July 1, 2015
Affleck Controversy Halts PBS Debut
PBS has reported it will “postpone” the next season of “Finding Your Roots” after allegations surfaced that actor Ben Affleck manipulated showrunners to hide uncomfortable realities about his ancestors. According to a statement released by PBS’s New York station WNET, the series’ co-producers ‘violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper influence. And by failing to inform PBS or WNET of Mr. Affleck’s efforts to affect program content.”
So, public relations crisis prevention from all sides has turned into an episode of the Three Stooges. Everyone is trying to dodge the pie in the face while simultaneously getting poked in the eye. And, as with most failed backside-covering efforts, the whole is tangibly worse than the sum of its parts.
According to the story, back in April 2014, Affleck asked showrunners to edit out facts about his family’s history of slave ownership. The parties involved acquiesced, and the show ran in October 2014 as “Episode 204”. While it’s unclear why the issue was even an issue – millions of Americans have slave-owning ancestors. Terrible to contemplate, certainly, but not a fact that people today should feel compelled to cover up. That could have been the narrative from the Affleck camp. Instead, in trying to cover up something shameful, they made yesterday’s atrocity today’s deceit. Suddenly, a problem more than a century old became a personal, imminent trust issue – for everyone involved.
The problem has become so intense that PBS has announced it has removed Episode 204 from its lineup. PBS will also halt production of Season 4 of the program until it is “satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised.”
Now they are talking about bringing in an “independent genealogist” as well as other experts to protect the soiled integrity of the show. And therein lies the problem. Nobody would have questioned the show’s integrity if they had just run the segment as recorded. Now everyone will. Suddenly, bringing in “an independent genealogist” will turn into questions about why this is happening prior to season 4 … what were the safeguards before this?
That is the most polite way that question will be asked. Others will be much less circumspect. Unfortunately for all involved, one PR error will cast a shadow of doubt over an entire series that, otherwise, provides an interesting and entertaining view into American lives and history.