The Harvard professor who covered up Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors has been condemned for breaching a broadcaster’s standards and his future with PBS thrown into doubt.
The episode of Finding Your Roots in which Affleck had details about his slave ancestors edited out breached the PBS editorial standards, the network’s internal review has concluded.
Henry Louis Gates Jr, the host of the genealogy show, was guilty of allowing ‘improper influence’ to sway his judgement when he caved in to the Batman star’s request.
Gates also failed to tell his superiors who only heard about it when Daily Mail Online contacted them for comment whilst breaking the story, the review says.
In a blunt admission PBS said that it was postponing the airing of the third season of Finding Your Roots.
More damagingly it is refusing to commit to a fourth season because it does not have enough confidence in the production team.
A raft of new checks will be introduced including an extra fact checker – and an independent genealogist to verify all the show’s findings.
The ruling is hugely embarrassing for Gates, an Emmy Award-winning Harvard professor of African American Research – but he is not being fired.
PBS spokeswoman Anne Bentley told Daily Mail Online: ‘He and the co-producers were very much part of this internal review and he is aware of this new editorial rules that need to be put into place’.
Gates said in a 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.’
The internal review has taken three months and was begun in April when leaked Sony emails revealed Affleck objected to Finding Your Roots airing how his distant relations were racist slave owners in an apparent affront to his liberal sensibilities.
Instead viewers were shown heartwarming stories of how his third grandfather talked to the dead and how his sixth grandfather was a patriot who fought in the American Revolution.
Affleck later apologised and said finding out about his past left him feeling ’embarrassed’ and with a ‘bad taste in my mouth’.
The PBS review said its production standards dictate that 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’.
The statement said ‘PBS and (show producers) WNET have determined that the series co-producers violated PBS standards by failing to shield the creative and editorial process from improper efforts to affect program content.’
The episode in question will be removed from all platforms including online so viewers cannot see it again.
The review was carried out by Beth Hoppe and Stephen Segaller, the executives who oversee primetime programming for PBS and WNET.
They interviewed the show’s producers and were assisted by the law firm of Covington and Burling, LLP, which was ranked as the most prestigious law firm in Washington.
The statement says that the new measures will include: ‘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 third season of Finding Your Roots will not air until the implementation of processes to ‘significantly enhance the ability to oversee the editorial development of each episode on a timely basis’.
The row has been extremely damaging for Affleck, who supports a number of liberal causes and is a champion of the left.
The leaked emails were deeply unflattering for him and Gates and made clear what they were up to.
In an email to Sony chief executive Michael Lynton, a friend of his Gates said: ‘He’s (Affleck) a megastar. What do we do?’
Lynton said he should do what Affleck wanted and told Gates to make sure it did not leak out.
In a post on Facebook after it became public Affleck said: ‘I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story.
‘We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery.’
He denied that it was censorship and said that Gates told him the section on slavery was not included because there was just a name and not much detail.
However the identity of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor was later revealed as James McGuire, a farmer of Irish descent who kept eight slaves on his farm in Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1840s.
Genealogists said that there were lots of farmers in Affleck’s family and that slavery did not end in New Jersey until 1846.
In April PBS ombudsman Mike Getler sharply criticised Gates and said that ‘any serious program about genealogy, especially dealing with celebrities, cannot leave out a slave-owning ancestor’.
He said: ‘It also seems clear from the emails that Gates knew the stakes involved in terms of PBS credibility yet went with the advice from the Sony executive to squelch the factoid about a slave-owning ancestor and try to keep it quiet’.