Ben Affleck asked PBS to ignore slave-owning family past in Finding Your Roots.

Ben Affleck Asked PBS to Ignore Slave-Owning Family Past in TV Show

Ben Affleck Asked PBS to Ignore Slave-Owning Family Past in TV Show

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April 19 2015 12:49 PM

Ben Affleck Asked PBS to Ignore Slave-Owning Family Past in TV Show

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Ben Affleck testifies on issues in the Republic of Congo during a U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 26, 2014.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Ben Affleck really didn’t want the public to know his ancestors owned slaves. The actor and director asked PBS to conveniently ignore that part of his family tree for the program Finding Your Roots, according to the hacked Sony emails that were recently made public via WikiLeaks. The information never aired, but PBS and the show’s host, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., deny any wrongdoing, insisting Affleck had more interesting ancestors that they chose to highlight instead.

Gates lays out the dilemma in a July 22, 2014 email to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton (via the New York Post):

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?
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Gates even pointed out that Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor “wasn’t even a bad guy” whereas “Anderson Cooper’s ancestor was a real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him. Of course, the slave was promptly hanged. And Anderson didn’t miss a beat about that.”

Lynton encouraged Gates to leave the information out, but only if it wasn’t very well-known to begin with:

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.

Gates then goes on to note that “to do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.” And later notes that if the information gets out, “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity.” The emails never actually mention Affleck’s name, only mentioning him as a “megastar” and “Batman,” notes the Associated Press. Affleck was filming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice at the time.

Gates and PBS both published statements defending their actions. “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,” Gates said. For its part, PBS says it did not know about the email exchange but they make it clear how much Gates values “editorial integrity.” Gates “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,” PBS said.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.