It seems Affleck requested and ultimately had—with Sony’s assistance—the history of an ancestor who was a slave owner deleted from his story on the PBS series, Finding Your Roots.
In 30,000 emails released by WikiLeaks, the back-and-forth between the show’s host and creator, renown scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton clearly outline Affleck’s request and Gates’ opposition to it.
Last July 22, Gates wrote Lynton that an unnamed “megastar” had asked producers to “edit out something about one of his ancestors—the fact that he owned slaves.”
He added that “four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners,” including the renowned documentary-maker Ken Burns, the man behind famous films including The Civil War.
“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. What do we do?” Gates wrote.
Lynton asked who else knew about the information in question, advising that “it gets tricky” when editing out material “based on this kind of sensitivity.”
Gates replied that the producers of the show, the star’s PR agents and PBS knew about the slave-owning ancestor.
“To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” responded Gates, who apparently was about to take a flight.
Lynton wrote back: “It is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity. We can talk when you land.”
Gates, in the final email, clearly understood what it meant to include all discovered information.
“Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand,” he wrote.
Still, that part of Affleck’s story—which included a Freedom Rider mother and a Revolutionary War ancestor—never aired in October.
It is interesting that Affleck’s people would make such a brash show of power when it is widely assumed that a deep look into the ancestral history of most white Americans would unearth a slave owner somewhere. Some historians claim that more than 70 percent of white Southerners didn’t own slaves—which means that a quarter of them did. Massachusetts, where Affleck grew up, was the first slave-holding colony in New England, reaching its peak in the early 1700s.
Gates released a statement on the controversy that belied his position in the emails: “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck—we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry.”
The network expressed its support for Gates and his producers’ “independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative.”
In a statement to The Huffington Post, a representative for Sony criticized WikiLeaks for the “indexing of stolen employee and other private and privileged information.
“We vehemently disagree with WikiLeaks’ assertion that this material belongs in the public domain and will continue to fight for the safety, security, and privacy of our company and its more than 6,000 employees,” the statement read.
PBS released a statement of its own, which said: “It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has 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. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.”