Burying Your Roots

Questions linger over an apparent ethical blunder.
May 07, 2015
 

Last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment's computers were hacked in what was widely assumed to be an act of retaliation for the film The Interview, an alleged comedy in which James Franco and Seth Rogen were dispatched to kill North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The hackers posted more than 100,000 e-mails to and from Sony employees, including some embarrassing revelations of privately-expressed beliefs. 

Perhaps sensing that no one was talking about them lately, Wikileaks created a searchable database of the e-mails in mid-April of this year. Soon thereafter, the British tabloid Daily Mail published an article regarding a conversation between Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the executive producer of Finding Your Roots and other PBS genealogy programs, and Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton. Gates asked his friend Lynton for advice in handling a delicate situation involving "megastar" Ben Affleck. The actor had participated in an episode of Finding Your Roots, and later asked that reference to a slave-owning ancestor of his be cut from the final edit.

I've read the actual exchange between Gates and Lynton, and my take is that Gates made a clear, consistent argument that agreeing to the request would be both censorship and a violation of PBS rules. In the end, he seemed to have convinced Lynton that it would be a "bad idea."

And that probably would've been that, except that when the episode finally aired last October, there was no mention of that ancestor.

So as not to further rehash the enusing series of admissions and apologies, I'm going to link to several articles from the public broadcasting trade publication Current.

My view--and here I'll remind you that my personal views do not necessarily reflect those of Illinois Public Media, the University of Illinois, or PBS--is that is the real problem here isn't that we were denied the story of Affleck's slave-owning ancestor (who may not personally have owned any slaves, it turns out), it's that Affleck asked that it be omitted. And that we don't know what happened next.

Now, excluding that story could have been a perfectly legitimate editorial decision. The time devoted to Affleck's segment was perhaps 15 minutes or so. There isn't time for everything, so as a producer you go with what you think will be the most compelling material. (This was indeed Gates' own defense.) Furthermore, this was one episode of a ten-part series, and should be viewed in that context. During the editing process, it seems that other production executives questioned whether the revelation was too repetitive; in the previous episode, both Anderson Cooper's and Ken Burns' own slave-holding ancestors were discussed. 

That said, once Affleck made the request, that rationale flew out the window like a megastar wearing a Batman suit. At that point, I'd argue that it would've been best to include the story, not to embarrass Affleck, but to avoid any perception of outside influence. Because, as we've seen, in a world of hackers and leakers there is no longer any such thing as a private conversation. At the very least, the request should have been disclosed, perhaps in a disclaimer attached to the final edit. 

Trust is hard to earn and must be constantly reinforced. All of us in public broadcasting lost a bit of the public's trust over this, and for what? Does anyone truly care whether Big Name Celebrity had an unsavory great-great-great-grandparent? Will you avoid seeing Batbat v Superbat: Dawn of a Movie Franchise next summer over it? 

There's an inherent (pun intended) risk of genealogy: dig under anyone's family tree, and you are bound to find worms. That's what happened last year when I researched my own ancestry. I learned that a great-great-grandfather on my father's side held at least one slave. Am I proud of that fact? Not in the least. But it's there, and there's no point in hiding it. Secrets come out, and the cover-up is frequently worse than the crime.

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