The ‘Finding Your Roots’ Investigation: Deflate-Gates?

Posted by Michael Getler on

I hope that readers of this column will forgive this frivolous headline about a serious matter. But as the investigation by PBS and member-station WNET in New York into a now famously-controversial episode of the “Finding Your Roots” series hosted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. dragged on well into its second month, the comparison with the even longer recent investigation by the National Football League into superstar quarterback Tom Brady and deflated footballs kept popping into my head.

In any event, now we know the outcome. PBS publicly reported the conclusions of its internal review late yesterday, June 24, and there has been lots of news coverage about this. The purpose of this posting is to record what PBS concluded, what Gates had to say, and to offer my two cents. We’ve also begun to receive a fair amount of comment from viewers and I will post those soon.

To summarize very briefly, this story began to unfold back in April when Britain’s Daily Mail, using leaked internal emails from Sony Corp. that had been hacked and posted on WikiLeaks, showed that Oscar-winning movie star Ben Affleck wanted his slave-owner ancestor “censored” from the segment of the series in which he was the subject.

Gates, the emails showed, clearly knew the editorial and credibility stakes involved and the potential violation it posed of PBS editorial standards. But after consulting with Sony executive Michael Lynton, Gates dropped that factoid from the program, without telling PBS or WNET. Initially, after the emails were disclosed, Gates gave what looked at the time to be, and turned out to be, a lame excuse about focusing on what he and his fellow producers thought were the other, most interesting aspects of Affleck’s background. PBS’s initial reaction to the disclosures was also lame, I wrote at the time.

I wrote four columns about this issue, in which there was lots of interest and a ton of press coverage, as it developed between April 17 and 24.

The full PBS statement of its investigative findings issued yesterday contains details about how the review was conducted. But here are the key findings, conclusions and corrective measures:

The PBS Conclusions

"Under the PBS Editorial Standards, primary responsibility for content ‘necessarily rests with the producer [which is] uniquely positioned to control its elements.’ The standards require that the creative and editorial process be shielded ‘from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.’ The standards also require producers to keep PBS apprised of potential issues during the production process “to provide opportunities for early notice and resolution of problems.’

"PBS and WNET have determined that 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.”

Corrective Measures

“PBS has apprised WETA, the producing station for the third season of the series, of its findings in this matter and is collaborating with WETA, Inkwell Films, and McGee Media, executive producer Dyllan McGee’s new production company, on corrective measures that include:

  • Postponing the scheduling of the third season of FINDING YOUR ROOTS pending the production team’s implementation of staffing and other process changes that will significantly enhance the ability of PBS and WETA to oversee the editorial development of each episode on a timely basis, and to ensure that the problems that arose in episode #204 will be avoided in the future.

  • Informing the co-producers that any commitment to a fourth season of FINDING YOUR ROOTS is being deferred until we are satisfied that the editorial standards of the series have been successfully raised to a level in which we can have confidence.

“The additional staffing and procedures to be implemented during season 3 include:

  • Employing an additional researcher/fact-checker.

  • Employing an independent genealogist to review all versions of program episodes for factual accuracy.

“PBS will also withdraw episode #204 from all forms of distribution including on-air, digital platforms and home video.  

“‘Editorial integrity is essential to PBS. As a mission-driven media enterprise, we know that earning and keeping the trust of the American public are our most important priorities,’ said Beth Hoppe, PBS Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming. ‘The co-producers of FINDING YOUR ROOTS have a strong track record of creating high-quality programming for PBS over many years. Improved editorial and production processes will ensure that all future projects will adhere to PBS’ editorial guidelines.’”

Here Is Professor Gates’ Statement

“I want to thank PBS for its thoughtful internal review. 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. Throughout my many years of producing genealogy documentaries, I have always operated with rigorous ethical standards. Even so, we have been working with PBS and WETA to create new guidelines to increase transparency going forward.

“My career has been dedicated to improving race relations and intercultural understanding in our country. We are very excited about the third season of ‘Finding Your Roots’ and look forward to uncovering and sharing many more incredible ancestral stories with our viewers.”

My Thoughts

The PBS and WNET internal review was led by Beth Hoppe and Stephen Segaller, the top executives who oversee primetime programming for PBS and WNET, respectively. They have done a good job, as I see it, and made sound recommendations and have undoubtedly sent a strong message to all those who produce programs to be distributed by PBS.

PBS is, indeed, highly dependent upon its producers, gives them a lot of leeway, but in return expects and depends on them to do the right things. I’m also a believer in redemption and second chances. Gates is a distinguished educator with a long and positive association with public broadcasting.

Ombudsmen Always Have a…But

But there are two things that are still bothersome to me. One of them is something that a fact-checker and independent genealogist won’t catch. The problem with the main issue surrounding this episode ultimately was Gates’ judgment, not the facts. One of Affleck’s great-great-great grandfathers did own slaves. But the egregious error here was in seeking and then apparently letting advice from a commercial source (Sony) have some influence on a producer, and the producer appearing to act on that advice. That is deadly for public broadcasting.

One can argue that a popular program like “Finding Your Roots” is not really “news” or journalism. But I think it certainly is within that broad category where one is dealing with facts and documentation on which viewers can rely. There is no evidence that any kind of journalistic culture was at work in this case. So one would have to hope that changes that PBS says will “significantly enhance the ability of PBS and WETA (the new producing station) to oversee the editorial development” will inject some new understanding of journalistic fundamentals and editorial experience into that process.

Anybody Interested in This?

The second question I would raise is what ever happened to Affleck’s mother and the role she was portrayed, in the episode, as playing in the very high-profile events of the 1960s civil rights turmoil? Again, the Daily Mail broke the follow-up story that Affleck’s mother had not been a "Freedom Rider in 1964" and had not taken part in that "Freedom Summer,” as stated in the episode. Mrs. Affleck—then known by her maiden name, Chris Boldt—was indeed a civil rights activist but was not a Freedom Rider and was not in the South in 1964, but rather a year later.

She told the Mail: “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.” I wrote about this at the time and was surprised that it got so little attention elsewhere in the press. The mother's story is something that presumably would have been caught by a fact-checker interviewing Mrs. Affleck. But it also should have been checked routinely at the time and how this fascinating but apparently untrue story got into the program is not explained in the investigation conclusions made public.

It is also important, in my view, because it was used as a peg to not only help define Affleck but to introduce into the program powerful pictures of the Freedom Riders, while Gates told the story of the murder of three activists and described them as Affleck’s mother’s “fellow activists” and said “and your mother was there.”

All I know about this is what I read in the Mail, but it is an amazing, bizarre, yet apparently untrue aspect of this whole episode that still seems unexplained, at least as I see it. If the Mail account is correct, and I've seen nothing that says it isn't, it may suggest that there is still more to find out.

Posted on June 25, 2015 at 4:25 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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