Ben Affleck insisted on censoring the fact that one of his ancestors owned slaves from PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” the Sony email hack has revealed.
In a hacked Sony email from July 22, 2014, now available on WikiLeaks, the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., writes to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton asking for advice: “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’s advice was to take Affleck’s family secret out of the show, as long as nobody would find out. The Sony chairman and CEO writes, “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.”
Gates, who is friends with Lynton and wrote “I need your advice,” goes on to admit that hiding facts would be a violation of PBS rules. “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.”
When Lynton responds that “it is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity,” Gates responds, “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity.”
At the time, Affleck was filming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in Detroit and Gates offered to fly there and discuss the issue but wrote, “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
Ultimately producers ceded to Affleck’s demand and no mention was made of his slave-owning ancestor. The show broadcast on October 14 last year focused on a Revolutionary War ancestor, an ancestor who was an occult enthusiast and his mother, who marched for civil rights in 1964.
Gates released a statement that read: “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.”
It continues, “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 has also sent The New York Post a statement, saying: “It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.”
A rep for Affleck didn’t immediately comment.