Ben Affleck-PBS Controversy Is Just a Media Tempest in a Teapot (Opinion)

Ben Affleck-PBS Storm the Latest Media
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Perspective is often the first casualty in any juicy story. And so it is with the kerfuffle over Ben Affleck asking Henry Louis Gates Jr. to edit his slave-owning ancestry from the program “Finding Your Roots.”

Now, let’s be clear about what that program is, and isn’t. It is not “Frontline.” It is, rather, a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy. And like celebrities in all kinds of image-burnishing showcases, the “guests” — which, tellingly, is how Gates refers to them in the emails that were released — often make requests (and in some instances, demands) regarding the way they are going to be presented.

Still, the flap over Affleck’s plea to expunge what he considered an embarrassing branch of his family tree grew to hurricane proportions thanks to a perfect storm of irresistible elements for the media. They include, but are not limited to, the delicious way the story was exposed (via the WikiLeaks dump of Sony emails); the picture of Affleck behaving like an entitled movie star, reinforcing those perceptions; and the fact that a lot of people don’t much care for the actor-director or PBS, in many cases for the same reason.

Simply put, Affleck is a shining representative of liberal Hollywood, someone who has openly talked about politics (there was even speculation about him running for office) and testified before Congress. And PBS remains a service that many conservatives would like to gut, seeing it as an example of both left-leaning journalistic elitism and an unnecessary government program – in political terms, strikes one and two.

Then there’s Gates, the Harvard professor whose 2009 arrest in Boston prompted President Obama to publicly defend him and criticize the police. The blowback from those remarks resulted in the awkward “beer summit,” and handed further ammunition to Obama critics.

Just to be clear, Affleck’s attempt to get the material removed was silly, and Gates’ cooperation – after oddly querying Sony chief Michael Lynton for advice – looks spineless. The host and PBS also compounded the error with their fumbling reaction when the news broke.

In the bigger scheme of things, however, it’s not a particularly significant story – or at least, would not have been, had the accumulation of factors not made for the kind of celebrity fodder the media simply can’t resist: Ben Affleck! Leaked emails! Censorship (OK, selective editing, but when you’re on a roll, who has time for nuance?)! That appraisal, moreover, would be the same if the situation involved a lesser star or a politically conservative one, which would only mean that fewer and different people would profess to care.

Nor is the animosity toward Affleck, it should be noted, confined strictly to politics. Just go back and read the fan reaction to the news that he would take over the role of Batman in the upcoming Batman-Superman movie, and a casual observer would conclude any improprieties perpetrated by past generations must pale in comparison.

This is not intended as an apology on behalf of Affleck, who issued a statement expressing contrition for his response. Still, he wasn’t wrong in pointing out that “Finding Your Roots” “isn’t a news program.” He was just too polite to identify the show for what it is — namely, a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.

Thanks to that confluence of factors, the crush of coverage isn’t surprising. But take a clear-eyed look just below the surface to examine the roots of this “controversy,” and it’s pretty obvious that Affleck and Gates’ ill-advised actions don’t add up to much more than the proverbial tempest in a Boston teapot.

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  1. Politically Incorrect says:

    Ben’s problem is that he’s a democrat.

  2. We all no doubt have a skeleton or two in our closets. We all know that Affleck is very much a liberal. He’s upset that a liberal was found to have a slave owner in the family tree. After all the liberals want everyone to think that its only the conservative types who had slaves. I would love to have Mr.Gates Check my family tree, although its probley boring.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Exactly what I thought, Mr. Lowry – what a tempest in a teapot (and, yes, “teapot” is correct)! Another flimsy excuse for outrage in Fox News-land…and a twofer at that: a chance to pile on a “Hollywoood librul” AND NPR! Oh, bliss!!

  4. Unless my great-great-great-great grandmother got shtupped by a Cossack in the Shtetl, I’m not too worried about what Dr. Gates would find.

  5. Sherman O says:

    Have to laugh. The insults hurled here Mr. Affleck by the black posters only underscores the constant harping of racism behind every tree and under every rock. Frankly, their offensive and racist comments only throws kerosene on any honest discussion about the past. So what if Ben Affleck has had a slave owner in his family tree? He was embarrassed about it. What would these provocateurs want, for him to proud of it? Everybody has a skeleton in their family closet.

  6. Marlene says:

    Why should someone be tarnished by something done in his or her bloodline generations prior? It’s absolute rubbish. This is all a bunch of crap.

  7. John Dartigue says:

    Mr. Lowry, some of us blackfolk are not as bright as some whitefolk like you and Mr. Affleck. We do take seriously what appears on PBS and what Henry Gates says and does; we look upon it as information to be trusted, not entertainment-show puffery. (Of course, maybe now we won’t be able to any longer.) This actually is more than a kerfuffle, and I’m sorry you don’t see it that way. Both men should be embarrassed by their actions, especially Gates, who should know better, and both should be singled out for those actions. Affleck should have declined the invitation to participate in the show if he felt a need to whitewash, and Gates should have dropped the segment and found a replacement rather than acquiesce. Shame on ’em both.

  8. Mikey Razor says:

    I live in Las Vegas Nv. and back a few years Ben Affleck used to play in several different casinos. He was always a gentleman and quite generous….excuse me, VERY GENEROUS. This is a guy who remembers what it was like to not have. To make minimum wage and just get by. I find it hard to believe that he had anything less than empathy for those who may have been upset or angered by this news. Why cause an uproar if it can be avoided. I may not have made his same choice but in all truth, who has never been embarrassed by a relative? Dead or alive there’s always someone who you wish was not related to you because of their bad choice? This is way overblown.

  9. Kevin says:

    Quite frankly, as a 50-ish black man, my guard has always immediately gone up as soon as I hear anyone
    of white ethnicity speak with a very heavy Boston accent in much the same way as I react to white indi- viduals with thick Southern accents.
    I was a kid living in Upstate New York during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, who saw vile images from the deep South on nearly a daily basis in the media of my people-unarmed and peacefully assembling in protest-being clubbed by so-called officers of the law, mauled by police dogs, and pummeled off of their feet and nearly drowned by fire hoses. However, the most soul-searing image that I ever had the misfor-
    tune to see was a young black man with his arms being held by one psychotic racist while another waste
    of existence was using a skewered flagpole, with an American flag hanging from it, to attempt to impale
    this defenseless kid. Neither of these horrendously foul freaks looked to be much more than boys them-
    Affleck doesn’t deserve an unconditional pass for trying to “white knight” his family history or convenient- ly overlooking the fact in that tired-ass movie “Argo” that there were a number of black hostages during
    the Iranian Embassy crisis who were ultimately released. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t deserve an uncondition-
    al pass for trying to play down his despising “anything-darker-than-him” past by pretending to be so re-
    morseful for the felony assault of an Asian man years ago, when he never bothered to mention that he
    also savagely beat down a few black kids back in the day. And lastly, President John F. Kennedy doesn’t
    deserve an unconditional posthumous pass for once telling Frank Sinatra that he definitely didn’t want him to bring Sammy Davis, Jr. with him for an upcoming visit to the White House.
    There are few things more reprehensible than someone who selectively soft-peddles a cheesing and grinning form of racism to satisfy a self-serving agenda. At least I know exactly where I stand with a
    Confederate flag-waving, good ol’ boy who scowls at me and declares to the world every chance he gets that he hates ni**ers.

  10. Guest says:

    Gates and Lynton are brothers in law

  11. EK says:

    It’s teacup, not teapot.

  12. Vino says:

    Were you “asked” to write this simple-dimple nonsense? Afflect-Gates > failed !

  13. Truth Teller says:

    The media had a crucial role to play in this Republic, to keep public figures and politicians honest and make certain that “The People” get unfiltered truths to base their opinions and political support on. The media failed to do this, and we get next to no real stories reported on earnestly these days. So that allows the scum amongst us to steal our money, take away our rights, and live like royalty for decades on end.

    This is an example of editing out facts and deleting one of the most important facts dug up on a show that is supposed to be about digging up and discovering facts.

    This shows that facts and truths are not reported IF powerful people don’t want them to be. That is the most un-American and damaging event that can take place on a news program.

    They simply have no credibility now.

    Facts matter, the feelings, political whims, and agendas of news people and their shows should not, but we all know that they do, and that has been crushing this nation.

  14. Truth Teller says:

    Actually, this is a MEGASTORY and one of the biggest examples of how so called “news” and historical shows have failed the American public and contributed to the country’s great decline.

    The truth is that reporting “the truth” is pretty meaningless in today’s media. News shows only show stories or shape stories that fit the agenda of those running the shows.

    I’m guessing 8 or 9 out of every 10 Americans are brainwashed by the falsehoods and government touched doctored and semi-true stories that are slammed down American’s throats every day.

    Seeing how one no backbone “news” show bent to a Hollywood star is only the tip of a massive iceberg.

    This is a massive story and this is only the small beginning, if people will actually report the truth.

  15. Eric says:

    …and of course the liberal Hollywood magazine Variety covers the whole thing as an overreaction by conservative media.

  16. KWK says:

    I liked Affleck in HOLLYWOODLAND, and I thought his directing of GONE BABY GONE was exemplary…but as human being/celebrity, he’s never entered my consciousness all that much. What concerns me are all the diatribes being levelled at PBS…which has been tainted by this “scandal”. PBS provides sensational programming, year after year (its recent mini-series on the Roosevelts – intimately detailing BOTH Teddy (R) and FDR (D) – was amazing). PBS should seriously review Dr. Gates’ tenure with this program/network.

  17. Nietzsche says:

    Well written opinion piece.

  18. Jeff says:

    Kim Jong Un (for it was he, according to our very own FBI, who engineered the Sony hack) is laughing his fiendish communist dictator’s laugh at this fiasco. He is on the verge of destroying America. When citizens lose faith in their most celebrated celebrities, because they’ve been unmasked as hypocrites with feet of clay, surely the end is near.

  19. Ted Faraone says:

    No kidding, Brian. Never put anything in writing or say it in the presence of a recording device unless you are prepared to read it in the newspapers and have your friends and relatives — and business associates do the same.

    Which leaves me with the question about why all of this ended up in stored emails — with apologies to Jay Leno: What were you thinking, guys?

  20. Julienne says:

    what a dope

  21. Nicholas P. Schiavone says:

    Dear Mr. Lowry,

    Just because you are world-weary (or find Hollywood harrowing) does not mean that the PBS “Finding Your Roots” matter seen in the context of ethical and moral sensitivity is not a serious one. Admittedly, in a world suffering the pain and shock of too many atrocities, this situation is small potatoes. (Allow me to observe, however, that the Irish potatoe famine of 1845-1949 was a dreadful matter and that we’d do well to reflect on the conditions of the workers who pick the vegetables we eat today. You see most everything has a moral dimension, if we’d only be sensitive to it.)

    Alas, a Harvard Professorship and Hollywood Stardom do not automatically bestow a lower standrad of ethical or moral practice on PBS or WNET. In fact, I believe that PBS and WNET acknowledge that much yesterday.

    In fact, this really is a teachable moment. If we cannot choose the history before our birth, then one terribly challenging life lesson is how we deal with such things if we find ourselves “cursed” by our histories in some way. What you ought to read is David Brook’s new book, “The Road to Character.”

    I appreciate your fatigue with nonsense. There is too much nonsense now. At some point, enough is enough. I grew up in Boston. We had a Tea Party not a Tea Pot. History counts. Hollywood, not so much, when reality and ethics are victims of sensitivities celebrated by Variety versus Public Media.

    Thank you for listening. Onwards and Upwards.

    Nicholas P. Schiavone

  22. jjl80126 says:

    It is more than just a tempest in a teapot.

    Mr. Gates appeared genuinely troubled about redacting that part. Mr. Affleck is enshrined in the “Roots of Freedom” section of the show, For “having been long engaged in the battle for Freedom and civil rights”, which would be a gross error or in fact a lie. With tent pole movies on the way and a new election cycle fast approaching, he behaved with childishness and an elitist manner. Anderson Cooper, who was thought the original celeb, was fine his “s.o.b.” Slaveowner relative.

    The reason Mr. Lynton was involved – Harvard. Mr. Gates is a long term employee at Harvard. Mr. Lynton was a graduate and is on the “Board Of Overseers” of Harvard. I am sure their paths have crossed and Mr. Gates went to a professional in entertainment with his quandary. It appears they shared correspondence about many things.

    • Vino says:

      If you see the Lynton name anywhere: beware !

    • jjl80126 says:

      A peripheral email: Mr Gates wanted Mr Lynton to present Harvey Weinstein the WEB Du Bois Medal, which is presented by the center that Mr. Gates is director at Harvard and Mr. Lynton is on the board(Your Harvard Connection). “I would do many things for you, almost anything, but not that”.

  23. dbk636466 says:

    Amen Brother….YOU nailed it on the head…I just don’t understand why the media would waste such precious air and print time on something so tedious…there are so many more important things happening in the world at this very minute that would be better served than reporting on Mr. Affleck’s family tree.

  24. Mjkbk says:

    Oh PLEASE, Brian Lowry, you can’t tell me that if this “kerfuffle” involved a prominent conservative seeking to hide his KKK ancestry, you’d STILL consider all the media fallout to be just a tempest in a teapot?

    Don’t insult our intelligence as readers.

    • bettheduck says:

      excellent point I like Ben Affleck as a person, actor and director..but I doubt this was the flash moment he knew about his ancestors slave took some egotistical Harvard professor to tell him.. Doubtful..he knew it from family dinners please..

  25. Contessa46 says:

    This is so NOT a big deal. Don’t you think ALL show are edited for content? What are you going to do now, have an investigation of every star who appeared to see of something nefarious was in their ancestral past and make sure we all know about it. Wtf, there is more interest in this than the war crimes of Bush and Cheney in Iraq!!!!!!! How many of our soldiers were killed because of that fiasco?

    • Truth Teller says:

      @Contessa46 –
      You could not be more wrong!

      The media had a crucial role to play in this Republic, to keep public figures and politicians honest and make certain that “The People” get unfiltered truths to base their opinions and political support on. The media failed to do this, and we get next to no real stories reported on earnestly these days. So that allows the scum amongst us to steal our money, take away our rights, and live like royalty for decades on end.

      This is an example of editing out facts and deleting one of the most important facts dug up on a show that is supposed to be about digging up and discovering facts.

      This shows that facts and truths are not reported IF powerful people don’t want them to be. That is the most un-American and damaging event that can take place on a news program.

      They simply have no credibility now.

      Facts matter, the feelings, political whims, and agendas of news people and their shows should not, but we all know that they do, and that has been crushing this nation.

      • GKN says:

        Seriously? Not knowing that Affleck had a slave-owner among his ancestors 200 years ago steals your money and takes away your rights? Now that’s what I call clear-headed thinking. I take it then that Affleck not knowing everything about your ancestors, including things you don’t even know yourself also steals his money and takes away his rights. Clearly. Good Lord. I’m beginning to think we should start testing people for delirium tremors before allowing them to vote…

  26. Vino says:

    The Affleck-PBS story shows how Power is exercised.

    • Katherina says:

      PBS is a Great Channel Who cares if it’s government or not they have wonderful programming. And how dare you call Professor Gates spineless. Let’s get to the real facts if Ben Affleck didn’t want this on the show he should’ve never gone on the show. And that’s the bottom-line

  27. JP says:

    I have no problem with Affleck’s reaction because I can imagine he was ashamed and didn’t want to be associated with it. If you found out your great grandparent was a serial murderer or a Nazi, I’m sure you’d ask it not be included. He issued an apology and as a black woman, I accept it wholeheartedly. I think his reaction was a natural one. I know he agreed to it to start, but he clearly wasn’t thinking about the negative possibilities of what could be found.

    I don’t view the show as news at all. It feels firmly like entertainment, and not like Dateline type of news entertainment. I think it being on PBS makes it seem like it has an element of truth telling, but NBC had a show like this before and it also didn’t feel like news despite it basically being run by their news department.

    Lastly, no part of this is “breaking news”. I got an email of this as “Variety Breaking News” Let’s be a little more discerning of this usage in the future. The regular story wouldn’t amount to breaking news, an opinion on the controversy in no way even remotely does.

  28. SAMURAI36 says:

    The only correct thing here that the author states, is that perspective is indeed the first casualty. But not in the was he has tried to convey.

    As a Black man who is a fan of Gates, & even a fan of Affleck, I’m disappointed in the latter’s initial response, but at least he offered an apology after the fact. But that still doesn’t make it less disappointing. I would have been more impressed, of Affleck had acknowledged his family history right off the bat (I can’t be convinced that Gates’ revelation was the first that Affleck had heard about this deep dark “kerfuffle”, as the author attempts to downplay it). It would give Affleck more liberal credibility; he could publicly denounce his family’s involvement, visited a couple of African Slave Holocaust museums, took pics with Al Sheraton, & won a few brownie points with the Black community. Not that any of the above is the most sincere approach, but it would at least appear far more sincere that the usual post-facto “oops, I’ve been found out” apology.

    No, it’s not “Frontline”, but I don’t see why that matters. Is it because very few people would have even heard about this story? And what if it was on Frontline, what then?

    In typical white folks deflecting fashion, the author brought up Gates’ past, Obama, PBS, left & right wing politics, & anything else of absolute irrelevance, in order to perform the media sleight of hand, in order to preserve Affleck’s precious name, & cover up the fact that Ben’s pappy’s pappy’s pappy owned a stable of Black stallions.

    Bottom line, this story doesn’t matter to you, & it doesn’t have to. I doubt your bloodline was the victim of one of the worse atrocities in the past millennium. But that doesn’t mean that stories like this don’t matter to others of us.

    • No Bueno says:

      “In typical white folks deflecting fashion”

      Bigot much? Whatever man.

      And who the hell is “Al Sheraton”? SHeeeit.

  29. Goodbyenoway says:

    This is one of the dumbest columns I’ve ever read. PBS presents itself as a bastion of truth telling and regularly flips it’s nose at other media outlets for not being as pure and noble as they are. Now they are caught playing fast and loose. That’s why this is a story, not for any of the reasons you state. You’re blinded by the same political motivation you claim to deride in your column. Now that’s funny!

  30. Basically, this is a false controversy (mainly being stirred by Conservatives who hate Affleck, Louis-Gates and PBS).

    • T0rchwood says:

      The hatred comes from Affleck as well, as he has recently publicly stated that he can’t watch a film featuring a conservative actor. I forgive him for Daredevil, but since he is also responsible for Gigli, he clearly doesn’t have the best judgment. Bill Maher has also recently shredded him for Affleck’s pro muslin terrorist leanings.

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