The Arcadian calm of PBS was shattered Tuesday in the wake of leaked Sony emails that revealed Ben Affleck had demanded references to a slave-owning ancestor be excised from a segment on him in the program, “Finding Your Roots.” The System — which has no role in the production of this Henry Louis Gates-hosted series — was forced to address the controversy Tuesday, saying it was “moving swiftly to conduct [a] review.”
Meanwhile, Affleck said on Facebook:
“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
He then added this: “It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. ‘Finding Your Roots’ is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family. I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story.”
Yes, this is all highly unusual — PBS simply never airs its soiled laundry, largely because there is none to air. PBS is a distribution system, not a network, which means that it has only nominal, or largely symbolic, control over the shows which go out over the system. The real power in public television lies in the hands of the big producing stations, like WNET or WGBH, and of course in the hands of the almighty donors.
In other words, PBS’s internal investigation does sound as if it will have all the investigative energy of Captain Renault’s roundup of the usual suspects. Nevertheless, PBS is a proud institution and this strikes a blow — or at least a minor and glancing one — at that justifiable pride.
The damage however may be to Affleck — who has already been the target of Internet trolls for years, now more than ever on the eve of his Batman. The haters look for anything to stoke their boundless meanness of spirit. This will assuredly