Ben Affleck Names His Slave-Owning Ancestor After PBS Show Debacle

One day after Ben Affleck wrote on Facebook that he had lobbied PBS’ Finding Your Roots producer to withhold revealing he has a slave-owning ancestor, the actor took the high road and tweeted information about the relative:

In marked contrast, Finding Your Roots producer (and Harvard scholar) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this afternoon took a stab at hanging onto his gig, as PBS and WNET continue to investigate what Gates did, when and why. Gates issued a second statement about the controversy – this time alternately apologizing for what he’d done to PBS, FYR producing station WNET, and PBS member stations while, at the same time, insisting his are the “most rigorous scholarly and production values.”

“We regret not sharing Mr. Affleck’s request that we avoid mention of one of his ancestors with our co-production partner, WNET, and our broadcast partner, PBS,” Gates said in this new statement. He apologized for “putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming.”

“Moving forward,” he vowed, possibly too late, “we are committed to an increased level of transparency with our co-producing partners,” adding, “We respect PBS guidelines and understand our obligation to maintain editorial integrity at all times.”

It’s a very different pose than that assumed by Gates in his first statement, in which he boasted, “The mission of Finding Your Roots is to find and share interesting stories from our celebrity guests’ ancestries and use those stories to unlock new ways to learn about our past,” while “never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant.”

Back then, Gates said he had determined Affleck’s occult-enthusiast third great-grandfather, among other relatives, was more interesting/relevant than his slave-owning ancestor.

Gates’ second statement comes in response to PBS’s abrupt about-face from its initial statement last week on the subject, in which it said confidently that it was clear “how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity.”

Yesterday, PBS switched to a much sterner announcement that it had launched an investigation into Gates’ handling of the show. PBS’s about-face, in turn, had been triggered by a report from PBS ombudsman Mike Getler, blasting Gates’ actions and PBS’ initial reaction.

Affleck found himself cast in the role of Collateral Damage in this elaborate soap opera about dysfunctional public broadcasting relationships and Gates’ too cozy alliance with a Sony exec. Other players are the “megastars” that Gate’s show profiles under the pretext that it is teaching viewers about “history.”

Finding Your Roots is a public broadcasting series that purports to be educational. It uses celebrities to make the “history” part more attractive to as many viewers as possible – in much the same way Pawn Stars uses an old fighter-plane ejection seat to “teach” us about World War II, or a 2001 New England Patriots Super Bowl ring to teach us about the Super Bowl – or the New England Patriots?

Yesterday, Affleck wrote on Facebook that he’d told Gates he did not want a TV show about his family to reference a relative who owned slaves because “I was embarrassed” and “the very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

He insisted he’d lobbied Gates in exactly the same way he lobbies directors of his movies as to which of his “takes” he thinks the director should use, calling it “the collaborative creative process.” Of course, Finding Your Roots isn’t one of Affleck’s movies, though he was quick to note it also “isn’t a news program.”

But it is, according to Gates, funded to some degree by the Public Broadcasting Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who may not see eye to eye with Affleck on the whole “collaborative process” thing when it comes to this allegedly educational series and the various hats its celebrity subjects may, or may not, wear.

PBS aired the episode of Finding Your Roots that included Affleck’s story last fall. The whole history of the episode never would have come to light had not WikiLeaks released a searchable archive of hacked Sony emails.

Among the leaked documents was an email exchange between Gates and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton from before the episode’s broadcast, in which Gates sought Lynton’s advice about the Affleck request.

Gates acknowledged in one 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.” He also wrote, “We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found” while noting this particular celebrity is a “megastar.” Affleck has noted on Facebook that he has seen this story being framed as “censorship” on some web sites; Gates’ emails are the reason why.

“What do we do?” Gates asked Lynton, not PBS and/or WNET. He appears to have taken Lynton’s advice to take out the reference though, in fairness to Lynton, the Sony exec did also warn things would get tricky if word got out that Gates was letting celebrities edit their histories. Lynton forgot to mention things also would get tricky if word got out that Gates had sought advice from a Sony exec rather than one from PBS.

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