Henry Louis Gates Apologizes Over Ben Affleck 'Find Your Roots' Episode
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has apologized after PBS found he violated their editorial standards. Gates co-produces and hosts the genealogy show, "Finding Your Roots." The controversy centered on an episode about the family history of star Ben Affleck.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FINDING YOUR ROOTS")
HENRY LOUIS GATES: Well, let's see what we found on your mom's side of the family. We wanted to see what more we could tell Ben Affleck about the roots of his family's interest in social justice.
BEN AFFLECK: That's my grandmother, Liz. She was quite a lady. She was smart and she went to college, which was unusual for a woman in that era.
CORNISH: As it turns out, Affleck asked the program not to include the fact that one of his ancestors owned slaves, and the information did not air. PBS says it's now delaying the airing of new episodes until it can improve editorial oversight. Here to talk about the controversy is NPR TV critic, Eric Deggans.
Welcome back to the program, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So as we said, this show features celebrities learning about their family history, and the controversy actually emerged from the Sony email hack, right?
DEGGANS: Yeah, that's true. Gates wrote a friend of his who was a top executive at Sony to ask for advice after Affleck objected to the inclusion of all this slavery material, so those emails came out in April after hackers took a bunch of information from Sony and WikiLeaks published the material. Gates has said back then that he and the producers decided not to include the information about Affleck's slave-owning history because they focused on other stuff they found more interesting about his family history. Affleck himself posted an apology on Facebook, saying that he'd talked to Gates about these changes, but the process was, quote, "collaborative." So PBS started an internal investigation to figure out what happened, and then on Wednesday they issued their findings.
CORNISH: And they said that they found the show's producers violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper influence. Eric Deggans, what does that mean?
DEGGANS: Well, I'm not really sure. I asked a PBS representative that question many times, and she would only repeat back the language that's from this statement. So to me, it leaves open a question of whether or not letting Affleck lobby Gates was the problem or having him actually pressure them and get them to change the material was the problem. Now, Gates himself has put out a statement about the investigation, apologizing for not being transparent about his editing decisions, but in it that apology, he never says that the pressure from Affleck was the direct reason why he edited-out the slavery material.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, the program "Finding Your Roots," what's been the fallout for the show?
DEGGANS: Well, PBS has insisted on some changes. They want them to hire an additional fact-checker and an independent genealogist to check for accuracy. They want to see how that pans out as they do the show. And then they'll make their decision on when they're going to schedule the third season and if they're going to do a fourth season.
CORNISH: Finally Eric, help me out here. "Finding Your Roots" is essentially a pop genealogy show, right? I mean, you're looking at, like, fancy celebrities talk about their backgrounds. They could probably find it out themselves. Help me understand why this matters.
DEGGANS: Well, Professor Gates has a reputation as one of the country's leading historians, so the question of his ethical standards is kind of important. And just the optics of a seeing a rich, white movie star pressure a black historian into suppressing information about this guy's slave-owning past and his family, that's really bad on all kinds of levels. And finally, PBS has a brand as a trusted provider of nonfiction entertainment, so they have to really safeguard that brand by making sure the stuff they present to viewers is accurate.
CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic, Eric Deggans.
Eric, thanks so much for explaining it.
DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.