PBS and New York’s WNET public-television station said Tuesday they had launched an investigation into the potential removal of information in the program “Finding Your Roots” due to a celebrity request.
The episode, which was broadcast last year, examined celebrity ancestry and genealogy and was hosted by popular Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Recent emails found as part of the cache of Sony Corp. documents posted on Wikileaks revealed that Gates agreed to remove a mention of actor Ben Affleck having slave-owning ancestors after the movie star made a request. Several media outlets have begun to examine the circumstances.
“PBS and WNET are conducting an internal review led by our respective programming teams of the circumstances around Finding Your Roots episode ‘Roots of Freedom.’ This matter came to PBS’ attention on Friday morning, April 17th. Professor Gates and his producers immediately responded to our initial questions,” the two parties said in a statement released Tuesday. “In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS’ editorial standards were observed, on Saturday, April 18th, we began an internal review. We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review.”
According to blog posts from Michael Getler, PBS’ ombudsman, the emails suggested that Gates was troubled by the request from Affleck, as he thought it would violate PBS policies. Gates had written to Sony USA CEO Michael Lynton seeking advice, the documents on Wikileaks revealed.
“Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program,” Gates said in a statement provided to Getler. “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 and WNET both told Getler they had no knowledge of Affleck’s request at the time they viewed cuts of the “Roots” episode that featured him or at the time the program aired.
If the information about Affleck was dropped due to his request, “it was and is unacceptable,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president for programming at WNET in a statement to Getler. “Doing so without Thirteen’s knowledge of those circumstances is also unacceptable.”