Most people have a positive impression of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the non-profit television station that produces top-notch educational programming for children and adults alike. It’s one of the most respected broadcasting networks in the world and is beloved by its fans.
Scandal At PBS?
How would you react if you found out that that major Hollywood star Ben Affleck had compromised the integrity of the entire network with a selfish act of pride? This exact scenario played out in 2015, after Affleck made an appearance on PBS’ series Finding Your Roots, which the station describes as a vehicle to help people “discover long-lost relatives hidden for generations within the branches of their family trees.” Here’s what happened.
Finding Your Roots
Finding Your Roots aired its first season in 2012, from March to May. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the distinguished historian and literary critic, the show uses sophisticated genetic testing combined with traditional genealogical research to map a detailed family tree for its guests, who are usually famous. Notable guests have included LL Cool J, Neil Patrick Harris, John McCain, Bill Hader, Stephen King, Tina Fey, Oprah, and many more. Ben Affleck was slated to appear in a Season 3 episode, which ended up being postponed due to the ethical problems he ended up causing the network.
Ben Affleck’s Family History
During the show’s research into Affleck’s family history, they found an unexpected fact: one of his ancestors had owned slaves. A lot of slaves — 24. This is understandably shocking news, but it’s a finding that happens every so often on Finding Your Roots. There’s no telling what kind of secrets and scandals could be brought up when digging deep into family history, especially given the racism that’s so prevalent in America’s past. In fact, there were five guests in Season 3 (Affleck’s season) who found out the same thing. But rather than admitting that he had a distant relative who was a slave owner, as the other guests had done, Affleck decided to bury the story.
Request To Scrub The Story
Affleck approached Gates and requested that the show not make any mention of the slave-owning relative. Surprisingly, Gates went along with the plan, neglecting to notify PBS executives or the show’s producers about the omitted content. Unfortunately for him, this took place soon before the WikiLeaks hack that exposed hundreds of confidential Sony emails. The leak exposed an email Gates had sent to the head of Sony Pictures: “”[C]onfidentially, 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. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” He was told by the Sony bigwig to axe the segment
Fallout was quick once the emails were leaked to the public. The sterling reputation of PBS as an institution of journalistic integrity was in jeopardy. PBS quickly conducted an investigation of the situation, and issued a statement upon the conclusion of their probe. “PBS and WNET [which helps produce the show] 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.” Season 3 was postponed and the broadcaster decided never to air or distribute the Affleck episode.
Apologies and Aftermath
Gates took the situation very seriously. He publicly stated how deeply he regretted his actions and the fact that he had placed PBS in a position where their integrity was called into question. He later worked with PBS to establish stricter guidelines for greater transparency in the editorial process.
Affleck took to Facebook to issue this apology: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
The next season of Finding Your Roots, still hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, is currently in production.