Leaked emails show that Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates Jr. considered omitting facts from the PBS show about Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at the star’s request.
The matter came to light in exchanges between Gates, creator and executive producer of the PBS genealogy program, and Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE). Their emails are among a trove of hacked and leaked SPE information unveiled Friday by WikiLeaks, an organization that posts classified data online.
Other emails between the two about dinner plans and various topics indicate that Gates and Lynton are friends.
In a series of July 2014 emails, Gates confided to Lynton that “for the first time” a guest has asked that producers omit facts about his family’s slave-owning past. Lynton advised in part, “I would take it out if no one knows.”
Gates replied in part that doing so “would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.”
In the final exchange, Gates writes in part: “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” Lynton agrees: “[Y]es, bad idea.”
No mention was made of Affleck’s family’s slave-owning past when the segment aired in October.
After the emails were first reported on Friday by Britain’s Daily Mail, Gates and PBS issued statements. Gates said in part, “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program.” PBS backed that decision: Gates “told us that after reviewing approximately 10 hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative.”
PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler castigated those reactions in a column Friday. “This, it seems to me, should have been a slam-dunk,” Getler writes. “Assuming the emails are accurate, this censorship should have been stopped cold and mistakes should have been admitted publicly.” Getler said in the column he hopes to follow up with additional information soon.
Stephen Segaller, programming v.p. at WNET, which co-produces Finding Your Roots, said in an interview Saturday that the production team “knew nothing at all” about Gates and Lynton’s emails. He said WNET will check production team emails this week for any pertinent information.
The exchange about Affleck’s request is part of more than 150 emails between Gates and Lynton from November 2013 to November 2014.
Hackers accessed the SPE data last November, and the stolen archive — including 173,132 emails — was briefly posted online, according to a statement Friday from WikiLeaks when it unveiled a searchable database of more than 30,000 documents. “This archive shows the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation,” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange said. “It is newsworthy. . . . It belongs in the public domain.”
Love the show, I shed tears often…my only comment is I don’t like the new family tree boxes on the screen hard to read, please return to previously used family tree boxes.
I just pray that somebody reads this letter and that Mr Gates JR could help me. I am a Latina woman who my father was married to another woman and had a mistress. I am the product of that mistress. But his wife try to kill me several times. I was told the truth when I was 16 years old. My name, my birthday, my date of birth, everything was changed to the fact that my grandfather was a famous baseball player and he is in the Latin baseball Hall of Fame. He was friends with the mayor and all of my traces were erased. I don’t know how old I am. I don’t know nothing about my biological mother. And something about my culture Puerto Ricans literally take a secret to the grave. I will appreciate the help because I don’t know anything and it’s frustrating. I could only pray and Hope for somebody close to you will read this and reply. I put my story in God’s hands and hopefully you can help me. Be blessed and be safe to the person who reads this and shows him my plea