrow-raisers was an email exchange between Gates and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton in which Gates reveals that a “megastar” had asked that the discovery he is the descendant of a slave owner be stricken from the show. Gates acknowledges in the email that he is well aware fulfilling the request “would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman” and “would embarrass him and compromise our integrity” and that “once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
And yet, that’s just what he went ahead and did.
This would be a good place to mention that Gates said today he “sincerely regret(s) not discussing my editing rationale with our partners at PBS and WNET” while adding that “throughout my many years of producing genealogy documentaries, I have always operated with rigorous ethical standards.”Where I come from, we call that “rich.”
Back when Affleck made his request, Gates decided that rather than take his “integrity compromising” concerns to PBS or WNET, which had been the show’s producing station, he should take them to Lynton. To Lynton, Gates explained it was the first time one of his show’s “guests” has asked to edit anything out of a broadcast and that several previous “guests” had discovered they too were descendants of slave owners (including Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper). Those other “guests” had not asked to censor or edit what the show discovered. But this guest, Gates noted, is a “megastar.” It would appear Gates does not think same of Ken Burns, producer of some of the most watched, and respected, documentary programming in PBS history, or CNN’s anchor Cooper.
Gates, naturally, asked the CEO of Sony Entertainment, “What do we do?”
Lynton advised taking the Affleck slave-owning ancestor reference out if no one knew about the situation, but warned it would get tricky if word got out that Gates was editing material based on this kind of sensitivity.
He was correct.
The episode featuring Affleck aired last October 14 on PBS. No reference to Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor was made. Finding Your Roots is financed, in part, according to Gates, by the Public Broadcasting Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In today’s announcement, PBS reiterated that reports of the hacked emails “marked the first time that either PBS or WNET learned of [Affleck’s] request. The next day, PBS and WNET began an internal review led by Beth Hoppe and Stephen Segaller, the executives who oversee primetime programming for PBS and WNET, respectively. As part of this process, PBS and WNET examined correspondence, production records, agreements, talent releases and other documentation regarding the episode, as well as publicly available material. PBS and WNET also interviewed the co-producers, who fully cooperated in this review. The law firm of Covington and Burling, LLP assisted in this review and provided an independent perspective.
Under the PBS Editorial Standards, primary responsibility for content “necessarily rests with the producer [which is] uniquely positioned to control its elements”, PBS said today, adding that the standards require that the creative and editorial process be shielded “from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” The standards also require producers to keep PBS apprised of potential issues during the production process “to provide opportunities for early notice and resolution of problems.”
“PBS and WNET have determined that the series co-producers violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper influence, and by failing to inform PBS or WNET of Mr. Affleck’s efforts to affect program content,” PBS said.
In concluding his statement today, Gates went with “My career has been dedicated to improving race relations and intercultural understanding in our country” and “We are very excited about the third season of ‘Finding Your Roots’ and look forward to uncovering and sharing many more incredible ancestral stories with our viewers.”