Ben Affleck asked the producers of PBS’ Finding Your Roots television show to edit out details of an ancestor who owned slaves, according to a Sony internal email exchange leaked this week.
In an email sent to Sony CEO Michael Lynton shortly before the show’s second season premiere, Harvard professor and Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that an unnamed “megastar” had asked producers to “edit out something about one of his ancestors – the fact that he owned slaves.”
“Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote. “What do we do?”
Lynton responded by asking who else knew about the information in question, advising that “it gets tricky” when editing out material “based on this kind of sensitivity.”
Gates replied that the producers of the show, the star’s PR agents, and PBS already knew about the slave-owning ancestor.
“To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” Gates wrote.
“[T]hen it is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity,” Lynton emailed back. “We can talk when you land.”
In the final email of the exchange, Gates seemed to indicate that the producers of the show would include the information about Affleck’s ancestor.
“Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand,” Gates wrote.
However, the producers of Finding Your Roots apparently made the change, as Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor is not mentioned during his segment on the program, which aired last September. Instead, Affleck’s segment focuses on the star’s sixth grandfather, Jesse Stanley, who fought in the American Revolution, and another grandfather who served as a mystic during the Civil War. It is also revealed that Affleck is a 10th cousin of fellow actor and childhood friend Matt Damon.
A spokeswoman for Gates issued a statement to the Daily Mail on behalf of the Emmy-nominated producer.
“Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program,” the statement reads. “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 issued their own response:
“It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgement to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.”
Affleck, who is set to star in this year’s upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, has long been involved in a number of charities and liberal organizations. In 2010, the actor founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, an organization dedicated to ending conflict in the war-torn region.
In October, the actor appeared in a debate on Islam on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where he accused Maher of being a racist.
The leaked email exchange between Gates and Lynton was found in a set of roughly 30,000 Sony Pictures emails published by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. In a statement, Assange justified his organization’s publishing of the emails:
This archive shows the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation,” Assange said. “It is newsworthy and at the centre of a geo-political conflict. It belongs in the public domain. WikiLeaks will ensure it stays there.
The emails appear to be part of a collection of documents stolen from the production company in a 2014 cyber attack against the company by a North Korea-affiliated group called Guardians of Peace.