Until this contretemps began with PBS, the biggest apology due the public from Ben Affleck was for Gigli. Rather than have to explain why his distant ancestor owned slaves, Affleck pressured Henry Louis Gates and PBS into omitting that fact for his appearance on the series Finding Your Roots. Gates says that Affleck’s lobbying didn’t contribute to his omission of that fact during the discussion, but Affleck is offering a public apology for his actions anyway:
Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.
I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.
Gates agrees that he made the choice to exclude the information because there were other, more interesting aspects of Affleck’s ancestry. It’s not quite as simple as this, though. As the CBS News report notes, “Skip” Gates had exposed slave-owning ancestors of other celebrities in previous shows, so the purposeful omission of this material for Affleck raises serious questions about the editorial practices of Gates and the show’s producers.
It’s significant enough that PBS has begun an internal review of those practices:
PBS announced Tuesday it was investigating the episode “Roots of Freedom” and said Gates and his producers were cooperating.
“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,” PBS said in a statement. “We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review.”
Gates himself raised the possibility that giving in to Affleck’s demand would compromise the show’s editorial integrity. …
[Sony executive Michael] Lynton, responding to his “dilemma,” advised the Harvard historian to bow to the star’s wishes.
“I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out,” he replied.
It’s interesting that Affleck’s apologizing more than Gates and PBS, who arguably are much more culpable in this event. I don’t blame Affleck for wanting to keep very old family skeletons in closets; what family doesn’t have some embarrassing ancestor or perhaps even current relative around? It’s telling, though, that PBS and Sony caved to a megastar while still feeling authoritatively entitled to expose those skeletons for others.
Finally, though, Affleck is flat-out wrong to cheer the fact that his ancestor is part of the public conversation. His great-great-grandfather, or great-great-great-grandfather, or whomever this is, has nothing to do with Affleck and who and what he is today. He’s not responsible for his distant relatives, and the entire premise of genealogy as something meaningful to anyone else but the person involved is ludicrous. It’s just another form of nosiness, albeit with academic and historical pretentiousness, that produces trashy reality shows in its more pop-cultural forms.
This isn’t history; it’s a combination of Masterpiece Theater meets Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. And now we discover that it has as much editorial integrity as the latter, too.