PBS and WNET did a “good job” in their investigation about the censoring of the Ben Affleck episode of Finding Your Roots and made “sound recommendations” that send a “strong message” to all PBS program producers, PBS ombudsman Mike Getler says.
But he’s not sure the steps taken will fix the basic problem brought to light by the Sony email hack: the judgment of show host and exec producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. Getler also expressed concern the investigation did not appear to have probed claims the show made inaccurate statements about Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement.
On Wednesday, PBS announced it had yanked the episode of Finding Your Roots from all forms of distribution, including on-air, digital platforms and home video. PBS also said it would not schedule a third season until the production team implemented staffing and other changes to significantly improve the ability of PBS and WETA (now the producing station) to oversee the editorial development of each episode and ensure what happened in that botched episode never happen again. They ordered the show to employ an additional researcher/fact-checker, and an independent genealogist to review all episodes for factual accuracy.
In April, when WikiLeaks released a searchable archive of the hacked Sony emails, it revealed an exchange between Gates and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton in which Gates said a “megastar” had asked that the discovery he is the descendant of a slave owner be stricken from the show. Gates said in the email that 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.” Lynton advised taking the Affleck slave-owning ancestor reference out if no one knew about the situation. Gates did that.
Today, Getler commended the top primetime programming execs at PBS and WNET for insisting on the changes after concluding their investigation. But, he said, a fact-checker and independent genealogist won’t solve the show’s biggest problem.
“The problem with the main issue surrounding this episode ultimately was Gates’ judgment, not the facts,” Getler wrote. “One of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfathers did own slaves. But the egregious error here was in seeking and then apparently letting advice from a commercial source (Sony) have some influence on a producer, and the producer appearing to act on that advice.
“That is deadly for public broadcasting,” Getler warned.
Additionally, the ombudsman cautioned, while you can argue that Finding Your Roots is not really “news” or journalism, there is an expectation by viewers that the show deals in “facts and documentation.”
“There is no evidence that any kind of journalistic culture was at work in this case,” he chastised.
Getler added, stingingly, he will have to hope the changes PBS has asked for also “will inject some new understanding of journalistic fundamentals” into the program’s creators.
Meanwhile, Getler wondered why the PBS investigation report did not look into what had been the focus of the botched episode: the role of Affleck’s mother in the 1960s civil rights movement. The Daily Mail ran a report after the episode aired, Getler reminded, “saying Affleck’s mother had not been a ‘Freedom Rider in 1964’ and had not taken part in that ‘Freedom Summer,’ as stated in the episode.
“Mrs. Affleck—then known by her maiden name, Chris Boldt—was indeed a civil rights activist but was not a Freedom Rider and was not in the South in 1964, but rather a year later.”
That Daily Mail report quotes Affleck’s mother saying in an interview: “I supported what they did. People have incorrectly said I was a member, which embarrasses me because I wasn’t as good as they were.”
Getler hypothesized: “The mother’s story is something that presumably would have been caught by a fact-checker interviewing Mrs. Affleck. But it also should have been checked routinely at the time, and how this fascinating but apparently untrue story got into the program is not explained in the investigation conclusions made public.
“It is also important, in my view, because it was used as a peg to not only help define Affleck but to introduce into the program powerful pictures of the Freedom Riders, while Gates told the story of the murder of three activists and described them as Affleck’s mother’s ‘fellow activists’ and said ‘and your mother was there,'” Getler reported.
That troubling allegation about the episode still “seems unexplained,” Getler concluded.