The 'Mail' Keeps Tugging at the 'Roots'

Posted by Michael Getler on

Once again, just like last week, it is late Friday afternoon EST and another Daily Mail Online story appears to poke another big hole in the credibility of an episode of the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots” that appeared last October. The series is hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

That episode included the genealogy of Oscar-winning actor Ben Affleck. During the preparation of the program, Gates discovered a slave-owning ancestor of Affleck many generations ago. I'm not going to retell the by now well-known story about what happened next other to say that Affleck leaned on Gates to take it out of what was to be broadcast and that Gates, after consulting with a friend from Sony Pictures, took it out without telling PBS or WNET, the presenting PBS member station.

Now it turns out, according to the Mail, that portions of the filming that were broadcast involving the role Affleck’s mother played in the 1960s civil rights turmoil, were incorrect.

With respect to this posting, I know only what the Mail has reported. But in keeping with the interest in this story I feel it is best to post the latest turns as they develop for readers of this column. 

Here is how the Mail story begins:

She Was There in Spirit

“The documentary that censored Ben Affleck's slave-owning ancestors is now facing questions over its accuracy as his mother denied to Daily Mail Online that she was involved in Freedom Summer.

“The episode of Finding Your Roots is already being investigated by its broadcaster, PBS, over whether its editorial code was breached by having the truth about Affleck's relatives censored.

“Now another key element of the exploration of the Oscar-winner's past is under question over the assertion by PBS that Chris Affleck had been a 'Freedom Rider' in 1964 and taken part in Freedom Summer.

“On PBS's Finding Your Roots website, the episode guide states: 'Ben Affleck's mother was a Freedom Rider in 1964.'

“And in the show itself, the documentary's host, Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr, says Mrs. Affleck had been part of 'Freedom Summer.'

“As pictures of Mrs. Affleck - then Chris Boldt - were shown juxtaposed with pictures of a group of Freedom Riders, Gates tells of the murder of three activists, one of the most notorious attacks on the Civil Rights movement in 1964, calling them Mrs. Affleck's 'fellow activists.’

“In fact, she told Daily Mail Online she was not a Freedom Rider - and was not in the South in 1964, but a year later. 

“Gates said: 'A lynch mob made up of members of the Klan and the local sheriff's department pulled over three of Ben's mom's fellow activists.'

“He described the murders, then the camera cuts to Affleck and Gates says: 'This is not some abstract threat. The Klan actually murdered these three Freedom Riders. And your mother was there at that time.'

“But Mrs Affleck, 72, told Daily Mail Online that she was not part of the Freedom Rider campaign. 

“She said her 'heart was with' the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern states in mixed groups in 1961, but she was not actually a member as has been reported.

“'I supported what they did. People have incorrectly said I was a member, which embarrasses me because I wasn't as good as they were,' she said.”

Not Clear How This Unfolded

The Mail went on to say: “It is unclear why PBS said Mrs. Affleck was a Freedom Rider 'in 1964.' The assertion that she was a Freedom Rider has been made before - it is on Affleck's Wikipedia page, and has previously been reported by The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, among others, and the now defunct Talk magazine in 2000...

“It is clear that Prof Gates still believed that she was active in civil rights in 1964 when he issued his statement through PBS last week which said: '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 -- including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a third great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for civil rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.'”

PBS and WNET Are Investigating 

Last Tuesday, PBS officials said an internal review had begun on Saturday to determine whether or not PBS editorial standards had been observed. When I asked if there was a response to today’s Mail story they said, “Only that PBS and WNET are still conducting our internal review. We will share findings once it is concluded.”

Posted on April 24, 2015 at 6:02 p.m.

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