Ben Affleck Apologizes for Telling PBS Not to Mention Slave-Owning Ancestor

Updated April 22, 2015


By Sheryl Estrada

Photo by Shutterstock

An email published on WikiLeaks reveals actor Ben Affleck, who was a guest on the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots, did not want his slave-owning ancestor mentioned.

The email exchange, dated July 22, 2014, was between the program’s host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sony Chief Executive Michael Lynton. This served as just one of thousands of emails made available through the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack last year, many of which exposed the racist banter of Hollywood executives and the sheer oddness of Tinsletown.

One of the most high-profile email exchanges was between former Sony Pictures CEO Amy Pascal and Oscar-winning film producer Scott Rudin both mocking President Obama. The exchange resulted in Pascal being fired. On April 16, WikiLeaks put a collection of the scandalous emails into a searchable online archive, which Sony refers to as”indexing of stolen employee and other private and privileged information.”

Gates, a Harvard University scholar, filmmaker, and journalist, spearheads the series Finding Your Roots, which helps famouspeople discover generations of long-lost relatives by utilizing a team of genealogists.

In the email exchange, Gates grapples with the request of a celebrity who wants to rewrite history like a movie script.

“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,” Gates typed. “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”

Lyton responded, “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.”

In the exchange Gates said he thought “Batman” was getting bad advice and was willing to travel to Detroit to speak with him. At the time, Affleck was filming Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice in Motor City. Gates also mentioned changing the information would “embarrass [Affleck] and compromise our integrity.”

The episode featuring the Academy Award-winning actor aired on Oct. 14, with no mention of slave ownership in his family.

In a statement on the PBS website, Gates affirmed they did not remove information about the slave-owner, but decided to focus on more interesting relatives.

“Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program,” he said. “In the case of Mr. Affleck we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestryincluding a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd greatgrandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”

PBS stands behind Gates’ decision.

“It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity,” the PBS said in a statement.

However, one must wonder if Hollywood trumped history. Even though Gates values ethics and integrity, the priority for some actors, agents and executives is what they perceive to be best for their brand. He chose to showcase celebrities on the program, which means a request to modify organic information for their brand’s sake could likely be made.

As Gates mentioned in the email exchanges, when Anderson Cooper was on the show it was revealed his ancestor was a “real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him.Of course, the slave was promptly hanged.”

Yet Anderson had no problem with this being revealed. Perhaps it’s because he understands its relevance to history.

Slavery exists as an integral part of history and not only Black history, but also American history. And as Americans we must learn from the triumphs and failures of our ancestors, including thepainful legacy of slavery.It would have beenadmirable if Affleck had chosen to reveal that ancestor in his family’s lineage. He could have served as an example of change in his family, rather than just being embarrassed.

Tuesday night, Affleck issued an apology on Facebook:

In a statement, PBS and WNET said they are conducting an internal review:”In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS’ editorial standards were observed, on Saturday, April 18, we began an internal review. We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review.”

Latest News

Wells Fargo’s Gigi Dixon Contributes Black History Month Piece to Business Insider

Georgette “Gigi” Dixon is senior vice president and senior director of external relations for national constituents at Wells Fargo. In this role, she leads and coordinates Wells Fargo’s engagement and outreach to national non-government organizations and key stakeholders with the goal of promoting Wells Fargo’s policy priorities. She published a…

Accenture Technology Vision 2020: From Tech-Clash to Trust, the Focus Must Be on People

Originally posted on Accenture.com To compete and succeed in a world where digital is everywhere, companies need a new focus on balancing “value” with “values,” aligning their drive to create business value with their customers’ and employees’ values and expectations, according to Accenture Technology Vision 2020. The 20th edition of Accenture’s…

AbbVie to Present at the SVB Leerink 9th Annual Global Healthcare Conference

Originally posted on AbbVie.com AbbVie, a research-based global biopharmaceutical company, will participate in the SVB Leerink 9th Annual Global Healthcare Conference on Tuesday, February 25.  Michael Severino, M.D., vice chairman and president and Robert A. Michael, executive vice president and chief financial officer, will present at 9:30 a.m. Central time. A live audio webcast…

TIAA Logo

TIAA: Howard University Event Focused on Solving Financial Challenges, Building Economic Strength of African American Community

Originally published on tiaa.org. TIAA and AARP sponsored event featured industry experts, including CBS National News Correspondent, Michelle Miller. On January 31, Howard University convened an important event focused on enhancing the economic strength and financial wellness of African Americans. The event, sponsored by TIAA and AARP, brought together industry…

How Toyota Encourages the Youth of America

Originally published on pressroom.toyota.com. Shannyn Baumgartner, a credit supervisor at Toyota Financial Services (TFS), relished her time volunteering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, participating in holiday dinners and collecting back-to-school donations. But when she became a judge for the Clubs’ Youth of the Year Award in 2017,…