×

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

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.

More TV

  • The Play That Goes Wrong review

    BBC Orders Comedy Series Based on ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

    The BBC has greenlit “The Goes Wrong Show,” a new series based on Mischief Theatre’s popular “The Play That Goes Wrong” stage production about a troupe that puts on disastrous plays. The stage show has transferred from London’s West End to Broadway for a J.J. Abrams-produced version described by Variety as “a broad, silly and [...]

  • WGA West Logo

    Writers Guild Sends Hollywood Agents Proposed Code of Conduct

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent Hollywood talent agencies a proposed “Code of Conduct” with tough new restrictions on how they operate as agents for writer clients. The WGA made the disclosure Thursday night in an email to its 12,000 members, a day after announcing that it will hold a March 25 [...]

  • Jussie Smollett court

    Jussie Smollett's Attorneys Say He Was Victim of Police 'Spectacle'

    Jussie Smollett’s legal team issued a defiant statement on Thursday night, saying the “Empire” actor feels betrayed by the justice system and hinting at a political motive for his prosecution. Smollett was arrested early Thursday on a felony charge of filing a false police report. He was released after a court hearing on $100,000 bond, [...]

  • Carra Patterson Sarah Levy Paola Lazaro

    Fox Casts Four Leads in 'Patty's Auto' Pilot

    Fox has announced the casting of four lead characters for its multi-cam comedy pilot “Patty’s Auto,” including the eponymous Patty. Inspired by Patrice Banks’ Girls Auto Clinic, an auto repair shop with all female mechanics, the project centers on Patty, the intimidating owner of Patty’s Auto who will be played by “Straight Outta Compton” alumna [...]

  • Adam Pally Abby Elliott

    Adam Pally, Abby Elliott Join Cast of NBC Comedy Pilot 'Uninsured'

    NBC pilot “Uninsured” has cast four of its series regulars, with Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project,” “The President Show”) and Abby Elliott (“Saturday Night Live,” “Odd Mom Out”) playing the young married couple at the center of the show. Pally will play Dave, who is described as a “natural hype man with a good heart.” Elliott [...]

  • Jussie Smollett Appeared in Documentary on

    Jussie Smollett Recently Hosted Doc on Lynching, Filmmaker Talks 'Coincidence'

    In May 2018, Jussie Smollett appeared as the narrator and correspondent in an episode of the Epix documentary series “America Divided” that explored the subject of hate crimes, specifically lynching, in the state of Tennessee. Now that the “Empire” actor has been charged with filing a false police report and Chicago police are convinced he [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content