Back in April, the internet experienced a brief moment of Affleck-related schadenfreude after WikiLeaks published its first round of emails and documents from the 2014 Sony hacking scandal. A few of those emails, it turns out, involved Ben Affleck asking producers of the PBS show Finding Your Roots to cut a scene where the actor-director discovered his ancestor owned slaves. The Batman-to-be apologized, and PBS immediately launched an investigation into the show’s practices. That investigation is now over, and in light of its findings, The Associated Press reports the network is halting production of the show.
PBS is postponing season three of Finding Your Roots and delaying commitment to a fourth year until it is “satisfied with improvement in the show’s editorial guidelines.” In short, the network found the program had indeed screwed up:
The review found that co-producers violated PBS standards by allowing improper influence on the show’s editorial process and failed to inform PBS or producing station WNET of Affleck’s efforts to affect the program’s content.
In April, executive producer Henry Louis Gates, Jr. insisted he hadn’t censored the show, but merely “focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of [Affleck’s] ancestry.” Because what’s evidence of owning 24 slaves compared to, say, erasing any evidence from your website that you ever even had a Ben Affleck episode? Of course, that protestation of noble intentions becomes a little more suspect in light of the following information:
“Here’s my dilemma,” says Gates in one email, dated July 22, 2014, “confidentially, 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. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including (documentary filmmaker) Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
On one hand, that’s a perfectly reasonable concern. As Affleck himself pointed out, Finding Your Roots is not a news program, and has no obligation to disclose everything it discovers in the course of its research. But the fact that Gates seems to acknowledge that withholding the slavery information amounts to censorship, and that Affleck’s “megastar” status is a factor, makes it less like everyday editorial decision-making and more like outside influences pressured the show to alter its content. So even though PBS found the show’s behavior improper, there’s a debate to be had here. And that debate would make for a lively first episode of what we’re proposing for Gates’ next PBS show: Finding Your Ethics.