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PBS Says Ben Affleck Had Undue Influence on ‘Finding Your Roots’

PBS will postpone new seasons of its documentary series “Finding Your Roots” after determining actor Ben Affleck was able to convince the series’ producers to omit a reference in an episode that aired in October to the fact that he has slave-owning ancestors.

PBS said Wednesday that it, along with New York station WNET, “determined that the series co-producers violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper influence, and by failing to inform PBS or WNET of Mr. Affleck’s efforts to affect program content.”

WNET produced the first two seasons of the series, while WETA, based in Washington, D.C., has taken over production of the third season.

The actor’s request — and its influence on the production of the series — came to light in April, as media outlets reported on private email exchanges between Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who is an executive producer on the series, and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton in which Gates sought Lynton’s counsel over requests by Affleck to remove a segment from the episode that mentioned that slave owners were part of his family history.

“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed,” Affleck said in a Facebook post made in April. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

PBS said it had decided to delay the third season of the series until its producers could hire an additional factchecker and an  independent genealogist. PBS also said it would not commit to a fourth season of the series “until we are satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised to a level in which we can have confidence.” The episode in which Affleck’s ancestry is examined will be withdrawn from all forms of distribution, PBS said, including digital streaming and homevideo.

The review was led by Beth Hoppe and Stephen Segaller, the executives who oversee primetime programming for PBS and WNET, respectively. To investigate the lapse, PBS and WNET said executives examined correspondence, production records, agreements, talent releases and other documentation regarding the episode, as well as publicly available material. Representatives also interviewed the co-producers, who, PBS said, “fully cooperated in this review.” The law firm of Covington and Burling assisted in the process.

Gates previously said he had decided to focus on the most intriguing parts of Affleck’s background. “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 third great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964,” he said in an explanation provided to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler in April.

“I want to thank PBS for its thoughtful internal review,” Gates said in a statement issued Wednesday. “I sincerely regret not discussing my editing rationale with our partners at PBS and WNET, and I apologize for putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming. Throughout my many years of producing genealogy documentaries, I have always operated with rigorous ethical standards. Even so, we have been working with PBS and WETA to create new guidelines to increase transparency going forward. My career has been dedicated to improving race relations and intercultural understanding in our country. We are very excited about the third season of ‘Finding Your Roots’ and look forward to uncovering and sharing many more incredible ancestral stories with our viewers.”

“Editorial integrity is essential to PBS. As a mission-driven media enterprise, we know that earning and keeping the trust of the American public are our most important priorities,” said Hoppe, who is PBS’ chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming, in a prepared statement.  “The co-producers of ‘Finding Your Roots’ have a strong track record of creating high-quality programming for PBS over many years. Improved editorial and production processes will ensure that all future projects will adhere to PBS’ editorial guidelines.”

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