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PBS Watchdog: Producer’s Judgement in Ben Affleck Episode ‘Deadly for Public Broadcasting’

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler said that his public TV station did a “good job” with its internal review of the circumstances surrounding censorship of actor Ben Affleck’s episode of genealogy series Finding Your Roots, but said the show’s producers made a “deadly” error when choosing to omit sensitive information from the episode.

PBS released the findings of its internal review on Wednesday on the censorship flap, in which producers of Finding Your Roots omitted information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at the actor’s request.

Getler, who as ombudsman is tasked with addressing complaints and criticism of PBS from the public, said PBS executives Beth Hoppe and Stephen Segaller made “sound recommendations” in their internal review of the incident, but questioned whether the station’s proposed solutions would ensure similar mistakes do not happen again.

“But there are two things that are still bothersome to me,” Getler wrote in his summary of the station’s review. “One of them is something that a fact-checker and independent genealogist (two of PBS’s proposed solutions) won’t catch.”

The problem with the main issue surrounding this episode ultimately was Gates’ judgment, not the facts. One of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfathers did own slaves. But the egregious error here was in seeking and then apparently letting advice from a commercial source (Sony) have some influence on a producer, and the producer appearing to act on that advice. That is deadly for public broadcasting.

One can argue that a popular program like Finding Your Roots is not really ‘news’ or journalism. But I think it certainly is within that broad category where one is dealing with facts and documentation on which viewers can rely. There is no evidence that any kind of journalistic culture was at work in this case. So one would have to hope that changes that PBS says will ‘significantly enhance the ability of PBS and WETA (the new producing station) to oversee the editorial development’ will inject some new understanding of journalistic fundamentals and editorial experience into that process.

Getler also questioned why PBS’s internal review did not address another inaccuracy in the Affleck episode; namely, that the actor’s mother was a Freedom Rider during the 1964 civil rights “Freedom Summer.”

In the now-scrapped episode, Gates tells Affleck: “A lynch mob made up of members of the Klan and the local sheriff’s department pulled over three of Ben’s mom’s fellow activists. This is not some abstract threat. The Klan actually murdered these three Freedom Riders. And your mother was there at that time.”

Promotional materials for the episode included the line: “Ben Affleck’s mother was a Freedom Rider in 1964.”

But Affleck’s mother told the Daily Mail in April that while she sympathized and supported the group in their civil rights efforts, she was never an actual member of the group.

“The mother’s story is something that presumably would have been caught by a fact-checker interviewing Mrs. Affleck,” Getler wrote. “But it also should have been checked routinely at the time and how this fascinating but apparently untrue story got into the program is not explained in the investigation conclusions made public.”

Getler called the Freedom Rider inaccuracy an “amazing, bizarre, yet apparently untrue aspect of this whole episode that still seems unexplained, at least as I see it.”

“If the Mail account is correct, and I’ve seen nothing that says it isn’t, it may suggest that there is still more to find out,” Getler concluded.

The censorship of Affleck’s episode of Finding Your Roots was originally revealed after an email made public by Sony hackers showed that series producer and host Henry Louis Gates Jr. had asked Sony CEO Michael Lynton for advice on how to deal with a personal request from the high-profile actor.

“Here’s my dilemma,” Gates wrote Lynton in a July 2014 email. “Confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us 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. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

Affleck apologized for pressuring the show’s producers shortly after details of the incident were made public.

“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,” Affleck said.

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