Fiddler in the Roots

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Ombudsman’s columns, I like to think, are almost always serious compositions about important editorial issues arising on PBS. But among the things that I can, at times, have some fun with are the headlines. This is one of them.

So, if you will excuse this way of introducing a serious subject, the headline above is a play on two presentations: the mid-1960s smash hit on Broadway “Fiddler on the Roof” and the very popular and imaginative PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” which wrapped up its third season earlier this year. The deeper connection that formed in my head is from the song from Fiddler, “If I Were a Rich Man,” sung by the poor milkman Tevye, in which he says one of the joys of being wealthy would be to pose “problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes.”

And that’s what now brings me to the eye-crossing problem that developed with Episode 10 of the third season of Finding Your Roots, an episode featuring the well-known and widely-honored actor Dustin Hoffman.

At the outset, I should say that there is no scandal here, no violation of editorial standards, and that all the actors (and I mean those involved in the production of the episode and Mr. Hoffman) have behaved well and professionally and seem to be doing the right thing.

As Tevye Might Also Say, ‘Oy Vey’

But I think this is still worthy of recording because 1) a little more than a year ago the program, and it’s also widely-honored  host, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., were widely criticized (including four ombudsman columns) for improperly altering a segment on movie-star Ben Affleck, and 2) tracing the roots of well-known people is a fascinating idea but occasionally, in this nation of immigrants, turns up landmines such as newly discovered and different versions of translations which, as you will see, pose problems that could cross a rabbi’s eyes.

So Here’s What Happened

Late last month, the following was posted online under “Program Notes” on the Finding Your Roots website:

“In July 2016, WETA, the producing station for FINDING YOUR ROOTS, received new information regarding episode 10 of the series’ third season, featuring Dustin Hoffman, which first aired in March 2016. Following up on this information, the FINDING YOUR ROOTS production team re-examined the materials originally used to shape the program while also conducting additional research, which led to the discovery that the segment featuring Mr. Hoffman included errors based on the misinterpretation of documents from the Ukraine. New details about what has been learned regarding the family history of Mr. Hoffman can be found below.

“As a result, the episode has been withdrawn from further broadcast while we evaluate how to address the new information. This series’ website has been updated and this new information will be noted in the series companion book, which will be published in 2017.”

The note was signed by Dyllan McGee, executive producer of the program, and Dalton Delan, executive vice president and chief programming officer at WETA.

Here Is the ‘Background’ Provided in the ‘Program Note’:

“Based on a translation we received from our team of researchers of a March 1921 news article in Vesti (News) of Kamenets-Podol’skii District Revolutionary Committee and Kamenets Bureau of Communist (Bolshevik) Party of Ukraine, the series references Dustin Hoffman’s great-grandmother Liba Hofman (a.k.a. Libba Hoffman) bribing an employee of the Cheka (secret police) and being sentenced to five years in a concentration camp—with a probation period. We have learned through additional research that in this case, ‘probation’ was an imprecise translation and that ‘uslovno na 5 let’ is better translated to mean that Liba Hoffman received a ‘conditional’ sentence. A sentence would have been imposed only if she was convicted of another crime. We are unaware of any evidence to suggest that she was convicted of another crime, so it is likely that she was not actually sent to a concentration camp. Additionally, we learned that the ‘concentration camp’ to which Liba Hofman could have been sent in Soviet Ukraine in 1921 was more akin to a penal colony designed for the use of forced labor.

“The episode confused the identity of Dustin Hoffman’s grandfather Frank Hoffman’s father, Sam (as Frank named him on his 1920 U.S. passport application), with that of his likely stepfather, Moshko Golkhman. The confusion arose from the fact that Dustin’s grandmother Liba appears to have married two men with very similar last names (Golkhman and Gofman, both of which are commonly anglicized to Hoffman). We recently obtained a December 1883 birth record listing Frank Hoffman’s father not as Moshko but as Nesanel Khaim-Simhov Gofman. Nesanel was very likely shortened to San, the name connecting Frank to his father in the 1897 census, and ‘Sam’ in his U.S. passport application.”

My Thoughts

So, I hope you can see that this could make anyone’s eyes cross. But one reason I thought it was worth recording beyond the program note explanation is that after everything hit the fan in the Affleck episode last year—which involved an investigation by PBS and WNET and serious charges against the co-producers—among the corrective measures to be implemented for season three were: “employing an additional researcher/fact-checker” and “employing an independent genealogist to review all versions of program episodes for factual accuracy.”

I asked Beth Hoppe, the top programming executive at PBS, whether these changes had actually been made and she said, “Yes, the staff additions were made. The segment featuring Mr. Hoffman included errors based on the misinterpretation of documents from the Ukraine. The producers intend to enhance review of translations of foreign language documents as a result.” She also said the “production team dove into it and re-examined the materials originally used to shape the program while also conducting additional research… This led to the discovery that the segment featuring Mr. Hoffman included errors, primarily based on the mistranslation of documentary evidence from the Ukraine. WETA and the producers apprised PBS of these developments as they sorted through the materials and got multiple opinions on their initial interpretation. On August 29th,” she said, the episode “was withdrawn from further broadcast. We are currently assessing how best to handle this and situations like it as genealogical evidence can shift as DNA science moves forward and other tools open new pathways to surface new evidence, both documentary and personal. Information has been posted to the FINDING YOUR ROOTS website and the producers are addressing these corrections in the companion book. The episode has also been withdrawn from distribution on iTunes and through Passport. The producers have reached out to Mr. Hoffman and shared these updates with him and he welcomed the new information.”

I should add, just as an aside, that reports about the episode right after it aired describe Hoffman being "moved to tears" when learning that his "great-grandmother suffered extreme physical hardships in a Soviet concentration camp." The new translation says, "It is likely that she was not actually sent to a concentration camp." I'm sure the hardships were real and severe but the new translations say that the camp that Liba Hoffman "could have been sent in Soviet Ukraine in 1921 was more akin to a penal colony designed for the use of forced labor."

So “Roots” is undeniably a fascinating idea and series but even with the best of intentions, roots frequently get tangled so it is always going to be a tricky subject that still, it seems, needs an extra degree of care for all concerned.

Posted on Sept. 20, 2016 at 5:07 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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