The PBS show “Finding Your Roots” is supposed to be about digging up interesting ancestors, even the less-than-savory ones, but when Ben Affleck discovered one of his ancestors owned slaves, he wanted nothing to do with the story.
The show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., wrote to Sony USA Chief Michael Lynton in an email recently released in the Sony email hacks, “One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
Lynton seemed to be concerned about the possible fallout if news were to get out that they had made such a change, saying, “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. 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.”
“As for the doc: all my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know. To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” Gates responded.
Gates, who was concerned about editorial integrity, said that Affleck was filming the “Batman vs. Superman” movie and that he might go to visit the superstar. “I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through,” says Gates, later writing, “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
Ultimately, the show left out any mention of Affleck’s slave-owning family member, focusing instead on a Revolutionary War ancestor, an occultist, and Affleck’s mother, who marched in the civil rights movement.
Since the emails leaked, Gates released this statement: “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. We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors — never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant.”
Gates went on to say: “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry — including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother, who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”