What happens when you uproot your family tree and unearth more dirt than you bargained for?
PBS announced Wednesday that the next season of Finding Your Roots will be postponed after an internal investigation confirmed that Ben Affleck lobbied producers to keep information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor out of the broadcast.
“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,” the statement read.
The third season will not run until “corrective measures” are implemented, including the hiring of an additional researcher/fact-checker and an independent genealogist “to review all versions of program episodes for factual accuracy.”
Finding Your Roots is a series that explores the family histories of famous individuals, hosted and executive produced by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Affleck’s episode aired last October, and that would have been the end of it if it weren’t for the Sony hack six months later. The WikiLeaks cache of those emails included an exchange between Gates and Sony chairman Michael Linton regarding an unnamed “megastar” and what information could be fodder for the PBS show.
In July, Gates wrote to Linton: “We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found.” He also said that “to do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman. Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
But Linton pressed on: “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.”
Affleck admitted to his role in the suppression of his past in a Facebook post on April 21, writing, in part, “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.” He described lobbying the Finding Your Roots producers “the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use.”
He went on to say that “I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery… While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”
Affleck also revealed the name of the ancestor in question: Benjamin Cole, a Georgia slave owner “on my Mom’s side about six generations back.”
Gates also issued a statement Wednesday, in which he said, “I sincerely regret not discussing my editing rationale with our partners at PBS and WNET and I apologize for putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming. Throughout my many years of producing genealogy documentaries, I have always operated with rigorous ethical standards. Even so, we have been working with PBS and WETA to create new guidelines to increase transparency going forward.”
The PBS investigation claims that PBS and WNET did not learn about Affleck’s request until the Sony hack made it public, and that an internal review was launched the following day. Affleck’s episode will be removed from all forms of distribution faster than the Confederate flag got pulled from Walmart’s shelves.