According to leaked emails that were published on WikiLeaks, actor Ben Affleck asked that the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” censor parts of his family tree. The series follows a famous guest as genetic and genealogical research is used in order to build their family tree and history, the guest is ultimately given a “book of life” which contains which includes a wide range of documents including family trees, historical documents and photos of family members among other things.
In the emails between the show’s host, Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates and Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton, Gates writes “Here’s my dilemma: 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?” and Lynton replies “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.” The emails eventually end with Gates writing “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity. I think he is getting very bad advice…Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
Gates has since responded to the controversy in a statement, saying “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.” He went on to say that finding slave owning ancestors is very common in the series and they have been found in the family trees of other guests including Anderson Cooper.
PBS has also released a statement which explains that PBS was not aware of the exchanges between the host, Affleck and SONY and had no part in their editorial decisions.