THE BLOG

Finding Your Roots Looks to Find Its Footing, Again, After Misstep on Affleck's Slave-Owning Ancestor

01/03/2016 01:09 am ET | Updated Jan 03, 2016
  • David Hinckley Writer, Bob Dylan fan, memorized every line in 'Casablanca'

One of the last TV shows you'd expect to find dusting itself off from a small, but embarrassing content-suppression scandal would be Finding Your Roots, Professor Henry L. Gates's genealogy program on PBS.

But the show's third season, which premieres Jan. 5 at 8 p.m., will have to explore the roots of several dozen new subjects in the mildly uncomfortable shadow of previous guest Ben Affleck.

Gates's lineup this season will include the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Shonda Rhimes, Jimmy Kimmel, Dustin Hoffman, Mia Farrow, Julianne Moore, Norman Lear, Senator John McCain, LL Cool J, Puffy Combs, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Gloria Steinem.

The keen observer will note that they are all famous, and that's something for which Gates has never apologized. Starpower, he has always explained, provides a means of drawing viewers' attention to the fascinating field of genealogy.

"When they see what our researchers uncovered about someone like Stephen King," Gates said last year, "perhaps they will be inspired to look into their own ancestry."

PBS is cool with the star thing, too. Public broadcasting may not face the same ratings pressure as a commercial network, but it's still competing in a ridiculously crowded television world where bright shiny objects never hurt.

Celebrities can occasionally come at a price, however, as we were reminded when Gates's team dug through Affleck's past and discovered one of his ancestors owned slaves.

Affleck asked Gates if he could prune that branch of the family tree from the televised segment. Gates, presumably not wanting to offend a guest, agreed.

So the segment aired without reference to the slave-owner, an omission that passed unnoticed until WikiLeaks hacked and published some emails in which Gates talked about Affleck's request.

Affleck then said the editing decision was "collaborative," while Gates said it wasn't a big deal because other Affleck ancestors were more interesting.

Both later apologized. Still, it was awkward.

It raised the question, fair or not, of whether Affleck was protecting his image and brand at the expense of the truth, which is the whole point of genealogical research.

On Gates's side, it embarrassed PBS, which like any network doesn't want viewers to think it edits information to suit the agenda of its subjects.

A PBS internal review found Gates "violated PBS standards" by not informing PBS about the discussion and the exclusion beforehand.

But PBS likes Gates, a popular host of several popular programs, so the network ended up just asking him to promise it wouldn't happen again and requiring that an independent genealogist review the information gathered by his staff.

The corporate takeaway here: Even someone as respected and popular as Gates can make a bad call.

Another takeaway: Even on PBS, celebrities are different from you and me.

However the specific decision came down between Affleck and Gates, it's hard to believe some random un-famous person would have been given similar accommodation had he or she felt embarrassed by a long-dead ancestor.

More likely, Gates would have put the finding into the correct perspective: that there is no reason for anyone who has led a decent life to feel tainted by the actions of Great-Great-Grandad, no matter how repulsive we find them today.

A good genealogy show, and that includes Finding Your Roots, shows both through lines and evolution in attitudes and behavior.

In any case, the Affleck misstep won't and shouldn't cripple the show, because Gates is dead right about the fascination and value of genealogy. There's so much we can learn from the past, ancient and recent.

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