PBS announced Wednesday that the station has postponed the third season of the ancestry-exploring docuseries Finding Your Roots after it was discovered that the show edited an episode about Ben Affleck’s family tree to remove all references of the actor’s slave-owning ancestors. In a statement, PBS said they would not run the upcoming season until staffing changes – including the hiring of a fact checker – were made on the series hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the New York Times reports.
Finding Your Roots‘ editing of the Affleck episode – a violation of PBS policy – was first uncovered in the flood of leaked emails that followed the Sony hack. In a July 22nd, 2014 email from Gates to Sony chief executive Michael Lynton, the professor wrote, “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… We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”
Gates expressed concern that “once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” The professor also noted that the editing of the episode “would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” all but revealing that Affleck – who will portray the Dark Knight in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice – was the “megastar” whose family tree sprouted some slave-owning branches. “I felt embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” Affleck wrote on Facebook in April. “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”
The Gates emails were unearthed after the Affleck episode had already aired on PBS, and the actor’s Finding Your Roots made no mention of the slave owners. Instead, Gates said producers found more interesting and less incendiary ancestors like a Revolutionary War veteran and an occult enthusiast. A PBS investigation later determined that Finding Your Roots producers allowed Affleck to exert “improper influence” on their editorial decisions.
In a statement Wednesday, Gates said, “I sincerely regret not discussing my editing rationale with our partners at PBS and WNET and I apologize for putting PBS and its member stations in the position of having to defend the integrity of their programming.” In addition to staff changes, PBS is also requiring Finding Your Roots to hire an “independent genealogist.” The docuseries’ status for a fourth season is also under review.