Newly published emails from WikiLeaks reveal that film star Ben Affleck wanted PBS to edit out mention of his slave-owning ancestor from the network’s popular program Finding Your Roots.
According to hacked Sony emails, Affleck apparently made this request to the show’s host, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which created a dilemma for the professor and Sony CEO Michael Lynton.
The two traded emails about the issue, leaving the impression that Gates had no intention of leaving that part of Affleck’s ancestry on the cutting room floor. The professor wrote Lynton last July, “. . . 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.”
Gates added, “Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns.” Burns directed and co-wrote the incredibly popular and critically acclaimed Civil War series, which also aired on PBS.
Affleck’s ancestor “wasn’t even a bad guy,” according to the professor, in contrast to Anderson Cooper’s, who “was a real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him. Of course, the slave was promptly hanged. And Anderson didn’t miss a beat about that.”
He went on, “To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” a reference to Affleck’s upcoming role at the caped crusader in next spring’s Batman v Superman.
“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Gates inquired of Lynton.
The Sony chief wrote advising to let Affleck have his way. “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.”
Gates was clearly not comfortable with the answer. “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand,” he wrote back. Nonetheless, the segment about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not make the final cut when it aired on PBS in October 2014.
In a statement, Gates took full responsibility for the decision, writing:
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. 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.
PBS in a separate statement added, “It is clear from the [email] exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity.”
In addition to his PBS program, Gates experienced nationwide notoriety as one of the participants in Barack Obama’s “Beer Summit” in 2009. The professor got into an altercation with police, when officers showed up on his property in response to a 911 call regarding a potential burglary. He had to force open his own door following an overseas trip. Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Berkeley-born, Massachusetts-raised Ben Affleck was rumored to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate from the Bay State in 2012 and has been fairly active in Democratic politics. His wife Jennifer Garner said in 2013: “Right now [Ben] feels like he can do more good for people politically from outside the system.” She added, however: “Would I be surprised if one day he did go into politics? No.”
Do you feel Ben Affleck should have asked PBS to remove his slave owner ancestry from its program? Leave a comment below.
This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Equipping You With The Truth