Messages uncovered from emails linked to the Sony Pictures email hacking scandal from November reveal the Oscar winner asked the show’s host Henry Louis Gates Jr. to edit out the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors owned slaves in an episode of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” that aired on Oct. 14, 2014.
Gates admitted Saturday (April 18) that the information didn’t appear in the episode in an interview with Journal-isms. The story about Affleck’s request appeared Friday (April 17) in the New York Post’s Page Six, followed by another story that ran online on dailymail.co.uk on Saturday.
“The Sony emails show that the makers of Finding Your Roots, including Emmy Award-winning host and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., engaged in a deliberate cover-up despite knowing that it was a ‘violation’ of PBS rules, as Gates puts it,” Daniel Bates wrote for the Daily Mail.
The “Finding Your Roots” story with Affleck stemmed from a database of all the data leaked from Sony in the hacking scandal that was published by WikiLeaks.org on Thursday (April 16). According to the Verge, the data was comprised of 173,132 emails and 30,287 separate documents.
Page Six revealed the date of the email that contained correspondence from Gates and Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton.
“In a hacked Sony email from July 22, 2014, now available on WikiLeaks, the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., writes to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton asking for advice: “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?” Page Six reported while detailing Lynton’s reaction to Gates’ situation.
“Lynton’s advice was to take Affleck’s family secret out of the show, as long as nobody would find out. The Sony chairman and CEO writes, ‘On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. 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.’ . . .”
In response to the decision, PBS and Gates issued statements defending their decision.
“It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity,” the PBS statement read. “He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.”
Gates followed up with an email to Journal-isms on Saturday, saying, “You’ve seen both PBS’s statement and mine, but I would like to add something for your story. For any guest, we always find far more stories about ancestors on their family trees than we ever possibly could use.”
“In last year’s season of ‘Finding Your Roots,’ we happened to find several stories about ancestors who owned slaves before the Civil War — far too many for us to use them all, of course. Ben [Affleck’s] ancestor’s story just wasn’t as interesting as the other stories about slave-owners that we did use, such as those about the families of Ken Burns and Anderson Cooper. Finding slave-owning ancestors is very common in our series. You can see why when you remember, for example, that 37% of the families in Georgia, where Ben’s ancestor lived, owned slaves in 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out,” Gates stated.
“So just imagine how many descendants of those people are walking around today. Instead, we decided to go with the story we used about his fascinating ancestor who became on occultist following the Civil War. This guy’s story was totally unusual: we had never discovered someone like him before. It made for a much stronger story arc.”
As a result of PBS’ and Gates’ decision, the website for “Finding Your Roots” centered its description of the Oct. 14, 2014 episode on Affleck’s third great-grandfather.
“Ben Affleck learns of his 3rd Great-Grandfather, Almon French, an occult enthusiast who harnessed his spookily mystic inclinations to help him comfort the bereaved. . . .” the description said.