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.